Who Owns South Africa

The remnants of Jansen’s childhood home. After his family was evicted, he said, “the mayor flattened the house.”Photograph by Pieter Hugo for The New Yorker



There is a good paved road that runs into McGregor, a pastoral village at the foot of South Africa’s Riviersonderend Mountains, but it stops at the edge of town. When the road was cleared and paved, in the nineteen-twenties, the plan was to keep going through the mountains toward Cape Town, but that project, like many other public works that followed, was abandoned before completion. Consequently, McGregor has a sleepy, almost otherworldly feel. Summers are long, winters are mild, and the soil is fertile: fences along the dusty roads crawl with hot-pink Zimbabwe creeper and orange Cape honeysuckle. The sun is so strong that, when clouds go by, the sky turns not gray but almost white.

There are a handful of flourishing vineyards in the vicinity, but even small plots teem with growth. On a half acre behind his house, a seventy-year-old retiree named Gawie Snyders grows pumpkins, onions, green beans, lettuces, grapes, stone fruit, and roses. “I am a farmer without a farm,” Snyders, a voluble man with brown skin and a bald head, declared one afternoon, looking at his garden. “I know how to prune apricots, peaches, plums—you name it. I worked on a contract basis: forty people on a truck and I prune your farm. That is how I make my money. I harvest your farm.” He was sitting at a picnic table, surrounded by chickens, a litter of puppies, several neighbors, and two men he employs to help with his crops: they were sorting through plastic buckets of pears harvested from Snyders’s half-dozen fruit trees. “They are not working hard now,” he grumbled, gesturing toward the workers. “They are looking at you, because they have never seen a white woman sitting next to me. It’s apartheid, my girl—apartheid never dies. Apartheid will be with us for a very long time.”

Once the paved road enters McGregor, it is called Voortrekker, or “pioneer,” for the Dutch colonists who travelled inland from the Cape by ox wagon. To the north of the road is the white part of town, with stately Georgian houses and cars in every driveway. To the south, where Snyders grows his pears, the houses are mostly thatched cottages, and the residents are what South Africans call “colored”: the mixed-race descendants of the Dutch, their Malay slaves, and the indigenous people, the Khoi and the San.

But, according to a legal claim that Snyders and seventy of his neighbors have launched, all of McGregor—and miles of prime farmland surrounding it—rightfully belongs to them. They are the progeny of sixty-seven farmers who purchased property in the area from a local reverend after the British wrested control of the Cape Colony from the Dutch. Snyders set on the table a copy of the deed of transfer—dated 1888, signed by the colonial governor, and noting a payment of a hundred and thirty-seven pounds and ten shillings. Next to it he placed a group photograph of the original farmers, brown men in suits—and one woman—seated in four rows. Snyders pointed out the resemblance between one of the men in the picture, William George Page, and Page’s great-granddaughter, Elizabeth, who was sitting on a rickety bench next to the pear sorters, shooing away a chicken.

“I started my research in 1971,” Snyders said, riffling through a substantial stack of papers. “The old people who lived here used to come to my house and talk about how their land had been robbed from them, and I was always interested in their stories. Then I went out to the archives in Cape Town: I search, search, search, search!” The claim, which will be submitted to the courts in June, posits that Snyders and his neighbors were dispossessed of twelve thousand acres during apartheid, when eighty-five per cent of South Africa’s arable land came under the control of white farmers. “We want our land back—that is all,” Snyders said. “That we can prosper, as in years before.”

Inside, Snyders has a picture of Nelson Mandela hanging next to snapshots of his grandchildren, but he is not a fan of the contemporary version of Mandela’s party, the African National Congress, which has been in power since South Africa’s first democratic elections, in 1994. He was disgusted with former President Jacob Zuma, who, after nine singularly unprincipled years in office, stands accused of sixteen counts of corruption, fraud, and racketeering. Snyders was frustrated by “load shedding,” the daily periods without electricity imposed by South Africa’s state-owned power utility, whose leaders had been compelled that week to appear before a parliamentary commission investigating corruption. “Politicians, they’re just there to steal!” Snyders said. “We believe in: Grow something! Work with your hands! Not sitting on your ass and talking a lot of crap in Parliament.” He was encouraged, though, by a new position taken up under President Cyril Ramaphosa, who came to office in 2018: a proposed amendment to the constitution that would allow for land to be expropriated without compensating its owners, which Snyders hopes will help with their case.

