Frustrated land claimants are battling to develop a farm that could bring meaningful change to their lives. And they are hindered by the very people who should help them.
A farming community in Limpopo’s Vhembe district says the government is sabotaging their efforts to rebuild the farm they won in a land claim in 1999. The 2 400ha Kranspoort farm, from which they were evicted in the 1950s during apartheid, is nestled along the road between Vivo and Makhado.
The owners say government officials and political figures have been hampering their progress in developing the farm, and the situation has been compounded by claimants not recognised by the court trying to occupy parts of the land.
“On this farm we have noticed that some people have decided to occupy the farm without permission from the official claimants. They’re demarcating themselves plots to build on,” says Mariam Mokgadi Molalathoko, 78.
Molalathoko points to the building of the defunct Stephanus Hofmeyr farm school on the property. “I started school [there] in 1959,” she says, adding that the graves of her in-laws are on the farm too. “This is why it is important that we come here, because our forebears are here.”
Delcon Mei, 32, a third-generation resident on the farm whose grandmother is one of the original claimants, says trees are abundant on the property but so is dangerous wildlife. “There are a lot of hazards. It is risky for humans,” Mei warns. “There are snakes such as green mambas.”
Molalathoko’s niece, Grace Molalathoko, 50, adds: “There are even pythons. If you dare to go up the mountain which is part of the farm, you must wear safety attire.”
According to Mei, the claimants have many mixed-use plans for Kranspoort. “Part of the place is reserved for agriculture [cooperative farming] and some part of it is reserved for subsistence farming and residential, and some parts of it are reserved for developing projects. There is even a lodge that’s planned to be built here. We want to make a game farm on that side. There is even a waterfall that runs through the mountain. The river never dries – it is forever flowing.”
But the residents worry that many of these natural resources are being destroyed by people from neighbouring communities as well as the unrecognised claimants. “They cut trees that are protected such as mopane trees and baobab trees. Those trees should not be cut as some of them are centuries old. They cut them with chainsaws,” says Mei. “There are many leopards here and some people have been poaching them.”
“They don’t care, they’re just destroying our nature,” adds Grace.
Apart from logging the trees, the unrecognised claimants have allegedly leased portions of the farm to people whose livestock need grazing, causing more harm to the ecology.
How the missionaries arrived
The land claims court’s judgment in 1999 reveals that the farm’s origins are intricately tied to colonialism. On 13 November 1857, the Cape-based Dutch Reformed Church decided to expand its missionary work beyond the Cape Colony. After a search for suitable candidates to become missionaries, a Scotsman, Alexander MacKidd, was among those chosen and travelled to the Transvaal, which was then known as the South African Republic.
“MacKidd was drawn to a law which required that there must first be an invitation from a tribe to perform missionary work,” explains the judgment. This eventually happened in December 1862 when MacKidd received an invitation from Michael Buys, who described himself as the “Kaptein der Basoetoes”, to come to the Soutpansberg, settle among them and “preach the word of God”.
He arrived the following year, in May 1863, in an area that had been “inhabited by African tribes long before the arrival of the first Voortrekkers, Louis Trichardt and Hans van Rensburg, in the 1830s. These included, principally, BaVenda, Shangaans and Basotho…
“In February 1865, a young religious instructor, Stephanus JG Hofmeyr, arrived … to assist MacKidd. His arrival was timely, as MacKidd passed away on 30 April 1865… ” In his will, MacKidd left the farm to the church “to be used … in all time coming … as a Mission Station for the spreading of the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ among the poor Heathen”.
Hofmeyr took over MacKidd’s missionary work until his death in 1905, when his son-in-law, JW Daneel, became the resident missionary at the station. By 1906, there were 406 churchgoers at Kranspoort. The school and a new manse were built after 1935, when WMA van Coller took over from Daneel, and still stand today.
Van Coller was followed by LC van der Merwe on 27 October 1946. “By his time there were over 800 people living at Kranspoort,” states the judgment. Van der Merwe introduced stricter rules and enforced the payment of annual rent by residents. He also introduced controls on visitors to the mission station. “It was during his term of office at Kranspoort that the events which gave rise to this land claim took place.”
Essentially, a great unease developed between two distinct groups of residents. “It is common cause that … a great deal of resentment built up between what was ultimately the majority of the residents, on the one hand, and the missionary and those residents loyal to him on the other. The former group [was] known as the BaSefasonke. The latter group [was] labelled the BaPharoah, because of their allegiance to Van der Merwe, who was likened to the biblical oppressor of the Israelites,” states the judgment.
