White couple, black man battle for claim to South Africa farm

Ed Meyer and four other white farmers in Middelburg, South Africa, are fighting to keep land that a black gardener says his ancestors occupied first. The government is trying to right past injustices without wrecking the economy.
(Scott Kraft / Los Angeles Times)

Like so many corporate executives, Ed Meyer dreamed of retiring to the countryside. And so, seven years ago, he and his wife, Sally, left Cape Town to settle on the 3,500-acre ranch that had been in Ed’s family since 1916.

It’s not hard to see what fueled the dream. Their Cape Dutch-style farmhouse, all curved gables and whitewashed walls, is perched on rust-colored savanna, dusted with the scent of 50 species of blooming aloe. The view from their lawn is an oil painting of gentle hills, puffy clouds and long shadows.

“This is such a beautiful, tranquil valley,” Ed says, digging into a lunch of kudu pie, hot from Sally’s oven. The kudu was a gift; the antelope “was encroaching on our neighbor’s fruit trees.”


But their peaceful retirement was interrupted a little over a year ago when Andries Mahlungu, a gardener in nearby Marble Hall, said the farm belonged to him. In a formal claim with the government, he contended that his ancestors were there first.

Now the white couple and the black man are locked in a battle over the farm -- and, in a sense, over the past and future of South Africa.

The legal pillars of white minority rule came tumbling down with South Africa’s first democratic elections almost 15 years ago, and the oldest of those laws was the Natives Land Act, which had severely restricted black land ownership since 1913.

The challenge that the new black-majority government faced was how to restore land to blacks, in a legal and orderly way, without creating a panic that would drive whites off productive farms and destroy the country’s economy -- a scenario that was soon to strangle neighboring Zimbabwe.

The solution the government came up with was to create a Commission on Restitution of Land Rights to adjudicate land claims and, when valid, compensate the current owners. So far, the commission has settled about 75,000 of 80,000 claims, returning hundreds of thousands of acres to blacks and paying white farmers market rates that have totaled more than $2 billion.

With the deadline for filing claims now past, the government has pledged to settle the 5,000 outstanding claims in the next two years. But the commission is running short of money, and many of the remaining claims, like Mahlungu’s against the Meyers’ property, are being hotly contested.

All across post-colonial Africa, governments have struggled to correct past injustices, with mixed results. In Zimbabwe, violent land seizures have driven away white farmers and sent the economy into a tailspin of mind-boggling inflation and catastrophic food shortages.

The South African government vowed to carefully investigate land claims and provide fair compensation to white farmers. Many of the country’s 40,000 white farmers willingly sold their property.

Even so, the effect on the country’s agricultural economy has not been overwhelmingly positive. Whereas the global trend is toward larger, more commercially successful farms, South Africa is breaking many of its large farms into smaller, less economically efficient pieces to meet the claims of new black farmers.

Partly as a result, South Africa in the last year has gone from a net exporter of food to a net importer. And, in another worrying trend, some of the whites who sold their farms have been recruited by other African countries, where their skills are much in demand. Now once-impoverished countries such as Mozambique are becoming more self-sufficient -- and taking a share of South Africa’s export market.

Piet Kemp is the regional manager for the Transvaal Agricultural Union, which represents mostly white farmers in the province that includes the Meyer farm. He is skeptical of many of the land claims.

“You have a family that has farmed for 150 years and then you have a guy who worked on the farm for 12 or 15 years suddenly making a claim,” he says. “It’s not right. But in the end, many farmers don’t want to fight, so they sell.”

In some cases, whites have sold their farms without a fight because a neighboring property was divided into small pieces for multiple black owners; Kemp says the whites felt it would be too difficult to run their farm “next to a squatter camp.” In other cases, farmers have agreed to sell but the government has been slow to finalize the purchase.

“Much of the farming has come to a complete stop,” Kemp says. “In the end, we’ll be the same as Zimbabwe.”

Molefe Pulane, a spokeswoman for the national land claims office, acknowledges that the process is slow, hobbled in part by a corruption scandal at the Land Bank, which provides money for the purchases. “It’s not going well,” she says. “There are some problems, and we’re addressing them.”

But the land rights commission maintains that the country’s redistribution of land is playing an important role in alleviating poverty and allowing the black majority, who outnumber whites 8 to 1, to fully participate in the country’s economy.

