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09/03/2018 09:46 SAST | Updated 09/03/2018 09:46 SAST

This Black Farmer's Story Exposes The Nightmare That Is Land Reform

"I am almost 60 years old now," he says, "and I have been struggling on this piece of land for almost 20 years. But I will not stop pursuing the dream of farming."

Enrique de la Osa/ Reuters

If you are nervous about the prospects of land expropriation without compensation or the nationalisation of land, and want to blame the populism of the EFF or the failed land-reform policies of the ANC for getting us here, take a moment to listen to the story of just one of the thousands of black men and women who have struggled to gain access to land and water in South Africa in the past decade or two.

There are far more villains in this story than one might expect.

Meet Peter Stone. Born 60 years ago in Jamestown, outside Stellenbosch, Stone comes from a long line of small-scale farmers. His grandfather and great-grandfather produced strawberries. His father, feeling the pinch of the lack of access to land for black people, found a day job working in a bar. But his life was his garden, where he cultivated strawberries and carrots.

Stone started farming as a child, returning from school each day to tend and water the garden. It was what he wanted to do with his life. In 1978, with no prospect of gaining access to land for tilling, Peter started working for Distillers Wineries. He quickly worked his way up to the position of supervisor, and remained in the wine industry for a decade.

In Pictures via Getty Images

But all he really wanted to do was grow things. His opportunity came in 1989, when he moved to Johannesburg to manage the hydroponic tunnel section of food producer Dew Crisp. He was growing tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. Stone was back on track.

In 1995, Dew Crisp sent him to Paarl in Western Cape to start a new hydroponic farm growing tomatoes and peppers there, and his knowledge and experience grew.

But in the intervening years, the overlords of his hometown of Stellenbosch had seen the winds of change blowing across the country and, like many local authorities, decided to take cynical action. By the early 1990s, Stellenbosch municipality was the largest landowner in the area. Its land wealth stemmed in part from land awarded to municipalities by the U.K. Crown in the nineteenth century, to be used for the development of the (white) community, and in part from the systematic confiscation of land owned by black communities during the course of the twentieth century.

But what Stone thought was the beginning of the realisation of a dream became a recurring nightmare.

Shortly before the 1994 elections, the municipality (like others at the time) entered into long-term leases with commercial farmers in the area for thousands of its state-owned hectares, "safeguarding" the land from the equitable redistribution that was surely on the cards.

Thus, when Derek Hanekom, then in charge of land affairs, signed the national Municipal Commonage Policy in 1997, highlighting the obvious opportunities for making land already owned by the state available to black farmers and creating mechanisms for doing so, Stellenbosch municipality's land was conveniently tied up in long-term leases.

The Spier wine estate decided to take matters into its own hands. They wanted to utilise the public land awarded to them prior to 1994 to start their own "land-reform" project. Spier entered into a joint venture with Dew Crisp to grow organic vegetables on the land and headhunted the most talented and experienced black vegetable farmers they could find. Naturally, Stone was one of them. By 1999, he was farming "op die oop grond" [on open soil].

Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters

However, the land made available for the venture turned out to be unsuitable and by 2002, Spier and Dew Crisp ended the project. Stone asked to be allowed to continue farming on the land, knowing that it was likely his only chance of accessing a bit of land in the winelands. Spier decided to make another piece of "their" state-owned land available to Stone and about six other farmers in the project, allocating five hectares to each farmer. Stone moved on to his five hectares in October 2002.

But what he thought was the beginning of the realisation of a dream became a recurring nightmare.

The first Saturday after moving on to the land, Stone recalls, the small farmers invited all the big commercial farmers in the area to come and meet with them to discuss how they might tap into existing networks and shared resources.

Buyers were lining up to contract Stone, the organic black farmer. But with uncertain access to water and no proof of security of tenure on the land, he could never commit.

Only one farmer showed up, Stone says. To this day, that farmer tries to help where he can, allowing the small farmers to rent equipment, for example.

By early 2003, the small farmers, with the help of legendary land lawyer Kobus "Commonage" Pienaar from the Legal Resources Centre (LRC), had formed a trust and formally taken over the lease for their portion of land with the municipality. The most immediate need of the farmers was access to sufficient water rights on the land for vegetable farming and a proper reticulation system to use the water effectively. Stone and the others had skills, knowledge and experience, but no capital.

They asked the municipality, as landowners, to apply for funding from the department of land affairs or DLA, as it was known then. In July 2005, the DLA confirmed that it had the funding the municipality needed to install the water infrastructure. All it required was an application. The municipality agreed to formulate one, but did not. A year later, the small farmers' trust got the DLA to agree that it could put together the application on behalf of the municipality.

JohnnyH5 via Getty Images

Two years of inaction later, it transpired that a "turf war" between the municipality and the DLA over who could claim credit for the project was holding things back.

The Stellenbosch Sustainability Institute and a local group of engineers intervened and, by the end of 2009, the application was finally completed for approval by the municipality. But the item dealing with its approval was removed mysteriously from the agenda of the mayoral committee meeting and it took another year for the municipality to submit the application, at the end of 2010.

In the meantime, Stone continued farming with too little water on too little land. But at least he was farming.