‘Heathen’ burial becomes a turning point
In 1953, these tensions between the groups burst into the open when there was a dispute with Van der Merwe and the church council over the burial of a non-Christian woman on the farm. The missionary refused to allow the woman to be buried since he considered her a heathen. In defiance, the villagers took control of the church grounds and laid her to rest.
“The church made enquiries with the authorities as to how they might get rid of some of the people at Kranspoort. These enquiries resulted in an arrangement whereby the authorities would give permits in terms of the Group Areas Act of 1950 to 75 families at Kranspoort. The illegality of the presence of the remainder in terms of the Group Areas Act would then be used as a basis for giving all of the remaining families notice to vacate the farm,” states the judgment.
“On 13 June 1955, the residents for whom permits were not obtained were given notice to vacate the farm by 13 September 1955. Some families left the farm in response to the notice. Others decided to ignore the notices and stay on. They were subjected to repeated arrests and criminal prosecutions during 1956, which ultimately led to their [vacating] the farm. They were not compensated for any losses suffered as a result of the removals.”
Petrus Chuene, 73, who now resides in Indermark, a village about 90km northwest of Polokwane, vividly remembers the forcible removals. “I was alone in the yard, playing with small stones and making cars,” he says. “When the army truck came, I was with my grandmother and she told me that she’s going to plough in the fields. But she lied, she was actually going to the Sifasonke protest.”
By dawn, Chuene adds, his grandmother had not arrived home yet. “I heard my uncle calling my name. It was a little bit dark.” His uncle took him through the bushes to go to another farm. His grandmother had been taken to “Louis Trichardt, where she was [in prison] for three months”.
By the end of 1964, all 75 families who had earlier been given permission to continue staying on the farm were also removed, except “for an evangelist, the teachers at the school and two families who remained as workers on the farm. Some compensation was paid to 26 of the 75 families,” states the judgment.
Long on plans, short of money and help
On 10 December 1999, land claims court judges Alan Dodson and Bakone Justice Moloto handed down their milestone judgment that restored Kranspoort to the community as its rightful owners. In total, there were at least 130 claimants. The court instructed the community to form and register a communal property association, whose task it would be to create a business plan to develop the farm sustainably.
But for the past 20 years, the community has not received any infrastructure development money or operational assistance from the government to implement livestock production, crop and fish farming, or ecotourism. Finally, in February last year, the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development gave the residents a recapitalisation grant of R14 million, which was to be deposited in two tranches. The first tranche would be R11 million, with the outstanding amount deposited once the first amount had been fully utilised.
According to Weizmann Hamilton, secretary of the executive committee of the Kranspoort Communal Property Association, only a small portion of the R11 million has been used because the department has fought the community almost every step of the way.
“The amount of money that was allocated fell significantly short of the estimated amount of money from our business plan. We alerted the department that significant adjustments would have to be made given the short allocated budget, [but] they were not interested in that. Nevertheless, we accepted the revised business plan that will accommodate the allocated amount.”
A large part of the R11 million has been saved in an interest-bearing account. But Hamilton says the department has tried to remain in control of how the funds are spent. “There’s a Limpopo high court order against the non-recognised members who were overgrazing the farm,” Hamilton says. “To execute the order, you have to utilise the services of a sheriff, which [cost] R90 000. We requested the department to assist us to pay the costs of the sheriff, but they refused.”
The residents asked for authorisation to use some of the interest to pay the sheriff’s costs, but the department denied their request. Only now, more than a year since the high court order was issued, has it been agreed that the money may be used for this purpose.
Hamilton says department officials have also insisted on measuring the farm themselves for the purpose of fencing the property. They did an “incompetent” job that left some portions of the farm unmeasured. The executive members of the communal property association have also been denied access to the grant for other structural developments and upgrades on the farm. “As a result of the obstruction from the department, we never managed to utilise the budget,” Hamilton says. “The only expenditure we had is the acquisition of a 4×4 bakkie.”
Included in their efforts to overcome the department’s obstruction, the residents made an appeal last year to Thoko Didiza, the minister of agriculture, land reform and rural development. Didiza was the one who handed the title deed to the farm to the community about 20 years ago and was reappointed to the same portfolio in 2019. But nothing has come of the appeal.
“Effectively, the conduct of the department amounts to a perpetuation of the dispossession suffered by the community at the hands of the apartheid regime,” says Hamilton.
The department had not responded to questions sent to it on 27 May by the time of publishing.