South Africans Struggle To Reclaim 'Promised Land'

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Promised Land i

Yoruba Richen interviews Ntati Obed Moja, 103 years old. The man was recently given land by Roger Roman, a white farmer. J. Barbee hide caption

toggle caption J. Barbee
Promised Land

Yoruba Richen interviews Ntati Obed Moja, 103 years old. The man was recently given land by Roger Roman, a white farmer.

J. Barbee

When apartheid ended in South Africa, the new government passed a law allowing black people who had been forcibly removed from their land by whites to reclaim their property.

In Promised Land, Yoruba Richen follows two black communities as they struggle to recover land from white owners.

"Not all that much" has changed since apartheid, with regard to the land, Richen tells NPR's Neal Conan. "When the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela first took power in 1995, they promised that 30% of that land would be redistributed back to the black, indigenous people."

That goal's still a long way off. "In fact," says Richen, "it's really less than six, seven percent that's been redistributed black to the black indigenous people of South Africa."


When apartheid ended in South Africa in 1994, it marked the beginning of a huge period of change for blacks and whites, but while blacks today may have political power, many of the economic imbalances of the old South Africa remain, nowhere more so than on the issue of land.

A post-apartheid law allows blacks to claim land they'd been forced to leave. But more than a decade later, the process is painfully slow and fraught with mistrust, missing documents and enmity on both sides. Filmmaker Yoruba Richen went to South Africa to document two such cases. Her documentary, "Promised Land," began airing on public television stations last night as part of the "POV" series.

If you saw the movie or if you have questions for Yoruba Richen about land claims in South Africa and her film, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Yoruba Richen joins us now from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. YORUBA RICHEN (Filmmaker, "Promised Land"): Thank you, Neal. It's great to be here.

CONAN: And we know that under apartheid, whites owned 87 percent of the land. Blacks were forced to live in what were called the bantustans. Apartheid is long over though. How much has changed with regard to the land?

Ms. RICHEN: Well, unfortunately, as you said in your introduction, not all that much. When the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela first took power in '95, they promised that 30 percent of that land would be redistributed back to the black indigenous people. And that goal has yet to be met. And in fact, it's really now less than six, seven percent that's been redistributed back to the black indigenous people of South Africa.

CONAN: And the original policy hoped that the market would take care of this. There would be, as I think you'd described, willing sellers, willing buyers.

Ms. RICHEN: Exactly. And a lot of people feel that that was precisely the problem. When the African National Congress again took power after the first democratic elections, they came in on really what was a compromise. And they - their socialist ideals and ideology which is what, you know, which is how they were founded and what they believed in had to be compromised as they took to the global stage.

And one of those ways in which that manifested itself was in how they were going to do land redistribution. And so they chose this willing buyer, willing seller framework, which means that the white farmers, the white land owners have to be wiling to sell the land back to the government. The government and the farmers would negotiate a price. And then that land would be given - the government would buy it back and then be given back to the black landless.

And unfortunately, that has been problematic on a number of levels. One, many farmers don't want to sell. And so there's ways in which they can challenge the claim. And two, theres been major negotiation and white farmers saying that the government is not giving them the market price for their land, so then why should they sell it back when they're going to have to lose out in this deal.

CONAN: One of the farmers that you profile in your film is a man named Hannes Visser. He has a claim against him from a family that claimed that they had been - their ancestors had been forced off that land a couple of generations earlier. And Visser, though, rejected the idea that he had done anything wrong here.

(Soundbite of movie, "Promised Land")

Mr. HANNES VISSER (Landowner): I did nothing in the past that I should feel ashamed about. If I have to feel ashamed about what some other people has done, (unintelligible) I feel ashamed on their behalf. But this process that they say is reconciliation - isnt reconciliation something thats supposed to come from both sides?

CONAN: And you describe his process. Eventually, his land is expropriated.

Ms. RICHEN: That's correct. And I think what South Africa really asks us to do is, as we look as it goes from, you know - that it - as it evolves from a nation under an oppressive apartheid racist system into a democracy and we see it in our lifetime, what is the responsibility of the recipients of that oppressive policy in terms of racial reconciliation and in terms of building the country? And I think the film really asks that question.

And Hannes Visser is - his story is really evidence, and shows what white farmers and what the white community is being asked and - in some cases - demanded of in terms of being a part of the new South Africa.

