Not quite cashing in on the past

The tiny town of Kuboes can be found at the end of a dirt road that stretches from Alexander Bay, at the mouth of the Orange river, past endless mine dumps and fenced-off diamond fields to the foot of the mountains of the Richtersveld in the Northern Cape.

Kuboes is not a wealthy place. There are no mansions or BMWs or hotels, just small homes on dusty, unpaved streets.
But the people of Kuboes are set to become owners of a 49% stake in state diamond mine Alexkor’s land operations. They will soon own about 84 000ha of land, which could include the town of Alexander Bay, as well as an oyster farm, a dairy and an ostrich farm, all of which currently belong to Alexkor. They are also likely to own all new mining rights to this swathe of mineral-rich land, possibly excluding those on the Orange river itself.

The 4 000-strong Richtersveld community is hoping to announce a final settlement on the return of their ancestral land and related claims within weeks—eight long years after the claim was first lodged. Gaynor Kast, spokesperson for Minister of Public Enterprises Alec Erwin, this week told the Mail & Guardian that negotiations were progressing well and a “speedy resolution” was expected in the “near future”.

Kuboes is not the only town that will benefit: the people of Sanddrift, to the north, and Lekkersing and Eksteenfontein, to the south, share the claim.

But early hopes that a settlement could bring the community up to R2,5-billion in return for diamonds mined over the past 80 years and to clean up extensive environmental damage, have dissolved. Individuals are unlikely to see any cash payouts—a blow for those who were hoping to invest in homes, clothes or cars.

“Some members of the community were hoping for money, but that is not going to happen,” says Richtersveld Community Property Association (CPA) secretary Carmen Cloete. “Everyone needs to work for his money. We are going to use the money we get to build infrastructure like roads for tourism and for capacity building.”

Cloete is based in the small CPA office in the municipal building in the centre of Kuboes. Outside, residents play and drink and chat: unemployment stands at between 50% and 60%. In a nearby hall on July 12, a steady stream of residents elected new representatives to the CPA executive committee under the watchful eye of the Independent Electoral Commission. The CPA has about 2 800 members who are over 18 and eligible to vote. All four towns have a minimum of two representatives on the CPA executive committee, which is driving the land claim. A non-profit organisation that survives on donations, the CPA has set up a business arm called Devco, which will administer the land and any cash obtained through the settlement. “All 2 800 CPA members have a share in this development company,” Cloete explains.

But as the settlement inches to a close, a certain amount of mistrust has grown between the majority Nama members of the community and the Bosluis Basters. The land that is to be returned was originally taken from the Nama people after the discovery of diamonds in the 1920s, while the Basters (descendants of Khoi-Khoi and white farmers) arrived a few decades later.

Most Kuboes residents are Nama, while Eksteenfontein has a larger number of Basters. Generally, Basters are a little better off and have received more education than the Nama, which means they have played a strong leadership role in the land claim—fuelling ethnic tensions.

“There are people who say this claim is a Nama claim only. But the Basters came here in [the late 1940s] and they were part of the pain and suffering we went through; they must also benefit.”

Some young people took a harder line. “I think it would be better if it was just a Nama claim, maybe we would get the land back faster,” says Deonald Cloete (26). Sylvia Hans, also 26 years old, and her friends Charlene de Wet (20) and Caroline Cloete (21), say that “we fight for the Richtersveld’s Namas”.

Floors Strauss, who recently resigned as secretary of the CPA, told the M&G that he left the CPA voluntarily to work on another community project, funded by the World Bank. “Individuals may hope and want and think this claim is for one group only,” he says. “But from the beginning of the legal process, it was made clear that the claim is only valid if it includes the whole community. Whatever some people say, we’re all from the Richtersveld.”

CPA chairperson Willem Diergaardt agrees. “By putting money into development, nobody can say someone got this much money and someone else got that much,” he says. “This way everyone benefits equally.” Most residents hope that when the claim is finally settled, the tensions will dissipate. And yet it seems unlikely that the Richtersvelders will immediately see huge inflows of cash. The reality is that Alexkor’s land-based mining operations are all but bankrupt (the company made a R24,5-million loss in the first half of 2005/06). As part of the settlement agreement, the Richtersvelders are insisting that the company be recapitalised by government. But it may take a while before profits begin to flow, even with the help of Cyril Ramaphosa’s company Shanduka, which is expected to help the Richtersvelders exploit their diamond resources.

Meanwhile, compensation for the loss of 80 years of diamond mining rights has been whittled down. Diergaardt says the community expects an 8% annual royalty from Alexkor, and a cash payout of R50-million. And while the government has taken responsibility to rehabilitate land damaged by mining operations, exactly what must be done is still under discussion. “The land is a total mess; there are big holes left in the ground from the mining and a lot of damage to the plants,” says Carmen Cloete.

Not everyone cares about cash payments. “Money is like a cigarette,” explains 75-year-old Gert Domroch. “You enjoy it and then it’s gone. But when times are hard and people are starving, you will always have the land.” Domroch believes that if money obtained is used to build infrastructure and services, then young people will also be happy. “The young people will stay if there are work opportunities,” Maria Farmer (64) agrees. “This will not become a ghost town.” In truth, few Kuboes residents seem to be waiting to pack their bags and move to Alexander Bay. Some say they’d rather commute than leave Kuboes, but as Ronald Joseph (21) says, “I must go where there is work.”

Alexander Bay itself is likely to become Richtersveld property, unlike Port Nolloth, which has been excluded from the claim. No Alexander Bay residents are property owners—all buildings belong to the mine. Arthur Jansen, ex-chairperson of the now defunct Alexander Bay Community Forum, says that there have been rumours circulating in the town that people might have to leave and some are concerned that they may lose their jobs. Others are blasé. “Nothing will change,” says Piet Holtzhauzen, a crewman on a diamond boat. “We will just pay our rent and electricity to the Richtersvelders instead of the mine.”

Diergaardt emphasises that the Richtersvelders will not undertake apartheid-style evictions. “We can’t chase people away. People who work there will keep their jobs; we need them,” he says. However, people who are not working will be asked to leave. “Why can’t they go back to where they came from?” she says. “They enjoyed the benefits of living there when we Namas had nothing.” However, Farmer does believe all Richtersvelders must benefit from the land claim. “Maybe, with our Nama and Basters story, we will see it all fall flat, and that would be a great pity,” she says. “But I don’t think there is much danger. This thing is almost finished now.”