Can sugar estate pull back from brink of war?

Vast areas of Pondoland in the Eastern Cape remain unutilised despite its huge potential.

Issue Date: 9 March 2007

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Vast areas of Pondoland in the Eastern Cape remain unutilised despite its huge potential.

A land claim on North Pondoland Sugar has threatened to tip this volatile region into another round of bloody faction fighting. But now an agreement to bring all role-players to the negotiating table to solve disputes and revive the estate is on the cards. Stephan Hofstätter reports.

The tragic saga of North Pondoland Sugar (NPS) can be told in different ways. The story easiest to digest today is that the apartheid regime used its homeland proxies to forcibly remove black people from 10 000ha of fertile, well-watered subtropical land near Bizana in the former Transkei.
A white-run company then exploited cheap local black labour to create a large commercial estate able to sell affordable sugar to the rest of South Africa. It’s this version, which cannot be dismissed entirely, that gave those forced to leave their homes a strong legal claim to the land they lost. But the same legal process, which is enshrined in the constitutional principle that victims of racist dispossession are entitled to some form of restitution, not only jeopardised any prospect of peace and prosperity in the area, but also threatened to entrench future inequality and injustice.

The true picture is no doubt more nuanced. NPS estate manager Wilmot Chagi, who is in touch with both growers and claimants, offers a different version. He believes the plantation’s political roots lie with the need by dictators George and Kaizer Matanzima to head off popular discontent – not in producing cheap commodities for white consumers.

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Where the injustice started n the 1960s and 1970s the apartheid government intensified its drive to “repatriate” all black people whose labour was declared superfluous. Many returned to recently declared independent homelands. Any layoffs in mining, industry or commercial farming therefore resulted in an influx of angry, able-bodied young men spoiling for a fight. “Many of the people here were laid off from sugar estates in KZN, which was why a sugar estate was established here. But the purpose was job creation to head off revolt,” Chagi says.

The idea was to clear settlements on 10 000ha that fell under the jurisdiction of the Imizizi Tribal Authority, with equivalent plots allocated elsewhere. In reality people were moved to inhabited areas, causing simmering tensions because their host communities were forced to share scarce land. “It was coercive but the intention was noble – job creation,” Chagi says. “The perception that it was a white company exploiting blacks arose because in those days management was white.” In the early 1980s the holding company NPS, wholly owned by the parastatal Transkei Agricultural Corporation (Tracor), was set up and a 200ha demonstration farm established. The rest of the land would be divided among outgrowers but continue to be maintained and managed as a single unit by NPS. Outgrowers were expected to pay NPS a levy in return for this service, and be provided with training, technical support and assistance with inputs and transport. C hagi says all families living in the Imizizi district – including those removed from the land – were eligible to apply for a 10ha holding. “But some chose not to and grew jealous of the growing prosperity of the growers,” Chagi says.

Ugly face of division

After the claim was lodged in 1995 tensions soared. Growers had their fields burned by arsonists, and many blamed the claimants or “queue jumpers” – people who wanted to be first in line when the new government reallocated the land. Faction fighting continued in the district, often resulting in bloodshed, and land invasions increasingly ate into the original estate boundary.
Growers had also stopped paying levies and NPS withdrew its estate management services. These were supposed to be taken over by the growers, but the estate was simply left to go downhill, and production plummeted. “There is plenty of potential here. The rivers that run through the estate could be mined for sand worth millions. Sugar production could be revived. And there is over 1 000ha under timber. It is shameful that development could happen but isn’t,” Chagi says. He believes it would be a grave mistake to reserve claimed land exclusively for claimants. “The reality is that some of the growers were removed and some of the claimants were not removed,” he says. “Instead of righting the wrongs of the past, the way the claim is being handled is just dividing people. These divisions will create bloodshed. People are already saying the day the title deed is transferred to the claimants they will commit murder.” Tribal authorities in for a piece of the pie A major source of conflict is the fact that traditional authorities have apparently been totally excluded from the claims process. Chagi’s suggestion to solve this is to transfer title to a legal entity, such as a trust or communal property association, created by the tribal authority representing everyone in Imizizi. The authority would then lease land to owners of commercial projects.

At the end of last year the growers sent a letter to the Land Claims Commission (LCC) with a stark choice: grant title to the traditional authority and not the land claimants if you want to avoid bloodshed. Officials were never going to accede to this demand, as it runs counter to land reform law. But it had become clear to the LCC that any settlement would need to accommodate the expectation of claimants, growers and the broader community. The case had also been held up in court for years by the growers, who argued transferring title to the claimants would violate their lease agreement with Tracor. But an out-of-court settlement was reached last October when the court ruled the leases had no standing because Tracor had been liquidated. These delays simply heightened frustrations and the likelihood of bloodshed. A solution acceptable to all had to be found urgently. “The small growers would like the status quo to continue but we have a constitutional mandate to execute,” says Eastern Cape LCC official Zama Memela. “But we have tried to accommodate them.”

Can all be pleased?

Measures now include an agreement that leases would be honoured until the end of 2008 and assurances that growers would not be excluded from the settlement. “We have done all we could to ensure a peaceful solution. But unfortunately we cannot please everyone,” Memela says. “I can assure you there will never be an end to the conflict in that area.” Chief land claims commissioner Tozi Gwanya is more optimistic. “We have been in discussions with the agriculture MEC Gugile Nkwinti, and have his full support. We are talking with Illovo and have its support. We are finalising a legal entity and now all parties agree on the substance of the settlement,” he says. Land and agriculture minister Lulama Xingwana wants a settlement acceptable to all ready by the end of March, he says. “I believe we can do it.” |fw