02 November 2011


So, what we ‘know’ is that the land restitution process has failed because White farmers have all the knowledge, and all the land, and black people don’t have either; moreover, there is not enough investment. If knowledge and land can be ‘transferred’ according to the current laws, and the social imagination that goes with this, with a little (or a lot) of investment, all will be well.

History will have been ‘rolled back’ like the recovery of old files from a crashed disk drive. The true African past will be restored, now as the ‘present’ instead of 'the past’. We will leave aside those rubbish labels like ‘past’ and ‘present’, and all else will be the same. Glorious. But time does not work like that. If it did there would be no way to tell what time it is. there would be no history at all. So it doesn’t. We know that history has somehow happened and that it can’t be put back in the can.

So ‘restitution’ or ‘restoration’ are obviously not justified by common sense. That’s because they are political. And there is nothing wrong with that. That is, after all, one of the ways that history happens: politics does it.

So let’s let history be as it may, and politics too. Surely the land is where all value ultimately comes from? We all have to eat, and food comes from the earth. As the estate agents tell us, and common sense ,politics, Malthus, and economics allsuggest with respect to land: they aren’t making any more of it, are they? Strangely, that probably does not matter because it is what you do with the land that makes it anything at all. There are 7 billion of us now on land that once nearly saw the extinction of the human species only a few tens of thousands of years ago, the blink of an eye.

Saying, and believing that land is the ‘ultimate’ value, is like saying that all energy comes form the sun. That statement is absolutely true. But it means that the money in your pocket and in the digital representation of what you think is your bank account, and even the thoughts in your head ‘come from the sun’. It is unavoidably true, but a kind of knowledge that is of almost no use. The same is true of land.

But I have a story to tell.

this past weekend I was out in Mpumalanga around the town of Machadodorp looking again at the wonderful and strange ‘stone structures’ that lie in the tens of thousands across that landscape. In order to get permission to walk across these lands, however, I needed to find out who owned the land. Saturday morning, 29 October 2011, I went into the BKV, the agricultural supply store in Machadodorp. I was hoping that they would have some register of land ownership, or have contact with farmers that I could speak with. I walked in and was directed to the back office where a young woman was sitting printing out a long list of something on accordian-fold paper with a dot-matrix printer. I haven’t seen that sort of technology for a decade, so I knew for sure that history is not evenly distributed. At least not in Machadodorp.

I was fortunate. “Yes," the young woman told me, "the farmers have having a meeting this morning; right now!”. I asked if I could come with and she told me to follow her. She said, ‘We just have to stop by the police station first.’ No problem. It turned out her husband was a SAP officer, and she needed to drop some keys with him, then off we went to the farm where ’the farmers’ were meeting.

It was off one of dirt side roads. The meeting was being held in a large brick building with a tin roof, and a kitchen at one end, with a pass through counter connecting it to the rest of the large shed like building. There were fairy lights wound onto a thick rope that was draped on one wall, but otherwise an empty hall. It appeared to be a community hall of some sort, but located on a private farm near the very modest farm house.

the discussion was all in Afrikaans, and I was introduced during the course of it. I said that I was doing research on the stone circles and structures in the area, and that I would like to speak with any farmers that had such structures on their land. I knew from GoogleEarth that all farmers in the hall had such structures, and after the meeting many approached me to invite me onto their farms. I decide to go the next day to one farm whose owner told me that he had found possible evidence of mining. On Sunday, he had agreed to stay home from Church so that he could show me around his farm. I was delighted, and arrived that morning for our walk.

But I am not going to write now about the walk. I want to write here about ’the land’ and the nature of the farming that went on there.

[I will just speak here of the ‘farmer’, without a name. The name is a common Afrikaans surname and from a line that has been settled in this area since the mid nineteenth century. The family is white, Afrikaans speaking. The farmer speaks English well, but apologises for his lapses.]

After we had walked over the hills and the archaeological sites, and located an old mine shaft, I was invited into the house. One of the farmer’s sons was visiting from Pretoria where he lived and worked, and the farmer’s wife was there. I am invited for lunch, which turns out to be, not surprisingly, the family’s Sunday braai, since it is Sunday and that is what they always do. The food is brandy and coke, and lots of very well cooked sheep fat with a little meat, some potato salad, and fruit and custard afterwards. And coke and brandy. (Town and my hotel is, fortunately, only a few kilometers away and on a straight road.)

After lunch, I learned more of how real farming works, and how land is valued in this economy.

The farmer has only been on the present farm for about 7 years. Before that he had rented a farm, and then had a share in another farm where he farmed cattle and sheep. When he moved to the current farm, he had benefited from a government purchase of his previous share of a farm, so he was able to afford his current farm of 1000 plus hectares.

As at the farmer’s meeting, talk was largely around the issues of land claims, stock theft, and various ways to make a living in farming. Most of the discussion of land claims, land restitution, and government purchase of farms to restore them to black owners circled around the fact that almost all restituted land had returned to bush, the infrastructure lost. No successes were mentioned, though there may be some.

