South Africa's displaced take back the land

...but they face troubles ahead. Mary Braid witnesses the bittersweet return home of Elandskloof's smallholder farmers
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The Independent Online
Jan Dirks, 80, squinted against the sun as he gazed out across the orange orchard, and drew hard on a damp-ended roll-up. There are so many days stored in his old head, he said, that he has forgotten some. "But that day I will always remember. What I remember most was the tears."

It has been 34 years since Mr Dirks, a Coloured (mixed-race) smallholder, and 600 neighbours were burned out of their homes by a white farmer and local police. Mr Dirks, his wife Katerina, and a score of other families have languished since in a squatter camp five miles from their old homes at Elandskloof, a breath-takingly beautiful and fertile valley in the western Cape.

Last week the squatters triumphantly moved back to Elandskloof in the first successful land restitution since Nelson Mandela came to power. They and their old neighbours, scattered all over the Cape, are now joint owners of Elandskloof, which they are trying to turn into a community farm.

All eyes are on them. More than 3,000 land restitution claims have been lodged with the government, and there are tens of thousands of demands for redistribution and compensation for racist land seizures. The future of land reform - one of the most crucial political issues for the new South Africa - may depend on Elandskloof's fortunes.

Just 50 yards from Elandskloof's perimeter fence, Piet Smit, 48, the podgy, blond son of the Boer farmer who ran the community off their land, sits simmering, with his octogenarian mother, on a shrunken homestead - 50 hectares to the 3,000-hectare Elandskloof farm. He is forecasting disaster.

"The government made a law against me," complained Mr Smit, who was forced to sell the land to the government for 4m rand (pounds 561,000) - a little below the valuation price - so it could be returned to the Coloured community. Although he claims to wish them well, he says they will fail. "It is a business, not a retirement settlement," argues Mr Smit, who still does not believe his farm "boys" should vote without passing a test, and thinks South Africa is going to the dogs. Even Elandskloof's supporters admit it faces formidable problems recreating a community and creating a viable business.

The Elandskloof farm was bought by the Dutch Reformed Church as a mission station in 1861, and in contrast to other farm workers, the mission community had some independence. Although they received no share of the profits from their labour in the orchards, people were allowed to farm their own little plots, and had security of tenure.

But a century later, when the Church wanted to sell the farm, it colluded with the government to change the law so that only a white could buy it. The neighbouring Afrikaner farmer, who had long coveted the land, set out to break the locals. He ate away at their plots, confiscated their livestock and demanded they work only his land. When community leaders tried to take their grievances to Cape Town they were imprisoned, and a mass eviction followed.

Anna George, 72, remembers the subsequent humiliations. The first night hundreds slept by the roadside. "The next day all the neighbouring farmers came with their lorries," she says bitterly. "Mr Smit, the farmer, had phoned round in advance. For years they had tried to get us to work their land. Now they knew we had no choice." For the next three decades all the cards were held by the white farmers; within months Mrs George found herself being picked up for work from the new squatter camp by Mr Smit.

There was, she says, no room for pride, even when he called his workers "baboons".

One man refused all his life to work for the whites, but he has paid a heavy price for keeping his pride. The only man left at the squatter camp is Johnnie, 38, an emaciated, wild-eyed man who has put up a cardboard sign reading "Kill the Boer, Kill the Farmer". He is refusing to move to Elandskloof, because he suspects it is all another plot by whites.

And the desperately thin line between having something and having nothing at all is demonstrated on the road between the old settlement and the new. A woman and her three children live by the roadside with a wardrobe, dresser and bed, but no walls or roof. She was the common-law wife of a man entitled to live at Elandskloof, and he abandoned them when he made the move. Now the four of them share the one single bed to escape the scorpions. "She is a casualty of land reform," said David Mayson, of an aid body called the Surplus People's Project. "There will be many more."

Even for those who have won justice late in life, the hardship is not over. The squatters have brought every scrap of corrugated iron and cardboard from their old camp and reconstructed their shacks beside Elandskloof's neat-rowed fruit orchards. More than 170 permanent houses are planned, but they will take time and money. Although the government is anxious that Elandskloof succeeds, there are many others needing social programmes, and money is tight.

Tensions are already surfacing among the 100 or so former squatters who have returned. The Dirks want to recreate the old life - the stone home they used to have, a plot of their own to farm - but they have spent their first week back living in a tent. The younger generation, meanwhile, many now settled in distant cities, want the farm run as a business. Will enough of them return to help, though? Three hundred families now jointly own a farm which until recently supported just its white owner and nine employees. How can Elandskloof attract vital young blood to expand the business when it has so few job opportunities? If more people - particularly the elderly - return how can they be supported?

Time is short, and many fear that Elandskloof will not have a future without help from the very farmers who used to exploit the community. Daantjie Dirks, 77, Jan's brother, is the only surviving member of the leaders' delegation imprisoned in 1962 in Cape Town. "I hated the Boers," he says. "But we need to hire their machinery." The Dutch Reformed Church has given 500,000 rand in recognition of past injustice, but that will not buy a fraction of what Elandskloof needs, and the banks think the enterprise too risky.

Mr Mayson says that the experiment must work. "Black and coloured farm workers and their families number six million," he says. "They live on white farms. If the Boer continues to dominate the rural economy, there is potential for enormous political discontent."

Cornelius van der Merwe was 17 when his family was driven from the land. He has left his job as a cashier in a Cape Town hospital to return as Elandskloof's treasurer. Surveying the valley from the surrounding mountains, he points out the old church, where the entire community once gathered each Sunday and which became a pen for Smit's beasts, and the school, which he hopes will be restored. "I know we can do it," says Mr van der Merwe. "I just know."