Land claim could change the destiny of a people

Gert Domroch has lived in the Nama village of Kuboes in a remote corner of South Africa’s Northern Cape Province for all of his 75 years. From his backyard, the old man gestures with his pipe to the surrounding expanse of windswept desert against a backdrop of jagged volcanic mountains: “This is the land of our forefathers and we’ve been dispossessed.”

The land he is referring to is known as the Richtersveld and extends about 100km to the south to include the villages of Eksteenfontein and Lekkersing, as well as encompassing Richtersveld National Park to the north and the coastal towns of Port Nolloth and Alexander Bay.

It was on the green, coastal plains surrounding Alexander Bay that Domroch’s grandfather and the majority of the Nama descendants of Kuboes used to graze their livestock.

Following the discovery of diamonds in the area in the 1920s, the British colonial government seized the land and drove the Nama people into the harsh desert interior, where most of them still live in tin shacks and small, cement houses, many without electricity or running water.

The community’s isolation from the outside world is ensured by unpaved roads that are virtually impassable without a four-wheel drive vehicle.

Domroch was among five community members who began a legal battle to reclaim the land of his ancestors in 1998.
Two of the five have died in the seven years that have elapsed, but the last stage of that battle is finally due to be played out at a hearing that will begin on April 25 in Cape Town’s Land Claims Court.

For the approximately 4 000 inhabitants of the Richtersveld, most of whom lack jobs and access to basic services, such as schools and hospitals, the outcome of the case may mean the difference between continued poverty and joblessness and the possibility of a better future for their children.

The case is also likely to have repercussions for the government. Alexkor, the mine which has been extracting diamonds from Alexander Bay since 1927, is state-owned and if the court rules in favour of the Richtersveld community, the government may be required not only to transfer ownership of the company to the community, but to compensate them for all the diamonds removed from the land in the last 80 years.

A Constitutional Court ruling has already recognised the legitimacy of the community’s claim to the land and mineral rights, but 18 months of out-of-court negotiations between Alexkor and the claimants have failed to yield a restitution package that both parties can agree on.

The Department of Public Enterprises, which is handling the case on behalf of Alexkor, declined to comment on the case in advance of the hearing. But, according to a statement on Alexkor’s web site, they will be arguing that the Restitution of Land Rights Act allows for restitution to take the form of returning the land, or compensation, but not both.

Aiming for a sustainable future

The Richtersvelders, as they call themselves, argue that the Act allows them to claim back the value of the land at the time they were dispossessed. Considering that it has been stripped of its mineral riches, they say, they should be compensated both for the missing diamonds and the environmental damage caused by the mining.

“We’re not interested to get rich,” said community spokesperson Floors Strauss. “We’re interested in a future, sustainable Richtersveld.”

Strauss is secretary of the Communal Property Association (CPA), voted into existence by the community in 2001 with the primary role of handling the land claim. Like most residents of Eksteenfontein, which lies south of Kuboes, he is not a Nama but belongs to a group called the Bosluis Basters, the descendants of Khoi-Khoi and white farmers who moved to the area in 1949 to escape persecution.

Having lived peacefully alongside each other for more than half a century, the Nama people agreed to include the Basters as co-beneficiaries of the land claim.

The Basters are generally better educated and less impoverished than the Nama. More of them can afford to send their children to boarding school in Port Nolloth, the only option for parents in the area who want their children to go beyond primary school. As a result, they are more able to articulate the language of the lawyers, consultants and government officials they have come into contact with since the land claim case began.

“The compensation money will help boost the local economy,” said Joan Cloete, another CPA member descended from the Basters. “But it’s not about getting money, it’s about development.”

Cloete says the Basters and the Nama want the same things. But while phrases like “sustainable development”, “capacity building”, and “social upliftment” roll easily from the tongues of the Basters, the Nama people interviewed were more likely to focus on the benefits that compensation from the land claim might bring to individual families.

“Everyone must just get their money and then they’ll decide what to do with it, because half of them don’t even have a decent place to stay,” said Kuboes resident and Nama descendent Katrina de Wet.

