S. Africans sow a new crop: harmony Black farmers till their own land

August 09, 1993|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau

TRICHARDTSDAL, South Africa -- Rex Mametja remembers the day a year ago when he went to the Ofcolaco Club to claim a farm on land where he had once worked for sixpence a day.

Except for servants, it was the first time a black person had been allowed to enter the one-story beige building sitting in the midst of mango groves, next to its well-watered cricket pitch, an incongruous green in this drought-stricken land. And this black man was there to claim commercial farmland, almost exclusively the property of white people.

Fearing the worst, he took a seat near the door.

The government had bought these 21 farms from white owners a decade earlier, expecting to make them part of a self-governing black homeland called Lebowa.

For a variety of reasons, the transfer never went through, so the farms, most of which had been rented and poorly tended, were to be sold back to private owners. Nearly 50 people applied to buy them; 18 whites and three blacks were picked. Black people were getting farms that white people wanted. And that's what made Mr. Mametja nervous.

"I picked a place near the door because I thought, if there is any trouble here, I can get away," he recalls. "I looked at everybody and I thought maybe that this was going to be a day of war.

"But I was surprised. They all stood up, shook my hand, said: 'Welcome, Rex. If you have any problem, please consult us.' I was shocked."

Mr. Mametja, who is 41, stands now on the 650 acres of mango trees and tomato plants and undeveloped bush land that he took over last September. It's in a corner of South Africa known as the Northern Transvaal where bananas and mangoes and oranges and avocados grow beneath the towering Drakensburg mountains.

The anxiety of that first night has given way to an easy smile when he speaks of white neighbors who have treated him not as a second-class citizen, but as a fellow farmer.

"I am very much surprised," he says. "I never thought it would be this way. I thought it would be: 'Rex, you bastard, you took our farm. We wanted that.' But, really, it has been the other way around."

As he speaks, a bulldozer, lent by a neighbor at no charge, builds a dam on Mr. Mametja's farm, to capture some of the precious water if the longed-for rains come during the summer months.

"That neighbor told me, 'My aim is not to take your money, my aim is to build you up,' " Mr. Mametja says. "When I first took over, I thought I was going to hit a wall, but people came to help, white people, telling me about testing the soil, how to figure out what kind of crops I should put in, when to plant, what to spray."

Visible from Mr. Mametja's farm is the black village of Balloon. Its small shacks, sparse water and lack of electricity provide a classic portrait of rural South African poverty. Mr. Mametja grew up in Balloon, never dreaming that one day he would own one of the farms where he used to work after school, getting sixpence for a full afternoon's labor.

But while the new interracial harmony in Trichardtsdal seems idyllic, it turns out to be built on the solid foundation of pragmatic self-interest.

Picture isn't perfect

For one, as some of the whites freely admit, there is hope that when a new, presumably black, government takes power after the election scheduled for next April, it will look favorably on a group of white farmers who have accepted blacks as their equals, perhaps thus avoiding threatened land confiscation for redistribution.

And, for another, the three black farmers were all given farms that border on the black village of Balloon, where Mr. Mametja grew up. Cattle from the village stray onto their land and graze. Their produce is pilfered. Though Mr. Mametja expresses sympathy for the plight of his fellow black people and hopes to employ more than the 26 he does now, he is actually considering asking the South African government to build a 12-foot-high fence between Balloon and his farm.

Wiskey Kgabo, an experienced black farmer who is Mr. Mametja's neighbor, has a bitter view of this.

"We are the Berlin Wall of Trichardtsdal," he says. "I didn't want a farm on the outside, I wanted one on the interior. I told them that. But they gave me this one."

Mr. Kgabo also doesn't think his farm will ever make money, in part because, he claims, the government incorrectly cheated him out of about 100 acres. And he, too, has to endure the problems of illegal grazing and pilfering.

"Of everything you do on a farm on the boundary, your crops, your grazing, you are getting only a quarter," he says. "The rest, you never know what happens to it.

"That is why they were supposed to make the farms on the boundary bigger and the ones in the middle small. But they did the opposite."

Doesn't blame neighbors

Yet, even Mr. Kgabo makes it clear that his complaint is with the government, not with his white neighbors, who have treated him well.

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