Field of dreams

Small-scale black farmers in the southern Cape are locked in battles over access to municipal commonage as councils fetch top prices for land amid the local golf and luxury-estate development boom.

“The [Knysna] municipality has no land for us, the poor of the poorest, but the municipality has land for the rich,” says Lucas Lebenya, secretary of the Siyazama Emergent Farmers. They have battled the Knysna municipality for eight years to obtain a lease on council-owned land to graze their cattle and pigs. The 26 small-scale farmers say they were told that Sedgefield was a tourism town, not one for keeping cattle.

About 60km away in George, Pacaltsdorp small-scale farmers have lost out repeatedly on access to grazing as the municipality leases its commonage to the highest bidder.

As far back as 1997, the White Paper on South African Land Policy stipulated that commonage should be used for the benefit of poor and disadvantaged residents.

The Siyazama Emergent Farmers own cattle and pigs in Knysna’s Sizamile township. Livestock is a vital form of income for these farmers.

Until last year, the farmers had been grazing their livestock on a patch of private land, with the permission of the owner. When it was sold, the arrangement was terminated. Since the sale, police have been confiscating wandering livestock.

“I’ve lost 14 cows. I grew them up like children,” says Lebenya mournfully. “My heart doesn’t feel right.”

He gestures towards 76-year old Wilson Witbooi: “He went to jail for our cattle!” The grey-bearded man received a three-year suspended jail sentence in 2005 after police seized cows trespassing on private property.

The Knysna council has identified Windheuwel, an area 70km away, as an alternative grazing area. Lebenya shakes his head: Windheuwel is too far away. It already costs R30 to catch a taxi to Knysna, just 30km away. “How is this old man [Witbooi] going to look after our cattle?” Lebenya shakes his head.

“It’s not the best option as there could be housing [built ] there,” says executive mayor Joy Cole, but he adds that the council had decided to accommodate small farmers there.

But the council has not reported back by December 1 2005 as promised regarding the group’s petition demanding land, which was handed over to the council during a protest in September. Recent requests for a meeting have been ignored.

In George, the Pacaltsdorp small-scale farmers are also struggling. Instead of making commonage available to them, the council tender system seems to be keeping them off the land by making commonage available to the wealthier farmers.

“That is out of sync with national land reform policy,” says Ben Cousins, director of the Programme for Land and Agricultural Services (Plaas) at the University of the Western Cape.

On Freedom Day last year, the farmers drove their cattle into town in protest. A few months later, they drove their cattle into Klapperskop, a commonage that has been leased to white farmers for 10-year lease cycles.

When the last lease expired last year, it was awarded for another 10 years to Stephen Gericke, a white farmer. A Cape High Court ordered the council to return the 150 head of cattle that were confiscated from Klapperskop and also required both sides to resolve their dispute. This resolution has not happened, says Sam Las, head of the emergent farmers’ group, which is affiliated to the Pacaltsdorp Civic Association.

Last year, Boeta Roman, a member of the group, claims he submitted the highest bid for a lease on the commonage at R805 a hectare per year, well above the R600 nearest bid. But the land was not awarded to him. Instead the tender was reopened several months later and awarded to a group of white farmers. “They have [cattle] farms but they also want the commonage,” says Las.

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