CONAN: He did not own that land during the apartheid. He bought it afterwards. He has transfers that showed that the African - the black forbearers sold that land willingly. Yet, eventually, he's forced off.

Ms. RICHEN: Yeah, exactly. I mean, he was - his family did inherit that property, did buy that property during apartheid system - the apartheid system. But it is true that the Molamus, they, in a very rare case, have actually title deeds. Abram Molamu, the grandfather, had title deed to that land, and he did receive some compensation. However, what the descendants argue is that the whole framework in which this compensation was given is - was unjust, and that he was forced - still forced off the land, and the government concludes as they - as the investigation goes on, that what - the compensation that had he received in no way compensated him from that land - for the land that he lost.

CONAN: We're talking with Yoruba Richen, whose new film is "Promised Land." It started airing last night on the "POV" documentary series on public television stations around the country. 800-989-8255, if you'd like to join the conversation. Email us: And Mike's on the line, calling from Madison.

MIKE (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

MIKE: I'd like to ask Yoruba: To what extent is the disastrous land redistribution in Zimbabwe influenced the slow pace of the redistribution process in South Africa? Because I guess in Zimbabwe, a lot of the people whom land was given back to, they don't understand large-scale agriculture. And that has led to, like, starvation being rapid in the country, which wasn't the case prior to the land being given back. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Okay, bye. Thanks very much.

Ms. RICHEN: That's a really excellent point. A couple of things: First of all, the land policy in Zimbabwe, the - that has really sunk the nation in some ways to - you know, to the levels of desperation it faces now, is something that the South African government set out to avoid and to not repeat. And that is why they have a very clear - at least on paper - legal system and legal process to do that, for the claimants to claim a land, for the landowners to have some rights as well, and for the government to play a role in the whole process.

One thing I do want to say is that I think it's really important to remember in terms of what the farmers - the claimants who get the land back and what they do with the land, that - you know, in some ways, of course they've lost the skills and they may be very urbanized now, and so they may not know what to do with the land. But the white farmers who receive that land initially from the government had massive amounts of training and support from the government to build these big agricultural farms that, you know, in Zimbabwe's case, became the breadbasket of Africa.

So, you have to - if you're going to redistribute the land back to the landless, the government has to be supportive, majorly supportive of the new black land owners in terms of helping them use the land and for it to be productive, so, you know, so it does continue feeding the nation.

CONAN: And it's a relatively short time frame, the - Hannes Visser's farm, after it was taken over. But you show us the new black owners going to that farm and telling you on camera, well, we come out here every month or so just to check, make sure there's no vandalism.

Ms. RICHEN: That's right. And they are, unfortunately, still waiting for the government resources that they were promised. They haven't received it yet. And they - what they're doing now, actually, is leasing out the farm. So they own it, and now they're leasing out to a farmer who has equipment and who has the means to actually keep it in production. So it is being used, but they aren't the ones yet who have taken over and made it a working farm.

CONAN: Now, let's go next to Leslie, Leslie with us from Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

LESLIE (Caller): Yes, I have two questions. I watched the program last night, and was very interested. We have been to South Africa. I was wondering, in the first place, how the moneys were raised to compensate the white farmers. And my second question was whether or not any consideration had been given to taxing the white farmers rather than putting them off the land. And I'll take my answer off the air.

CONAN: Okay, Leslie. Thanks very much.

Ms. RICHEN: Yes. Well, the way that the government raises the money to compensate the farmers is through a tax system. I mean, it's a government - that's the way all governments are - have money, is through taxes. So that is how they have the money to compensate the farmers. But as I mentioned, and as you saw on the film, Leslie - thank you for watching - the - there's often very acrimonious negotiations around the price.

And Visser felt, in his case, that he did not get a fair price for his business, for his, you know, for what he was losing. And, you know, he made that very clear. And he says at the end, he doesn't know what he's going to do. And, of course, we do see what happens with him at the very end of the film.

CONAN: He lands on his feet and starts a new business.

Ms. RICHEN: Exactly. So, you know, I think it asks - it challenges us to ask some questions: What is fair? You know, is market always fair? You know, I think that that - his case makes us really grapple with that, if we're going to look at what fairness is for everybody.

CONAN: And there's another farmer we hear from, a man by the name of Roger Roman. Some regard him as an outside agitator, though. He came to see the issue very differently. He said, well, after he'd read "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," he began to see the issue of land in South Africa very differently. And here he is remarking about the process there at the end of your film.

