Uprooting apartheid's injustices

South Africa's land- claims process offers a peaceful alternative to Zimbabwe's chaos.

The cherished map that delineates his community's land cannot be found, but Oum (Uncle) David Cloete doesn't need it.

His Afrikaans punctuated with the clicking accents of the aboriginal Nama people, the stocky Mr. Cloete intones: "From Donkey's Bay to Harold's Cave, where the bushmen paintings are; to Red Mountain and Vanrhynsdorp; to Flamingo Mountain, over to Bok Mountain and the Ripbok Plain; and on to Green River - all that was ours."

Those 316,000 acres in Oum David's memory were lost when territory was deeded to white farmers in 1925. Now he and fellow members of the Nama community want compensation.

Land ownership has been one of the most painful issues since the end of white rule in Africa.

In Zimbabwe, black resentment was allowed to fester, and a shortsighted land-claims process resulted in armed invasions of white farms. In South Africa, however, most land claims are being settled legally and peacefully, presenting a model of reconciliation and compromise to the rest of conflict-torn Africa.

Nonetheless, the claim being made by the Namas, who live in a community called Ebenhauser, has white farmers worried.

"I have as much right to live here as the Ebenhauser guys," says Albie van Zyl, a burly, apple-cheeked, farmer. His 80 acres near the Olifants River on the outskirts of the white community of Lutzville are among the properties listed in the Nama land claim.

Mr. van Zyl's father acquired the family farm in the late 1950s, more than a quarter century after the Nama people were moved onto higher land, where they have lived in poverty ever since.

Jannie Mostert echoes the perspective of many fellow white farmers in saying, "I didn't dispossess anyone of their land, that happened before our time." Like van Zyl, Mr. Mostert is a member of the Farmers' Action Committee, created to deal with the Nama land claim. Both say that as Christians and good neighbors they would like to help Ebenhauser develop its agricultural potential. But they say they do not owe the Namas land.

Oum David was one year old in 1925 when the British colonial government gave destitute whites the Namas' traditional pastures along the Olifants River.

The white district carved out of the original Ebenhauser area was named Lutzville. In contrast to Ebenhauser, Lutzville's roads are paved, its houses have indoor plumbing, and tractors rather than donkeys plow the fields.

"Ebenhauser lost 3,458 hectares [8,541 acres] of the most valuable land, particularly river-bottom land that is rich due to sediment left by annual floods," says land-rights advocate Charles Williams, an Anglican minister who is working with the Namas.

It wasn't just rich land that was lost; the river brings diamonds as well as water from territory higher up. For the moment, though, the community is emphasizing its agricultural rather than mineral interests.

The Namas are not asking for the land back - for now. "Our fight is not with the people who own the farms now," says Oum David. "Anyway, we don't have the white farmers' knowledge to run their big commercial farms."

However, the Namas are using the threat that they could ask for the land's return as a lever to pry concessions out of both government and the white farmers.

They've asked the Land Claims Commission to compensate them with a community development fund of about $11 million earmarked for agricultural projects. The funds and development program would be overseen by Ebenhauser's elected representatives, working closely with national and local government officials.

The Land Claims Commission has made a counteroffer of only $3 million.

It would be "much cheaper for the government to increase its offer to us than to have to buy white farmers out of what has become expensive wine land," says Williams.

As for the white farmers, in return for retaining their land "they must share with Ebenhauser," says Williams.

Ebenhauser wants seats on the white farmers' agricultural co-ops. "When a colored farmer takes his lucerne [alfalfa] to the co-op, he gets a lower price than a white farmer," says Williams. "Maybe the white farmer's lucerne is better quality. Maybe not. We'll never know until we're members of the co-op."

Ebenhauser already is making inroads into formerly white preserves, landing seats on the municipal water-allocation board. "We have only three votes out of 16 there. We can't win a vote, but we can start to learn," says Williams.

For him and the people of Ebenhauser, their land claim is only the beginning of the long-term effort to reform the rural power structure.

The Namas trace their rights to the original 316,000 acres to a map, which, along with a wood-and-brass staff bearing the government's coat of arms, was apparently given to the Namas in the early 1800s by the Earl of Caledon, governor of the Cape Colony. The map was lost by the Namas' lawyer after the land was given to white farmers.

Half the 8,541 acres taken from the Namas was divided among 52 white families. The Ebenhauser Nama community was moved to land that was decent, but not of river-bottom quality. The Namas were provided with adequate water, but no irrigation system for channeling it. Unlike white farmers, they did not get title to their land; it is still held in trust by the government.

Neither was Ebenhauser provided with the crucial tools for agricultural development: irrigation services, agricultural-extension aid to help to clear and level land, credit, subsidies for seed and fertilizer, and price supports for their produce.

"Even today, the municipal irrigation system for Lutzville stops at the entrance to Ebenhauser," says Nama advocate Williams.

"We had to dig by hand a canal to bring the water from the entrance to Ebenhauser to our dam," recalls Oum Pieter Brand. "But the 'blanke man' [white man] had tractors to dig their canal. Theirs was cement-lined; ours was only earthen and kept collapsing."

Says Oum Pieter, who lives in a decaying house made of mud and sticks and uses an outhouse: "It's painful driving through Lutzville and seeing that land so developed and knowing those people had help from the taxpayers.

With that same help, we would not have been living in poverty for 75 years."

Regardless of how their land first moved into white hands, van Zyl and Mostert say they have invested sweat and money into it and deserve to keep it.

"The state has to help the land claimants, but it also has to protect those who have property rights," says Mostert.

"If Ebenhauser has created this land claim to get development funds for the lands they now occupy, I have no problem with that. But if the state wants to dispossess us of our land - well, it's not right to right one historic wrong with another."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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