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AfriForum responds to New York Times article containing South African land debate inaccuracies

By Ernst van Zyl

AfriForum would like to respond to a recent New York Times article (“In South Africa’s Fabled Wine Country, White and Black Battle Over Land”, 9 March 2019) in which the civil rights organisation is mentioned. The organisation would also like to point out some of the glaring falsehoods that the article injects into an already volatile land debate.

“The New York Times article, as well as another New York Times article that it links to, contain falsehoods and rely greatly on a false narrative that is attributed to AfriForum. AfriForum is the largest civil rights group in Africa, with more than 218 000 members who contribute monthly to its efforts. Despite various campaigns by AfriForum to also protect the rights of black communities and individuals in South Africa and despite the organisation’s repeated condemnation of white racism and racist groups, the New York Times persists in describing AfriForum as a ‘far-right’ group,” says Ernst Roets, Deputy CEO of AfriForum.

Obtaining a clear picture of land ownership in South Africa is not straightforward. The New York Times article cites a statistic that “nearly 70% of farms held by individual owners in South Africa are controlled by whites”. Roets says that this statistic is misleading and creates a false perception. Although a land audit conducted in 2014 by South Africa’s Department of Rural Development and Land Reform shows that 79% of the country’s land may still be in private hands, it does not reveal the races of the owners of this land.

According to a 2017 land audit by AgriSA, black South Africans own more than or almost half of all agricultural land in three of South Africa’s most fertile provinces: the Eastern Cape, Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal. Furthermore, landowners who are not white control more than 46% of South Africa’s agricultural potential. In KwaZulu-Natal alone, 45,4% of agricultural land (surface area) is owned by black people. This represents 73,5% of the agricultural potential of the province.

The full AgriSA report can be viewed here:

A special report by the Centre for Development and Enterprise states that since 1994 a total of 17,44 million hectares have been transferred from white ownership, which is equal to 21% of the 82,76 million hectares of farmland in freehold in South Africa. It is quite disheartening that the motion to review Section 25 of the Constitution disregarded the facts about the real progress that has already been made with land redistribution and restitution, and ignored some of the financial realities of farming.

Furthermore, 24,03% of land in South Africa is state-owned, according to AfriForum’s research report. AfriForum’s full Land Ownership Report can be viewed here.

The article relies heavily on emotional language throughout. It reads more like a subjective narrative than an accurate account of the facts:

“They still lived in flimsy shacks in cramped quarters, while Mr. Smit and his friends hold vast tracts of land brutally snatched from African inhabitants generations ago and deliberately kept in white hands for decades to come.”

According to Ernst van Zyl, a Campaign Officer at AfriForum, this statement is historically inaccurate and displays a concerning lack of knowledge about South Africa’s complicated past, demographic dispersion, as well as the history of the wine region in question.

“The Dutch arrived in the Western Cape’s wine region in the 1650s and first came into contact with the Xhosa people at the Fish River (over 900 km from Cape Town) around the 1770s. The narrative that black South Africans already inhabited the wine region in question in the 1650s is evidently false and further escalates an already controversial and contested issue. One needs to look no further than a map of the demographic dispersion of black South Africans to see that this wine region is located deep within a region that historically has never been inhabited by black tribes. The article acknowledges the fact that new black residents migrate to the Stellenbosch region daily, however, which gives credence to the historical absence of black inhabitants in this area.”

It is regularly argued by many South African politicians that “whites stole the land”. According to AfriForum, this is the single biggest historical fallacy of our time in the South African context. There are three ways in which white people acquired land in the country, namely:

  1. Settlement on empty land;
  2. Purchase of land through treaties, cooperation and agreements; and
  3. The most controversial, but least significant, by conquest.

The New York Times article frames the land issue in South Africa as solely stemming from the latter. This significant oversimplification of South Africa’s history is extremely damaging to race relations in the country and only leads to animosity and vilification.

The article demonstrates that South Africa’s politics and history are more complicated than the New York Times can comprehend. Therefore, rather than pushing a false narrative – facilitating racial division and vilification of white farmers – and fanning the flames of racial tensions in South Africa, AfriForum urges the New York Times and similar publications to obtain both sides of the story before injecting their takes into already tense South African political debates. AfriForum is more than willing to provide foreign publications with our carefully-researched statistics and historical facts.

“Let us work together to fight false, uninformed and antagonising narratives, rather than perpetuate them. Some clicks on an inaccurate article are surely not worth the real-world damage it can cause to race relations in South Africa?” Van Zyl concludes.

View the New York Times article here:

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