South African food sovereignty campaigners expand land occupations

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“The land reform has failed us. The municipality has failed us. We will not fail ourselves. We are occupying this land. We will not be removed. Ever!”

by Ronald Wesso
Pambazuka News, August 18, 2011

Furious emerging farmers in the Kareeberg municipality in South Africa’s Northern Cape Province have decided to stop paying rent for the municipal owned land they are farming on. These farmers have been robbed and excluded from land ownership and access by colonial conquest, segregation and apartheid. Now South Africa’s protection of capitalist property and its neo-liberal state policies are keeping them landless still.

‘Our members cannot be held back anymore,’ says Basil ‘Die Hond’ Eksteen of the Kareeberg Emerging Farmers Association. ‘They are just too angry. We talked, we wrote letters, we marched – now we are ready to take the land. The municipality gives us no support and now they want to charge us these impossible rents. They know we can’t pay. They just want to get rid of us and put white, commercial farmers on the land. We are in contact with a group in the Kimberley district that has occupied a farm of one of the richest land owners there. A man that owns 15 farms while people sit with nothing. Neither the police nor the army has been able to remove these members from the land. If they can do it, so can we!’

Since 1996 the South African government has followed a strict neo-liberal policy path that includes cutting state expenditure on ‘unprofitable’ social services. A key strategy has been to cut transfers of funds from the national treasury to local governments by more than 90 per cent over a ten year period, while at the same time transferring responsibility for delivering social services such as housing, water, electricity, health and policing from the national to local governments.

The national treasury could thus balance its books and even generate a surplus, but municipalities had to deliver far more services to many more people with less resources. They therefore became trapped in a well-known cycle of poor service delivery, desperate cost recovery and community protests. As far as municipal land is concerned the pressure became overwhelming on municipal executives to charge the highest possible rents.

Emerging farmers find it unaffordable, which leaves them effectively landless, as the national land reform process is a complete failure that managed to transfer less than five per cent of agricultural land from white to black ownership.

Patrick Steenkamp of the Loeriesfontein Emerging Farmers Association explains that they have been doing the same thing that their Kareeberg comrades are planning.

‘We became fed up with the municipality. They collected rent but they did nothing for us. There were no services. So we decided to develop the land ourselves. We put up our own fencing and our own windmills. We refused to pay rent. This has been going on for two years now. The land reform has failed us. The municipality has failed us. We will not fail ourselves. We are occupying this land. We will not be removed. Ever!’

Both the Kareeberg and the Loeriesfontein emerging farmers are part of the Food Sovereignty Campaign, a network of emerging farmers and farm workers active in the Northern and Western Cape Provinces. Rosina Secondt, the campaign’s convener, is an emerging farmer in Pella on the banks of the Orange River. She draws attention to the case of the Ithemba Farmers in Eerste River in the Western Cape.

‘In our meeting the delegate of the Ithemba Farmers Association reported that nothing much happened there in the last two months, they are still farming on the land. I am claiming that as a victory for the Food Sovereignty Campaign. The people did not have jobs or income. They occupied the land. The municipality, three government departments, lots of lawyers, the police and a mining company all worked together to throw the Ithemba Farmers off the land. They all failed and they are still failing. Why? Because the Ithemba Farmers mobilised themselves and the Food Sovereignty Campaign mobilised supporters from as far as Pella, 700km away in the Northern Cape. We physically stopped those who tried to evict the farmers. Today the Ithemba farmers are making a living on the land that they otherwise would not have had. That is a victory!’

South Africa’s political system and governing elite are of course quite hostile to these kinds of land occupations. Property rights are enshrined in the constitution of the country. The land reform programme is based on a ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ model, where private land owners have absolute discretion over whether to sell and at what price. They have priced the land not only out of reach of land hungry blacks, but often even out of reach of the state.

There is no provision in law, like that of Brazil, which allow hungry people to grow food on unused land of absent owners. Some municipalities have gone so far as to create special ‘anti-land invasion’ police units that quickly developed a reputation for ruthless brutality. Despite this the Food Sovereignty Campaign insists that the land starved poor have no choice but to keep land occupations in their strategic arsenal.

‘We see land occupations as legitimate,’ explains Ricado Jacobs on behalf of the campaign. ‘Our actions do not conform to the constitution, we understand that. But for us that is fine as we see the constitution as seriously flawed. This neo-liberal, capitalist constitution claims to give equal protection to the rich and the poor, but all it does is to consolidate wealth for the few and poverty for the many. Through land occupations the poor can take steps to agrarian reform and food sovereignty without waiting on the capitalist state.’

In May this year Julius Malema, the president of the ANC Youth League, called for the expropriation of white owned farm land without compensation. This must be considered an election ploy to gain votes for the ANC by tapping into black frustration with persisting apartheid land ownership patterns.

The ANC Youth League claims a membership of hundreds of thousands and a support base of millions. They have millions of rands and a huge apparatus for organising and propaganda. If they were serious about expropriating land from rich, white farmers they could organise land occupations that would eclipse even that of the MST in Brazil. That they have not organised a single one should not surprise us. Land occupations attack both the authority of the state and the rights of the capitalist owners of production resources and therefore threaten the foundations of the capitalist system. The ANC Youth League and its leadership are part and parcel of this system.

Recently the newspaper City Press ran an exposé of the personal finances of Julius Malema that showed how the Youth League leader benefits to the tune of hundreds of millions of rands (some even say billions) from the state capitalist system. No wonder he and his colleagues say so much but won’t do anything about this system.

The Food Sovereignty Campaign has only a few hundred members and practically no money, but with these land occupations it is taking actions with revolutionary implications. It has demonstrated that all you need to do this is a politics that values the people above the state and the capitalist class. This should be seen as only a beginning, and a small one – but it is the beginning of a movement with huge potential.