Ghost of apartheid returns to farmlands

A hunting boom driven by wealthy tourists is pushing black South Africans off the land to make way for game, generating anger that, a decade after apartheid, whites still own most of the countryside.

Hundreds of commercial farms have evicted their labourers and converted into game parks, turning swaths of arable land into fenced wilderness for trophy animals such as lions and antelopes.

Many farmers admit that switching to hunting is a pretext to get rid of black workers whom they blame for a surge of theft and violent crime in rural areas since white minority rule ended in 1994.

Groups representing labourers say the evictions are a continuation of colonial and apartheid-era dispossession, and that the time has come to expropriate white-owned land.

“Game parks are mushrooming too much. They bring hunger to the people. People are becoming angry,” said Mangaliso Kubheka, a national organiser for an activist group, the Landless People’s Movement.
Kubheka is himself facing eviction from a farm in Ingogo, in KwaZulu-Natal province, where his family has tilled maize and pumpkin over three generations for white owners.

In return, the labourers were given a plot of land of their own to cultivate rent-free, but that arrangement is threatened by the farmer’s plan to replace them with wildlife, which wealthy foreigners pay handsomely to shoot.

“If we wanted to go to the township, we would have gone long ago, but we are happy here. It’s our home,” said Kubheka (48). He showed a clearing with more than a dozen piles of rocks and engravings: the graves of siblings, parents and grandparents.

The farmer, a white Afrikaner, was unavailable for comment. But neighbouring farmers confirmed that they too were in the process of switching to game parks.

Each year about 600 000ha of land is fenced off for hunting or conservation, said Theuns Eloff, a wildlife economist and professor at North West University. Most visitors come from western Europe and north America.

KwaZulu-Natal is especially prolific. Since 1999 the number of game parks has doubled to 139, and they now encompass 260 957ha, according to Stoffel de Jaeger, a hunting manager for the provincial wildlife authority.

Both men welcomed the boom as high-end eco-tourism which generated foreign currency and created more jobs for guides, drivers, cooks and cleaners than were lost in labouring.

One successful convert, Dennis Gehren, said his game park employed 19 people—compared with four labourers when his land was a farm.

Other farmers who have switched admitted shedding most or all of their workers and said that was intentional, because they no longer wanted black people on their property.

“The biggest problem in this country is theft. We had so many sheep stolen it was killing me slowly, financially and emotionally,” said Alan Wilson, who this year started converting 360ha of his farm into a game park.

Game were faster and more difficult to poach than sheep, he said, and a park required far fewer employees than a farm. Stolen sheep were so common they were referred to as takeaways.

Analysts welcome the economic boost from hunting, but worried that the evictions could stoke political and social tension. Black South Africans were forbidden from owning land under apartheid, and thousands were evicted from ancestral regions to make way for white settlers.

This is supposed to be the era of redressing that injustice, and transferring commercial farmland to create a new class of black farmers. But a decade after the African National Congress took power 80% of farmland is still owned by whites, and the government target of putting 30% of agricultural land into black hands by 2014 is slipping.

Groups which claim to speak for millions of poor people in rural areas say patience is running out. “There is resentment and anger amongst our people,” said Blade Nzimande, Secretary General of South Africa’s Communist party.

Surveys show most white farmers, worried by the violent dispossession of their colleagues in Zimbabwe, agree that there is an urgent need to redistribute land, and that they are willing to sell much of their property to the government. But since 1994 only about 4% of the land earmarked for black ownership has been transferred, a sluggishness blamed on government penny-pinching, bureaucratic delays, and uncooperative or greedy sellers.

More money and political will has been pledged for 2005. And the ANC has reassured skittish whites that it will respect the rule of law to ensure orderly redistribution, unlike Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe.

Even if a major eruption of violence is unlikely, there is no doubting how troubled rural race relations have become in the past decade.

White farmers say their livelihoods are squeezed by drought and expensive, impractical labour regulations, and that they fear violent robberies which have killed 1,500 farmers in the past decade. Groups like the Landless People’s Movement say farmers are still exploiting and abusing labourers and hogging the best land.

“The end of apartheid broke down an unjust, paternalistic system - but nothing replaced it. Now many farmers think that one of the ways to make a living from the land is to minimise the involvement of black people,” said Jonny Steinberg, the author of Midlands, a book on farm murders.

“I haven’t met a farmer in the midlands [of KwaZulu-Natal] that doesn’t want black people off his farm. Game parks are just one strategy among many to end a fraught relationship.” - Guardian Unlimited Â

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