By his own admission, Snyders is not a “worldly gentleman.” He blames the droughts that have been plaguing McGregor partly on global warming, and partly on the influx of gays and lesbians into the village. “That’s why it’s not raining anymore, as a punishment,” he explained. But his understanding of land reform in South Africa is not so different from that of another impressionable septuagenarian, the President of the United States. Last August, Trump tweeted his concern about “the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers.” Trump was responding to a report he’d seen on Fox News, in which Tucker Carlson warned, inaccurately, that Ramaphosa had already begun “seizing land from his own citizens without compensation because they are the wrong skin color.” In truth, the matter is far from settled: the proposal has been fiercely debated in Parliament, on social media, and at dinner tables across the country since it was first announced, after the A.N.C.’s 2017 convention. The Pan South African Language Board, which tracks the incidence of words on social media, named “expropriation without compensation” the term of the year in 2018. The issue has been a significant factor in campaigns for South Africa’s elections, on May 8th: the opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, argues that, if the amendment is passed, it will further erode the nation’s already faltering economy and give undue power to a tainted government.

To Snyders, it’s very simple. “All the white people in McGregor know: they are on other people’s land. It belongs to us.” Gesturing toward his garden, he said, “This is a small piece of land. What could we do with a whole farm? If we are successful with our land claim, I must buy Mr. Ramaphosa a case of whiskey!” Elizabeth Page pointed out that Ramaphosa doesn’t drink. Snyders shrugged. “If this thing happens, it will be a turnover just like this,” he said, snapping his fingers. “I will come to your door, and I will say, ‘Look here, my Lady Girlie, you are on my property.’"

Before it was called McGregor, the village where Snyders lives was named Lady Grey; there is an art gallery by that name on Voortrekker Street. Lady Grey was the wife of Sir George Grey, a governor of the Cape Colony in the eighteen-fifties. As the colonists opened mines and built farms, Grey saw in the black population a source of disposable workers. He vowed that they would be “marched into the colony under their European superintendents, unarmed and provided only with implements of labor,” and “marched out of the colony in the same manner when employment ceases.” In 1894, Prime Minister Cecil John Rhodes named a bill for Grey, which restricted Africans to segregated regions of the Cape and limited the amount of land they could hold. Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, who is a judge and the author of “The Land Is Ours,” a history of dispossession and resistance by black lawyers, told me that the law forced the Xhosa, the cattle herders who made up most of the colony’s black populace, to give up their traditional livelihood. “The wealth of Africans at the time was measured in cattle, and the reduction of hectares you could keep reduced the number of cattle you could graze,” he said. “They had to be pushed off their land and deprived of cattle to make them dependent on the new economy imposed on them—the wage economy.”

The Glen Grey Act was the first piece of legislation to enshrine in law the residential separation of the races. It was also the basis for the notorious Natives Land Act of 1913, which in its final form allocated a mere thirteen per cent of all arable land to the black majority. This land was held in “native reserves,” under the authority of African chiefs. There were no individual property rights on the reserves, so no land could be sold—which meant that black people could make no money from their assets.

In 1948, the Afrikaner National Party came to power and began instituting ever more elaborate systems of racial categorization, determining who could live where and with whom: nonwhite South Africans were pushed to the peripheries of cities and towns, and were divided, based on their tribal background, into ten rural regions, called Bantustans. This policy enabled the government to declare that there was no black majority in South Africa, only a collection of disparate ethnic groups. More than three and a half million people were removed from their homes in rural areas. Their land was expropriated without compensation and sold at low prices to white farmers. Under apartheid, eighty-five per cent of South African land was reserved for whites, who made up some seventeen per cent of the population. (As of 2011, when the last census was taken, the country was seventy-nine per cent black, nine per cent white, and nine per cent colored.)

