Hopeful Squatters, Angry Owners, A Murder: South Africa’s Land Reform

Last October, Ayanda erected a prefabricated shack made of corrugated zinc sheets nailed to a wooden frame on a hillside in South African wine country outside the town of Stellenbosch. The “bungalow,” as he calls it, cost him about $335. The 29-year-old father of a 3-year-old son, he had been living with his extended family in the crowded Kayamandi township down the hill. But he wanted his own space.

So he put up his shack just outside the township.

On land that he did not own.

(Ayanda asked that his last name not be used because of concern that his living situation could harm his job prospects.)

Ayanda’s shack is one of some 1,400 illegally built homes on the Watergang property, a wine farm. It belongs to a trust held by members of the Smit family, which has owned farmland in the area for generations. The squatters are part of a growing attempt to force land reform in South Africa, where black citizens were barred from owning land in nearly 90 percent of the country during apartheid. Since Nelson Mandela took office in 1994, each leader of South Africa has promised — and failed — to make land ownership more equitable. Now, activists like Midas Wanana, a leader of the squat, say it’s time to take more radical steps.

“The white people grabbed the land, so the land belongs to the black people, not the white people,” says Wanana.

It’s not just a grassroots movement. Newly re-elected president Cyril Ramaphosa has pledged to amend the constitution to enable the government to seize land from private, predominantly white, owners and give it to black South Africans. “It is going to be done within our constitution,” he said, aiming to reassure landowners. “It’s not going to be land grabs.”

Nonetheless there is rising tension over the issue of land reform. In early June, Stefan Smit, one of the owners of the Watergang farm, was murdered in his house. Police have not yet solved the case.

A Squatter’s Life

Ayanda’s life reflects the unfulfilled promise of a new South Africa. Born in the rural Eastern Cape, he moved to Kayamandi when he was 12.

The township began as a segregated community for black South Africans who worked in Stellenbosch factories and the nearby vineyards. As more people moved in, they built crude shacks. The government has upgraded some residents to brick homes, but in recent years the population exploded as migrants flowed in from across the nation and neighboring countries like Zimbabwe.

Living in a shack behind his grandfather’s government-built house, Ayanda hoped to upgrade his living conditions. He wanted his own home for his girlfriend and their son. His resources were slim, and housing was expensive.

But there was vacant land just next door to Kayamandi — the Watergang property.

“We were told that it’s a vineyard land,” Ayanda says. “But that land has been unutilized for more than 15 years.”

The first squatters arrived in May of 2018. A few months later, Ayanda joined them. He said he hoped that by staying on the land for months, he and the others might push the Stellenbosch municipality to formalize the squat and build infrastructure for water and electricity.

“That means the municipality can give us an official go-ahead” to live on the land, he says. It would mean he could stay there for good, he says. “I hope that can happen very soon.”

In the meantime, Ayanda’s prospects of buying his own house have shrunk after his job as a contract security guard ended in March.

‘I fear for my life’

A short drive from Ayanda’s shack, within view of majestic Simonsberg Mountain, is the Louiesenhof Wine Estate. Here, Stefan Smit produced sauvignon blanc, the local red pinotage and brandy. On the vineyard website, he wrote that his great grandfather bought the land in 1896. On a May afternoon, birds chirped on the wooden deck of a tasting room when NPR visited the property. Smit declined an interview.

His lawyer, Ernest Van Staden, confirmed that the land was not being cultivated when the first illegal residents arrived in May 2018.

Smit got a restraining order that barred more squatters from moving onto his land. The police broke down the squatters’ shacks with the help of the Red Ants, a private company specializing in evictions. Smit noted in his court papers that all was quiet until late July, when a worker alerted him that the land invasion had resumed.

“Within a matter of minutes a great number of shacks had been erected,” Smit stated in his court documents.

This time, local authorities refused to evict the squatters. The trespassers had dragged mattresses and furniture into their shacks, giving them the status of residents entitled to protection under a law designed to prevent unlawful eviction.

In August, Smit filed an eviction application to the High Court of South Africa. “Any attempts made to access the property to speak or negotiate with the occupants is impossible as I fear for my life,” Smith noted in his documents. Further, he wrote, “the occupants are in no way bona fide and are … driven by political beliefs.”