Jasper de Wet, also of Kuboes but no relation to Katrina, explained that if the money were divided between families, he would build a proper house to replace the tin shack his family lives in.

Money would be for the community

Both groups recognise the need to address the joblessness that is the root of many of the region’s problems, including high rates of alcoholism and drug use among the bored youth.

According to Strauss, the compensation money will be used to provide skills training for young people and to create more jobs, as well as better roads and services.

“We also realise that diamonds are not forever,” he noted. “So what the mine generates we’ll use to put in other economic generators, like tourism and agriculture.”

Goats and sheep have long provided one of the few livelihoods available to community members, but as yet a mere handful make a living from tourism. Only the most determined tourists are prepared to make the long, bumpy journey into the area and, of the 5 000 that did make the trek to the National Park last year, few lingered in the villages they passed to get there.

Wilma Cloete, a 22-year-old from Eksteenfontein, was one of 21 locals to be trained as a tour guide in an initiative by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism. However, she has been unable to find regular work as a guide, and instead helps her mother provide meals to the occasional guests who stay at the village’s only bed and breakfast.

“I’d like to see the whole community benefit from tourism,” she said. “Most tourists just drive through on their way to the park.”

While the land that makes up the park is not yet officially the property of the community, they have been managing it jointly with SA National Parks (SANParks) since it was established in 1991.

A 2003 deal with the Namibian government extended the park across the border to link with the Ai-Ais Hot Springs Game Park, which includes the Fish River Canyon, the world’s second largest. Until recently the South African side of the park remained almost entirely undeveloped, but an influx of poverty alleviation funding in the last year has been used to upgrade camping facilities and build two wilderness camps, as well as tourist accommodation in each of the neighboring villages.

Despite the increased size and spending, the park is still operating at a loss and relies on cross-subsidisation from busier parks.

The joint management arrangement has also brought its own set of problems, with community members accusing SANParks of neglect, and SANParks insisting that the community’s go-it-alone approach is unrealistic, given the lack of local capacity.

Park manager Andy Davis believes the community has overestimated the potential for greatly increasing the number of tourists visiting the area.

“It’s really just a mountain desert, and a lot of tourists just want to see the Big Five and this obviously isn’t the place for it,” he pointed out.

Not everyone shares his view. Mushahida Adhikari, a lawyer with the Legal Resources Centre who has worked on the land claim case and spent a significant amount of time in the area, sees no reason why tourism should not be viable.

“It’s one of those places you go to that’s so different from every other tourism experience; it’s that wilderness thing,” she said. “They’ve got the indigenous knowledge and they know the area like the back of their hand. The community is one of the most enthusiastic and vibrant communities I’ve ever seen.”

Notwithstanding the lack of job opportunities and the harsh environment, surprisingly few community members move away, and those who do often return.

On the empty expanse of land that separates the two villages of Lekkersing and Kuboes, Charles Whitlow makes a hard living tending goats. He camps at the kraals with the animals, only returning home every two weeks. Although he earns just R400 a month, the 21-year-old says he has no plans to leave the Richtersveld in search of a better life.

“I wouldn’t exchange this land for anything,” he said. “Sometimes it gets tough, but I would always come back.”

A series of short-term government projects, which have failed to address the root causes of poverty in the area, have combined with the fierce independence and strong sense of community that Richtersveld’s isolation breeds to make residents suspicious of outside interventions.

“We don’t want anymore for people to come in and tell us what to do,” Joan Cloete said. “We want to do it for ourselves.”

Strauss emphasised that although the community is optimistic about the court case, they are not sitting idly, awaiting the outcome.

The establishment of a community conservancy south of the park, aimed at preserving the pristine landscape and funneling more tourism revenue into the area, is almost complete and additional poverty alleviation funding will be used this year to improve the roads and build more wilderness camps along the Orange River.

“The community is positive,” Strauss commented. “When we started the land claim in 1998, we said to ourselves, ‘we’ve been waiting since 1927, so an extra two or three years won’t make a difference’. We know victory is in sight.”—Irin

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