Nevertheless, the irony was that the farmer, white and Afrikaans, was able to own a farm because of a payout from government for the smaller share of a larger farm that he had owned. That farm went to “three black families”. According to his story, the families had fought about who would manage the farm they had received for free from government, and the fight had become so acrimonious that none of them were able to do anything about the farm. The farm had a dam that fed a gravity feed irrigation system. Large pipes ran underground to 8 take-off points where surface irrigation pipes could be attached. After the huge community party that the government had thrown to celebrate the transfer of the land to the community, the farmer had watched the farm quickly return to bush. He said that he had only sold the land to the claimants. The irrigation equipment therefore still belonged to him. Nevertheless, he left it for the new farmers. As the irrigation surface infrastructure was gradually obscured by weeds, and then by bush, he watched. Eventually, he went to the farm, now abandoned, and collected what was left and put it in storage. I asked him if the new owners knew this. “Yes, but they can sue me. I have told them this, and there has been nothing.” I asked about the underground piping, that must be quite valuable. In many cases this is stolen soon after farms of this sort are transferred. “No, they don’t know its there. And it is concrete piping, anyway, so it is useless to steal it. We buried it a meter deep so that it could not be stolen. They have only stolen the risers and taps, so the system is useless now.”

The farmer had acquired the basis for his flock of sheep in an interesting way as well. One day soon after he had moved to the new farm, he noticed a flock of some 50 sheep on another piece of abandoned farm land. He did not recognise any of the sheep as local. He phoned the police to tell them that he suspected that they were stolen sheep. The police told him that they had had no reports of stolen sheep, so there was nothing they could do. He watched the sheep. The next day, there were 30 sheep left. And the day after there were 20 sheep.

“Why”, I asked him, “would someone steal sheep, then leave them in the veld for them to disappear?”

“No,” he said, “that’s what they do. The sheep are from far. The thieves take them, and then leave them in the veld. If someone comes to claim them, then so be it. The thieves themselves are not caught. During the day they go around to butchers and churches and anyone who might buy meat and take orders. So they get orders for 20 sheep. But they have 50 in the veld. At night they go and slaughter 20 sheep in the tall grass here no one can see them. The skins will all be there in the grass. I found them later.”

In this case, 50 sheep had been stolen, and 20 carcasses had been sold the first day, and then 10 or so the next. By the time where were only 20 left, the farmer acted. Since the police had still not found the owner, he went and collected the remaining sheep himself. He put them in a camp next to the road where they were visible from the house and from the road. He had not stolen them from anyone. Taht job had been done by the thieves. He had merely collected what was left. That was then the basis for his new flock. They now amounted to almost 50 again, and many had just given birth to twins that year, so the flock was growing strongly.

In conversation later, it emerged that the farmer also owned some rental property in Pretoria. His son was chiding him for not spending the income wisely. ‘Pa, whenever you have money you buy one of your beloved bulls! Put it into more property in Pretoria, and then you’ll make money!” his son told him. He asked me if my children also offer such cheeky advice of their old man. I told him that they did. Although he did not say so, it was clear that he was going to use his Pretoria-based rental income to continue to buy animals. The urban economy was subsidising his farm.

Most of the other expenses of the farm were also not from farming. The farm had a large amount of Black Wattle, an alien vegetation tree species that had spread rampantly across this landscape for years. Today, farmers are trying to eliminate this ‘alien invader’. The farmer was not exception. He was turning the black wattle wood into charcoal. He was producing around 10-12 thousand tons of charcoal a week. This was being sold to a specialist steel mill that produced a highly specialised steel that could only be made with wood charcoal. Wood charcoal is virtually pure carbon, and does not contain the impurities that coal does. Thus the farm was being supported by a highly specilised international niche market for specialist steel. That is, it was earning its keep so long as the black wattle, other Australian aliens could be harvested and turned into charcoal.

As I looked across the landscape then, I saw tendrils of blue smoke rising all around: charcoal burners. I had not noticed this before. I now recognised that these tendrils of smoke were a prominent part of the landscape, but only once I SAW it. Before that, it was just smoke. I now saw it as charcoal burning for specialist steel. The smoke was a significant part of the local economy. This was not ‘land’, but only a small part of land use that depended on international steel markets and current technological needs somewhere else in the world.

These and other activities create the value of the land. None of it depended on knowledge that could be ’transferred’ to ’new black farmers’ because all of it was embedded in complex social networks, events, and many other sources of income.

In fact, the farm produced significant amoounts of value in meat and charcoal, but very little of this could be accounted for in any straightforward manner. IT CERTAINLY did not ‘run like a business’. If it ran like a business, perhaps it could be transferred to new owners, but that was not the case.

Moreover, no amount of ‘investment’ would make this farm work better or more efficiently since the land is marginal, and only works because of the complex arrangements that have uniquely emerged over the course of the current owners life-time, and over generations.

More coming up...
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