Peacemakers broker South African land reform

White farmer Peter Nicholson partners with the Venda people to tutor them to a successful takeover of his land.

Melanie Stetson Freeman – Staff
Mentor and farmer: Peter Nicholson (center) is working with Venda community members like Chief Alfred Nemamilwe (left) and the chief's son, Patrick Nemamilwe, to help them succeed in shepherding his farm when the South African government gives it to them.


When Peter Nicholson looks at his 20,000-acre Alicedale Estates, he sees the lush orange groves that he carved out of the arid scrubland 15 years ago to generate a healthy income for his family.
When Chief Alfred Nemamilwe looks at it, he sees the vast territory of the pastures, villages, and sacred sites of his Venda-speaking ancestors that his people will control once more.

This might sound like the beginning of a conflict. But Gerrit Booyens, an idealistic white businessman, has a third vision for this vast chunk of land. He sees a peaceful melding of both Mr. Nicholson’s and the chief’s dreams: an equal business partnership between the two, with Nicholson training a new generation of black farmers and Chief Alfred ensuring that his community begins to see commercial farming as an engine for local jobs, as well as a last chance to preserve their cultural heritage.

Mr. Booyens, whose agribusiness career became business peacemaking with postapartheid redistribution, is under no illusions. “When you bring white farmers and [black] communities together, you have to unpack their fears. I fear you will take me to the cleaners. You fear you won’t get enough for the land. He fears that without the land, his children will not follow in his footsteps.”

But when people start talking about their fears, he says, they find they have more in common than they realized. “Because we are different doesn’t mean that any one of us might be wrong. Together we might be stronger.”

Booyens’s job is to get the whites – whose land will be bought by the government – to talk to the landless blacks who will receive the land in the near future. He talks with black communities about the opportunities, and the responsibilities, of running a commercial farm. But most important is getting the two sides to work together.

Though several African nations have encouraged white farmers to sell their land to black communities that claim ancestral rights, few countries have succeeded without using force, as in Zimbabwe.

South Africa’s farms are the envy of a continent where subsistence farming is the norm. South Africa specializes in large-scale commercial farming that easily meets the nation’s food needs, while exporting highly profitable products, such as citrus and wine, to Asia and the West. By pushing the huge social experiment of land justice, South Africa is taking an enormous risk with its food supply – and its economy.

The hope is that a more fair distribution of land will help lift out of poverty millions of South Africans who were rendered landless by apartheid and who now make up the masses of unemployed urban poor. With the nightmare scenario of Zimbabwe sitting next door – the result of forced land redistribution, followed by massive farm failure and food shortages – South Africa seems to realize that getting it right is crucial.

• • •

It’s late afternoon at the Tshipise community center, and Booyens is holding a meeting with leading members of the local community about the massive commercial farm that soon will be theirs. Some would be happy to see the farm return to brush, so that they can return to farming and herding in the old ways. Others are more interested in taking ownership of and preserving local ruins of a society that prospered here, then mysteriously vanished – an African version of Macchu Picchu. Booyens is trying to show them the possibility of having it both ways, a thriving commercial farm and greater opportunities to enhance their cultural heritage.

“We were the first people to smelt iron here in this region,” says Mashudu Dima, a wizened man in a silver goatee, noting that the cultural site of Mapungubwe shows evidence of iron smelting. “These are things we need to bring back.”

“Yes, but part of our land we need to develop for agriculture, because it will sustain the community, jobs will be created,” says police chief Mainganye Nephawe.

Some are concerned about the costs of maintaining big farms, while others complain about the environmental devastation that can come from mining and agriculture.

“If you do this right, mining can bring the funding that restores what was before,” Booyens tells them. Ultimately, the community must have a vision for what it wants to do with the land and a plan to make it sustainable, he tells them. “The only persons who can mobilize the community is yourselves,” he says.

The community leaders – reticent during the meeting – say a prayer and leave laughing and slapping hands.

• • •

The government’s ambitious redistribution target – 30 percent of white-owned farmland redistributed to blacks by 2014 – “hugely underestimated what it would take to achieve their targets,” says Michael Aliber, a land reform expert at the University of the Western Cape.

The goals are so underfunded that they will fall a decade behind schedule, says South Africa’s director general for land affairs, Thozi Gwanya. (Today, only 4 percent of farmland has been redistributed or sold to blacks since the end of apartheid; whites still control 86 percent.)

There is also debate about how redistributed land will be owned and how it will affect the success of the development of black communities.

The government preference for community ownership could doom redistribution from the start, suggests Rogier Vandenbrink, a World Bank land reform expert in Johannesburg. “What is community ownership? It means collective ownership. And where has that worked in the world?” he asks. “Even in China, they’ve gone back to small-scale individually owned farms.”

Further, many white farmers worry that the complexities of running a massive commercial farm may be beyond the technical skills of black community members, few of whom have done farming on any scale, and many of whom have spent most of their lives working in big cities.

By taking Chief Alfred and his community in as partners and teaching them the citrus business – all before actually selling off his land – Nicholson is preparing for the inevitable, and ensuring that the farm he built doesn’t go to waste.

Nicholson says he and other willing sellers in the area started working with the Venda community four years ago. He admits that he had doubted whether the new black owners would be able to run a large farm, deal with demanding international customers, and make educated predictions about rainfall and use of irrigation. If they would be the new owners, Nicholson thought, he should teach them the operation.

“You can fight about whose it is, or you can try to utilize it,” he says. Starting in 2004, Nicholson began to take senior members of the Venda community as shareholders. He began to hire younger Venda people as laborers and managers and involved them in business decisions. Nicholson’s efforts attracted the attention of Booyens, a former agribusiness executive who consults with white farmers and black communities to hammer out deals that will work. At Booyens’s urging, local communities near Nicholson’s farm are thinking about the larger business and cultural opportunities that may come once the land returns to Venda hands.

• • •

Taking the chief and his brother, Patrick Nemamilwe, through his orange orchard, Nicholson picks some fruit and hands a piece to each of them. “Ninety percent of this citrus goes for export,” he says, as the men pull off the rinds, spraying juice. “We even supply to Wal-Mart.”

“And this farm can create jobs for people here,” says Mr. Nemamilwe, a recent college graduate in agriculture. Nobody used to think of farming as a decent career, he says, but now that blacks have a chance to own and run large commercial farms, agriculture has become more attractive.

“There are much more than opportunities for digging in the soil, this is a chance to be self-reliant,” says Nemamilwe.

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