The court sided with Smit and ordered the squatters off his property by December 2018 under penalty of forcible eviction.

“January came. They didn’t vacate,” Van Staden says. He forwarded NPR a text message he said Smit received, which read, “yu steel our land we [burn] u alife before court day.”

Van Staden says eventually Smit gave up the battle. He sold the occupied farmland to the Stellenbosch municipality and negotiated roughly $3 million for about 150 acres.

Smit quietly concluded the deal in late April, Van Staden says.

An unsolved killing

Then, on the first Sunday in June, just before 7 p.m., four armed men walked through an unlocked door into Smit’s home, South African police say. They shot and killed Smit. His wife and a friend were present during the attack.

Wanana, the activist, condemned the shooting.

“We’re feeling shame for Mr. Smit,” Wanana says. “He has a family to look after.”

Wanana dismissed claims the killing had anything to do with the land invasion – or he insisted that it was not a reason to stop future land invasions.

Ivan Meyer, the minister of agriculture for the Western Cape province that includes Stellenbosch, told reporters he saw a tie between a recent spate of farm attacks – Smit was the second wine farmer killed this spring — and the debate over President Ramaphosa’s proposed amendment for land reform.

“Irresponsible statements by certain political parties have absolutely contributed to this increase in farm attacks,” Meyer said, “specifically as it relates to expropriation without compensation.”

He called for ramping up rural security in Cape Town.

Professor Ruth Hall at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape, believes that the land reform debate has triggered more land invasions.

“A lot of people have said this debate has given them courage to start to occupy land, to take matters into their own hands,” Hall says.

‘Never Be Able … To Address the Backlog’

Stellenbosch municipal manager Geraldine Mettler handled negotiations to purchase Smit’s land, and she acknowledges “that took longer than anticipated.”

Now, she says the municipality will build housing for the poor on land it purchased from Smit. But Mettler says under the best of circumstances, she could only provide homes for 1,000 families on the land purchased, and they would be selected according to their position on a waitlist of 22,000 people. To house the rest of the waiting list will take a tortuous process of buying land, securing planning permission and building homes.

“We will never be able, if we are going to give housing in the current form … to address the backlog,” she says.

Mettler says many of the squatters on Smit’s land were not on the waiting list or were far down in line. Meanwhile, some people have been waiting for ten years or longer.

“We cannot have a situation where people jump the queue,” she says. “It’s unfair to the people who are legitimately on the housing backlog list for years.”

A Precarious Situation

The people living illegally on what was Stefan Smit’s land have renamed it Azania – a name black nationalists have suggested to replace the name South Africa.

Women in the squatting community carry buckets of water on their heads uphill because their homes have no running water. The sound of hammering echoes across the hillside. Bright-colored laundry hangs over fences. One shack has been converted into a grocery shop.

Wanana, the activist, says he sees a possible blueprint in the Azania land invasion.

“If Stellenbosch is not going to get more serious about the land,” he says — if the municipality continues to act in a way that he believes is ignoring the housing needs of the poor and favoring private owners, there will be more squatting. “We are going to start now to take the land. We are going to take more.”

President Ramaphosa continues to emphasize land reform. In his State of the Nation Address on June 20, he noted that he commissioned a report on the issue as a step in drafting the constitutional amendment enabling land expropriation. And he says his administration will speed up efforts to release public land for housing and farming and has allocated about $270 million to help black commercial farmers get training and target their goods for export.

Ramaphosa said these changes might chip away at the effects of the 1913 law that restricted black land ownership.

“Our people suffered gravely and endured untold hardships as a result of the implementation of the Natives Land Act,” he said. The effects of that law, he added, “are still present with us.”

As for Ayanda, he remains nervous about his precarious living situation. He sleeps on a twin mattress that he has pushed to the corner so it won’t get too wet when rain drips in through his roof. He keeps his clothes in the large cardboard box of a washing machine. When the weather is not too windy or rainy, his girlfriend and son sleep in the shack with him.

“We are still skeptical of renovating and putting proper things,” he says. “We don’t know when they can come and demolish the shacks.”

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