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The Milk House: When histories collide

Ryan Dennis for Progressive Dairyman Published on 24 November 2018

Farming is seldom at the heart of social and political controversy. That is not the case in South Africa, however.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has recently begun to make good on his promise to expropriate farmland owned by the white population and redistribute it to black citizens.

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Currently, 72 percent of farmland is owned by whites, who make up only 8.4 percent of the South African residents. Ramaphosa and his proponents claim such radical measures are necessary to address the extreme inequality in South Africa due to Dutch and British colonization.

He hopes to end the legacy of apartheid, during which the native black population was institutionally discriminated against. Critics call the acts extreme and unfair. Advocates suggest it’s problematic but necessary. Above all, it stands as an evocative example of when the past can make for a complicated present.

The Dutch began to settle in the area eventually known as South Africa in the 17th century, warring with local tribes as they sought to expand their control. Many of them became farmers, called Boers, and remained even after the British took control more than a century later.

The Natives’ Land Act severely restricted the ability of the native black population to own land, after which they retained only 7 percent of their country.

Although South Africa would be granted independence from the United Kingdom several decades later, the white minority would further bolster its dominion by enacting apartheid in 1948, which group citizens according to race and severely limited the rights of the native blacks.

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Apartheid would end in the 1990s, but the significant disparity in wealth and opportunity for the people of South Africa still remains. Today, white-owned farms are often sites of violence as a means of protest, as they are generally remote and hard to police. Last year, 47 farm murders were reported by authorities, with some groups claiming as much as 84 farmers killed.

Previously, the South African government approached land redistribution with a “willing-seller, willing-buyer” model, seeking to purchase agricultural holdings from any farmer desiring to accept the government’s offering price. After finding this tactic to be largely unsuccessful, President Ramaphosa invoked a recent amendment in the South African constitution that allows the government to expropriate land for reasons of public interest.

Thus far, the South African government has filed proceedings to seize two white-owned game farms. The owners of the farms complain they are not receiving a fair price for their holdings and are not being allowed to dispute the claim in a court.

Opponents of the land redistribution see the acts as oppressive and liken it to the policies of Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, who sought to strengthen decolonization through violent seizure of white-owned land, leading to social unrest and famine.

Those in support of Ramaphosa’s efforts, both globally and in South Africa, highlight the fact South Africa is ranked as having one of the highest levels of inequality in the world. With over a quarter of the people unemployed, putting the land to productive domestic agricultural production is seen as the best way to fight poverty and the systemic exclusion of blacks.

In addition, it has been pointed out Trump’s assessment of the situation has been largely misguided in suggesting the seizures have been widespread and unlawful, particularly since such measures are allowed for in the South African constitution.

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The U.S. Department of State confirms this, noting that, in Zimbabwe, Mugabe dismantled the independent judiciary branch of the government that could have checked his power, but that this has not occurred in South Africa, where the land expropriation is accounted for in legislation.

Perhaps the only aspect of the South African situation that is easily agreed upon is: It is complicated, emotionally charged and difficult to evaluate from outside the country. In some ways, it is the collision of two histories. The colonial past of South Africa looms over its people in very tangible and detrimental ways, the black population continuing to feel the effects of oppression originating almost 400 years ago.

On the other hand, the ways in which they were acquired notwithstanding, many of the farms have been in the same family for many generations. Most South African farmers will have strong personal ties to the land, just as farmers anywhere would, and are understandably angry at being forced from it. Trying to resolve a complicated past is not without its consequences.

Some white South African farmers have found an unlikely solution to current circumstances: move to Russia. Russia has 106 million acres of unused farmland and has organized a “charm offensive” to entice South African farmers to relocate to The Motherland to farm.

Currently, there are fewer than 10,000 South Africans in Russia but, according to some reports, up to 15,000 are planning to move to escape the violence and possible loss of their holdings. They see it as an opportunity to continue to farm by attaining inexpensive land in a place they can feel welcomed.

For some, it must also be noted that, amid racial tensions, Russia offers an attractive environment for a jaded white population with right-wing views, Putin publicly condemning tolerance and calls for equality. However, some, undoubtedly, just want to be safe. For those who remain in South Africa, nonetheless, they will continue to be in the center of a difficult process as the young nation tries to redress an old past.  end mark

Ryan Dennis is the son of a former dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer.

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