Driving Whites Off the Land

I’m in South Africa at the moment and so it’s entirely appropriate to have a short run (in this and the next couple of posts) of articles about food and land politics here in the Rainbow Nation.

Of the tidbits I’ve collected, this is, I think, my favourite, even if the most troublesome. Jonny Steinberg is a fine author and journalist, whose previous two books, Midlands and The Number have been scattered with profound insight, and deep problems, in terms of the perspectives they omit, and the narratives elevate to an analytical position that they do not warrant.

The last couple of paragraphs of the article below make that mistake again, but with such fresh, thoughtful and compassionate writing preceding the error, this article is still an important and moving testimony…

A community’s self-belief runs dry
•Fri, 17 Aug 2007

By Jonny Steinberg

The people of Lusikisiki have come up with another fantasy of whites being chased off the land to explain the shortage of long-life milk in the area, writes JONNY STEINBERG

AS in many other parts of the country, there is a shortage of long-life milk this winter in the old Transkei town of Lusikisiki.

It is proving to be something of a catastrophe.

Nobody in these parts has laid eyes on a dairy cow in generations and the outlying villages have no electricity and thus no fridges. For many, no long-life milk means no milk.

When a staple suddenly vanishes, people begin telling stories about why.

In the villages around Lusikisiki, the tale that quickly spread during the early winter was that black people had chased South African’s white dairy producers off their farms, taken them over and ruined them. Hence, South Africa no longer produces milk. If things don’t come right, the taste of it will become a memory associated with white minority rule.

I have been coming to this town regularly over an 18-month period. Of the many tales I have listened to, this one is perhaps the saddest and most vivid expression of this place’s soul I have heard.

Lusikisiki is the sort of place that has always needed to tell stories about faraway events in order to understand itself. It is, on the one hand, very isolated: in its outlying villages there are few newspapers, no televisions and no middle class with its sense of worldly connectedness.

And yet the fate of this place has been intimately connected to global market forces for at least 100 years.

From the first decades of the 20th century, these villages have shaped their existence around work in the Reef’s gold mines. When the global gold trade prospered, Lusikisiki’s homesteads shared in the good times.

When the gold industry began its rapid decline in the late eighties, life in these villages began to crumble, a trauma from which they will probably never recover.

A place at once so isolated and yet so exposed to faraway currents inevitably overinterprets the signs that drift in from abroad. Things are always invested with too much meaning.

When aircraft began flying over Lusikisiki in the twenties, a movement arose led by a man who claimed to be in celestial contact with black Americans. He prophesied that these Americans, who had come to know and master white technology, would land in aircraft, chase white people into the sea and restore to Pondoland its former independence.

During the 1918 flu epidemic, speculation raged in these parts that the plague had been brought by the white authorities. When, at the tail end of the epidemic, health officials began visiting the villages with flu vaccinations kits, rumours circulated that they were coming to kill off those the plague had missed.

No Western technology has ever been neutral here, whether medical or aeronautical. In its collective memory, this place is acutely aware that its engagements with the outside have never been benign, that it has been defeated in its successive encounters with whites, that for the past century it has been fighting a rearguard battle of preservation.

With elegant economy, the story about the shortage of long-life milk absorbs much of this history. The idea of whites being chased off the land is a sweet fantasy the people of these villages have indulged for generations. It is certainly what came to mind when the aircraft flew over in the twenties.

And it has seldom been out of mind since 1960, when the great uprising of the Pondoland peasantry was put down with military force, an event that has come to signify in the district’s oral history the moment at which the amaMpondo were finally crushed.

So the idea that white dairy farmers have been hounded off their land is no surprise; it is an image with a long pedigree in these parts.

But from where does the second half of the tale arise, which says that the blacks who took over the farms have ruined them?

It comes from the fact that these villages have been gutted over the generations, their self-belief ruined. They once knew themselves as farmers, but they farm no more. Their men once made lives mining gold, but they mine no more.

There is an unprecedented epidemic sweeping through these villages and despite the emergence of new healers and prophets every day, ancient Mpondo cures are unable to stop Aids.

There is a feeling in this place that it has been robbed, not only of its independence and its livelihood, but also of its wisdom.

And so the idea that blacks have taken over farms is immediately attached to the belief that they have ruined those farms.

As if freedom has come too late, the people now freed are too humiliated, too long ago severed from the art of the possible, to use that freedom well.

* Jonny Steinberg is a freelance journalist.

Published: 17 August 2007