David Jansen, a neighbor of Gabriel Snyders’s, was born the year before apartheid began, and he spent his childhood raising cattle with his parents outside town. He now lives above a shop, and pays a white man on the other side of Voortrekker Street to keep his three cows in the yard at night; every day he grazes them in the bush on the edge of town. One afternoon, he took me into the mountains, where he was brought up, in a small brick house that his mother had inherited from her parents. He grew up playing outside, where there was nothing but open land for the family’s cattle to graze. When Jansen was in his early teens, his parents died, and he moved into town with his older brother to attend school. Around that time, the brothers started noticing fencing going up around their parents’ land. The mayor told them that they had no right to their property, and that their house would be dismantled. They could continue to graze livestock there only if they paid rent. “They asked us for money—but we didn’t have money, you must understand,” Jansen said. “The mayor flattened the house to the ground.” He pointed out a pile of bricks grown over with fynbos plants—the remnants of his home—and showed me the tree that marks the graves of his parents and his grandparents. It was all behind a wire fence, which he was afraid to pass.

The A.N.C. was concerned with land from the beginning; the Party was formed largely in reaction to the Glen Grey Act and the laws that followed. When the A.N.C. took power, in 1994, it saw land reform as the “central and driving force of a program of rural development” meant to redress centuries of injustice. There would be a land-claims court to adjudicate restitution for anyone who had been dispossessed of property; in order to avoid conflict, a “willing seller, willing buyer” policy would be instituted, in which landowners were asked to voluntarily sell their land to the government so that it could be restored to those with legitimate claims. A system of tenure reform would secure formal property rights for people who had lived for decades in places that they could not legally own. And, finally, the A.N.C. pledged to redistribute thirty per cent of the country’s farmland within five years. Twenty-five years later, it has managed roughly eight per cent. White South Africans own seventy-two per cent of the land held by individuals in the country. Ngcukaitobi told me, “Land represents, in the most graphic way, racial inequality in South Africa—still. The ownership of land as entrenched in 1913 has not changed.”

The failure of land reform is one of the reasons that South Africa is among the most unequal societies on earth. Unemployment is at thirty-seven per cent. Only thirteen per cent of South Africans earn more than six thousand dollars a year. The education system is in shambles: nearly eighty per cent of nine- and ten-year-olds fail simple tests of reading comprehension. To add to the woes of South Africans, some seventeen billion dollars disappeared from state coffers under Jacob Zuma, and is still being pursued by the courts.

All of this helps explain the rise of a politician named Julius Malema—Juju to his supporters. Malema, the former head of the African National Congress Youth League, was first a protégé of Zuma’s and then an antagonist, railing against Zuma’s “self-seeking greed” and calling him a thief. After being expelled from the A.N.C., Malema founded his own political party, the Economic Freedom Fighters—a “radical, left, and anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movement.” The E.F.F.’s position is that all South African land—as well as all banks and mineral rights—should be nationalized to rectify economic inequality.

Malema’s campaign billboards advertise him as a “son of the soil,” but he drives a Mercedes-Benz and wears a seventeen-thousand-dollar Breitling watch. In 2009, fending off accusations of corruption, he told the South African journalist Debora Patta that he identified with the underprivileged. “I am the poor,” he said. “If you are going to define richness on the basis of material clothes and cars, then that’s something else.” Targeting South Africa’s vast underclass for votes, the E.F.F. criticizes the A.N.C., but it demonizes South African whites. “Even under the so-called democracy, you are subjects, you are servants of white people,” Malema said, at a rally in 2016. “I am here to disturb the white man’s peace. The white man has been too comfortable for too long.” Malema concluded, “We are not calling for the slaughtering of white people, at least for now. . . . But, white minority, be warned: we will take our land—it doesn’t matter how.” The E.F.F. is currently the third-largest party in Parliament, with six per cent of the vote.