(Soundbite of movie, "Promised Land")

Mr. ROGER ROMAN (Farmer): As a nation, we're beginning to realize that the system we've got in place isn't enough. It's reform, and it's not transformation. We need transformation. We need a system that delivers real transformation, not just slight incremental change. And white South Africans are beginning to be confronted with the reality that there's a cost to be paid for change, that there is a cost that we have to pay for a peaceful South Africa.

CONAN: And when he said we have to pay for a peaceful South Africa, he meant the white farmers.

Ms. RICHEN: Exactly. Exactly. And Roger is a very unique character, I think, for - in any country, really, that he has come to his own - he came to his own personal moral - morality, grappling with what it meant to be the recipient of these racist apartheid systems and how land was fundamental to maintenance of that system.

And so Roger undertook his own personal land reform, where he gave half his land to a community, and he fought the local white government in order to do that. And this is after apartheid. And then he became a land activist. And he speaks very eloquently about - and passionately about the need for white landowners to be a part of the process and to recognize the position that they are in. And if reconciliation is really going to happen - and also not just reconciliation, but if unrest is to be avoided, that land redistribution has to happen and must happen.

CONAN: We're talking, again, with Yoruba Richen. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Mike on the line, Mike with us from Douglas, Michigan.

MIKE (Caller): Hi, I - my comment or question has to do with sort of the economics of the land transfer. And I'm wondering, you can transfer title to the land, the soil that grows the food. But also, if the land is transferred, say, to a black family that originally owned it, if they then lease that property back to farmers in the area, as you mentioned, does that not then create an economic transfer, so that perhaps both win, and a relationship - you know, assuming that most of the large scale farmers are white, that have the equipment and current knowledge -if there isn't an economic transfer that maybe benefits both sides?

Ms. RICHEN: Yeah. I think that that's exactly the case, that, you know, I think that the point is that how the government sees it is that the land, the ownership, the title, as you mentioned, needs to be transferred back to the black descendants, in this case, who originally were removed. And the ideal situation is that the land is being used.

And even if they're not the ones who are becoming farmers or operating the farm, they are still contributing to, you know, the agricultural production of society, of the society, even if they've leased it to another farmer, another white farmer, to use it. They still are getting that economic benefit, which they missed out, you know, through so many years.

CONAN: Mike, thanks very much.

MIKE: Thank you.

CONAN: By the end of your film, though, very little moorland has been transferred.

Ms. RICHEN: That's correct. And that is where we are now. I'm premiering the film in South Africa in August. And they've arranged screenings and forums around the issue to look at what has held this up, and why South Africa is in the impasse that it has been around the land issue.

And as I say it under the film, you know, today, 15 years after the end of apartheid, less than 5 or 6 percent of the land has been transferred back.

CONAN: South Africa is very largely a one-party state. Still, there's politics, sure, but the ANC tends to get elected. Is this - could this become a divisive political issue? Could it be demagogued?

Ms. RICHEN: Yeah. You know, I think that - if you look at what happened with Zimbabwe, the - at the point where Mugabe undertook this what they called fast track land issue is when the - when his party, which had been ruling for, you know, 25, 30 years, started to lose, lost in election, lost seats in the electoral house.

And there's no reason to think that the danger is there for a similar situation. I'm not saying the exact same thing could happen in South Africa. Land can be - it's so combustible, you know? It could really be used as a - in a demagoguery approach, if not, you know, if it's not in place, if the system hasn't been put in place to actually, you know, redistribute the land and meet the promises. And also, too, not just from a political party standpoint, but the landless themselves, you know, are frustrated, are angry, are - feel that there have been broken promises. So, you know, it's a very combustible situation.

CONAN: So, the ticking time bomb. Yoruba Richen, thank you very much for your time today. Good luck with the film.

Ms. RICHEN: Thank you. And I - if I can just add that you can watch the film also online on

CONAN: We were just going to mention that, but thank you for making the announcement for me. Any time you like to come and host the show, you let me know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RICHEN: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Yoruba Richen joined us from our bureau in New York. To see the film, "Promised Land," go to our website at, click on TALK OF THE NATION. We've posted link to the streaming video there.

Tomorrow, rebuilding Haiti six months on, plus reflecting on a classic: "To Kill a Mockingbird" turns 50. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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