“Everyone has got an obligation to ensure that there is restorative justice for those who suffered the loss of their rights to land in the country of their birth,” the commission said in a recent statement. “It cannot be business as usual until all the victims are compensated for their loss.”

But as the Meyer case illustrates, it hasn’t always gone smoothly.

The Meyers’ land makes up just over half of a 6,000-acre ranch known as Welverdiend, a name that means “well earned” in Afrikaans. The other half is divided among four other white owners, who are also fighting to keep the land. Mahlungu contends that his ancestors grazed their cattle on the entire farm.

Ed Meyer’s grandfather, the son of a Lutheran missionary from Germany, bought his parcel from a white Afrikaner family nearly a century ago. At the time, World War I was just beginning and, as a German immigrant in a British-controlled country, Meyer’s grandfather figured the remote ranch -- in those days a three-day journey from Johannesburg -- would keep him and his family safely out of the government’s sight.

Meyer’s father built a cottage on the land in 1944 and later retired here. When his father died in 1998, Ed was running a company headquartered in Cape Town. In 2001, with their children grown, Ed and Sally retired to the farm, where Ed, now 67, runs 700 head of cattle.

“We wanted to spend our so-called golden years here,” says Ed, a genial man with a shock of thick gray hair and a face burned brown by the sun. “I must say it’s been a lot of fun.”

But the Meyers’ life suddenly was turned upside down when they learned that Mahlungu, a 59-year-old father of five who earns about $550 a month working as a gardener, had filed a claim on the land.

Mahlungu’s grandfather and father had been employed as workers on Welverdiend, from 1938 to 1955, and Mahlungu had lived there as a youngster. Mahlungu contends that his ancestors were grazing cattle on Welverdiend long before white Afrikaners made their trek here from the cape in the 1700s.

Mahlungu recalls his father saying that, generations before, the land had belonged to them. “My ancestors are buried there at Welverdiend,” he says.

His claim illustrates the challenge the government faces in these cases. No records exist from that long ago, and the land claims office often has to make its determination based on such things as old gravestones and the oral history passed from generation to generation.

Darius Masanabo, a project officer for the regional land claims office, investigated Mahlungu’s claim a few months ago, and based his conclusion primarily on headstones he found on the ranch.

“We inspected every part of that area,” Masanabo says. “And the graves were there. The man who made the claim is a direct descendant of the original farmers of the land. It’s a valid claim. The Mahlungu family was there before the Afrikaners came.”

Masanabo says he’s sympathetic to the Meyers’ situation. “They don’t remember Mr. Mahlungu, and they were not the people who first evicted Mr. Mahlungu’s ancestors,” Masanabo says. But, he adds flatly, “if they keep on saying the claim is not valid, [their land] will be expropriated.”

The Meyers acknowledge that the old grave sites on the ranch include Africans as well as the original Afrikaner owners. But they contend that the dates on the graves, rubbed bare by the passage of time, are far from solid proof that whites drove blacks from this land.

In addition, they believe the land claims inspectors are predisposed to side with the claimants in such cases, flouting the protections for whites and other minorities that Nelson Mandela enshrined in the South African Constitution.

“This goes against everything Madiba has stood for,” Sally Meyer says, using the honorary title of elders in Mandela’s clan. “The constitution just becomes another wishful dream.”

A few months ago, Mahlungu, joined by some of the 27 relatives who now are part of his claim, met with the Meyers and Masanabo, the land claims official, to discuss the dispute.

“These are difficult farm owners,” Masanabo says of the Meyers. “They claim to understand but they don’t. The Mahlungu family was there before the Afrikaners came. Some of the Afrikaners came to these farms with only a single cow. They milked the cows belonging to the blacks and drove them away.”

An expensive court fight is now likely.

The Meyers say they’re worried about the fate of the black ranch hands who live on the property if they’re forced to sell.

“We’re fortunate enough to have a home elsewhere that we could move into,” Ed says. “But these farmworkers don’t. We’re fighting for ourselves, but also for the people who have shown us loyalty.”

But Mahlungu says he would allow the Meyers as well as the ranch hands to remain.

“If these white farmers want to stay with us, and if they are prepared to be directed and live by the constitution of South Africa, they are free to stay,” Mahlungu says. But, he adds, “that is my family’s farm. All we’re doing now is waiting for the government to buy it back for us.”

Coming Saturday: In struggling Kenya, one issue rests at the heart of the country’s myriad woes: land.