Since 2015, Stone has been promised money under three consecutive new policies. He has received nothing.

It was around this time that I met Stone for the first time. Working at the LRC, I met the farmers in the abandoned pack shed on the land every Thursday, when we would discuss their issues. Stone always hovered at the entrance to the shed, passionate about discussing ways to get the farmers out of their quandary, but also impatient to get back to the land. He was always threatening to give up, but we all knew he wouldn't – that's not who he is.

At the time, the farmers had started raising funds where possible to put up tunnels, taps and small sheds. But with no means of keeping the local tikkoppe [crystal methamphetamine addicts] off the unsecured land, everything was stolen as soon as it arrived.

Buyers were lining up to contract Stone, the organic black farmer, but with uncertain access to water and no proof of security of tenure on the land, he could never commit.

Surely, things had to change? They did, but for the worse.

In September 2011, the renamed department of rural development and land reform, or DRDLR, told the farmers that because it took the municipality a full five years to submit their funding application, the department's policies had changed by the time they received it, and the application no longer met their requirements. They were told to do it again.

Getty Images

Around this time, then minister of tourism but still passionate about commonage and land reform, Derek Hanekom visited the land. He told officials from the DRDLR and the municipality that support for the project was a "no-brainer".

In June 2012, Stone and the other farmers were invited to meet the latest bunch of white men that the DRDLR would pay to put together a new application – to be submitted back to the DRDLR. Additionally, meeting minutes distributed accidentally revealed that the municipality had blamed the failure to access funding for the land on the farmers. They are difficult, the minutes said. They have opinions. They are not grateful for the little we do for them.

Worse than that for Stone was the thought that money that could have been used to install water pipes was diverted to pay service providers to repeat work that had already been done.

A couple of years ago, the municipality finally acceded to the farmers' longstanding request to appoint someone to specifically manage access to commonage land for small farmers.

Two years later, the expensive application went missing from the DRDLR offices. The municipality was asked to start over, yet again. But as the DRDLR's policy had changed again by then, the farmers were now required to have a "strategic partner", someone to teach them how to farm.

During this time, I attended meetings of the DRDLR committee tasked with approving the application. Here I observed a disdain and disrespect towards Stone and the others, the likes of which I only ever saw matched by the attitude of the municipal official who had been in charge of all property in Stellenbosch since before the new South Africa.

I can recall a moment when, frustrated at the insistence of the officials that they be taught how to farm, one of Stone's colleagues pointed out that the seven small farmers had more than a 150 years of farming experience between them. We are not interested in your CV, the chair of the meeting responded.

Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters

The strategic partner approved by the department was another bunch of white people with no actual farming experience, whose proposal included building the self-esteem of the farmers – at a considerable cost. All they actually needed was water. Stone and the others refused to be forced into this relationship. It was 2015. They had been eking out a living on the land since 2002.

Enough additional time had been wasted by this point to ensure that the DRDLR's policies had changed again, ushering in new requirements. Since 2015, Peter has been promised money under three consecutive new policies. He has received nothing.

There were moments of hope. Around 2013, a new local development official was appointed at the municipality, the kind of person who proves that you only need one good soldier to win a war. But she was pushed out when she criticised the manner in which the municipality went about developing a new land policy.

"I am almost 60 years old now," he says, "and I have been struggling on this piece of land for almost 20 years. But I will not stop pursuing the dream of farming."

She had every reason to criticise. The service provider appointed to facilitate the public participation process – you guessed it, a couple of white guys – invited me to a participation session. On arrival, I observed many local white commercial farmers and those representing their interests. I quickly realised that I had been invited to represent the interests of small farmers, instead of the farmers themselves being invited.

The process required all participants to write their vision for land use in Stellenbosch on little cards. The participants then had to put stickers on the cards with which they agreed. When I pointed out to the facilitator that the process was flawed, given the skewed representation in the room, he responded that it worked well in Sweden.

A couple of years ago, the municipality finally acceded to the farmers' longstanding request to appoint someone to specifically manage access to commonage land for small farmers. But the appointment was inappropriate. The first text message he sent me as the legal representative of the farmers read: "Die kleurlingman het geen dissipline nie" [The coloured man has no discipline].

That was it for me. I gave up. I was no longer willing to fight chauvinism, paternalism and racism in 2016 in the town with the most millionaires and, I bet, the most churches per capita in the country. They should know better. But I had the luxury of choice, because my life and dignity do not depend on access to a tiny piece of land with just enough water.

Edgard Garrido / Reuters
Edgard Garrido / Reuters

Stone has not given up. He is still on the land. He is still struggling – exponentially so, given the water crisis in Western Cape. He told me this week how those neighbouring farmers who did not pitch up on that first Saturday continue to hurl insults at him when they drive past the land. Not once have they stopped their cars to ask how they might help, he said.

So he is excited about the events in Parliament last week. He fully supports the resolution. But he is worried about who will get land once it is redistributed. He has observed over the past 20 years that the available crumbs often go the wrong way. And we need a union for small farmers, he says. We need to stand together.

"I am almost 60 years old now," he says, "and I have been struggling on this piece of land for almost 20 years. But I will not stop pursuing the dream of farming."

Who, then, will step up and make it so?