Malema’s provocations fuel zealots eager to frame what is happening in South Africa as part of an international “white genocide.” A mini-genre of documentary has emerged in which a crusading blonde from a foreign land comes to South Africa to investigate the move toward expropriation without compensation, and relates it to the ghastly phenomenon of plaasmoorde—a term that translates literally as “farm murders” but encompasses all forms of violence inflicted on farmers during home invasions. In “Plaasmoorde: The Killing Fields,” the British right-wing gadfly Katie Hopkins asserts, “Whites are being systematically cleansed from the land by black gangs. Black gangs are supported by the language and actions of mainstream politicians.” As evidence, she cites Malema’s rhetoric, but also the A.N.C.’s push for a constitutional amendment. “I look around at these persecuted whites living in gated communities,” Hopkins concludes, mournfully, “and I wonder if apartheid ever really went away. It seems the only thing that has shifted is who has the power.” The young alt-right Canadian Lauren Southern tells a similar story in her documentary “Farmlands,” asking whether there is a “white genocide going on right now” in South Africa, where the “government’s anti-white rhetoric is now being realized in legislation to take white land.”

Ernst Roets, the deputy head of the Afrikaner civil-rights organization AfriForum, appears in Hopkins’s film, and is a favorite of the right-winginternational media; he has discussed expropriation on Tucker Carlson’s show. When I visited him at his headquarters, in an office plaza outside Pretoria, he was wearing glasses and a blue shirt with the AfriForum logo stitched along the pocket, which gave him the look of an I.T. specialist. “Afrikaners are the villains of South Africa, because of our history,” he said.

They are the remnants of a ruling class—the descendants of the employees of the Dutch East India Company, who arrived in the late seventeenth century, and now constitute about sixty per cent of South Africa’s four and a half million white citizens. The National Party, which instituted apartheid, was established specifically to secure their interests. In those days, their language—Afrikaans, a creole sometimes referred to as Low Dutch—was imposed on nonwhites. The 1976 Soweto Uprising—in which some twenty thousand students marched, and several hundred were killed by the police—was held to protest the mandatory use of Afrikaans in schools. Now Afrikaans both unites and divides the country; it is the basis of a white-identity movement, but it is also the first language of three-quarters of colored South Africans. Moenier Adams, a musician from the Cape Flats, the sprawling region outside Cape Town where hundreds of thousands of black and colored South Africans were forcibly resettled under apartheid, has a song that describes the language he grew up speaking as a “history book without a cover, of a white guy looking for a brown-skinned lover.”

Traditionally, there has been friction between whites of English descent and Afrikaners. “I think that tension has lessened as a result of current government policies,” Roets said. “White English and white Afrikaans people are sort of pushed together into one bigger group with common concerns.” They are united, he thinks, by a shared sense of siege. “Political leaders . . . actively and continuously vilify white farmers in particular and even go as far as romanticizing violence against them,” Roets writes, in his book “Kill the Boer”—a phrase, meaning “kill the farmer,” that is also the refrain of a song Julius Malema and his supporters sometimes sing at rallies. AfriForum’s Web site declares that its mission is to insure that “Afrikaners—who have no other home—are able to lead a meaningful and sustainable existence, in peace with other communities,” but the organization is increasingly broadening its messaging to advocate for “minority rights.” Roets recently co-produced “Disrupted Land,” a documentary, in English, which argues that white colonists arrived in the Cape at the same time as Bantu-speaking black groups, giving them equal claim to the land. (Robert Edgar, a professor emeritus of African history at Howard University, told me that mainstream historians reject this idea. “That one has been around since the nineteenth century—the myth of the empty land,” he said. “Bantu-speaking groups would have been well established in that area several centuries before the Dutch showed up.”) In the past decade, AfriForum’s membership has shot up from nine thousand to more than two hundred thousand.

Roets does not deny that apartheid was a moral catastrophe. “Everyone agrees it was a horrible system,” he said. “I’m sure it’s less than one per cent within the white community that thinks otherwise.” But he believes that the goal of land reform should be to reward people with provable legal claims, not to alleviate the lingering damage of South Africa’s racial history. “It’s wrong to say that dispossession happened to all black people or that it was committed by allwhite people across the entire surface of South Africa,” he told me. “Of course, then people say, ‘Oh, so you’re pro-apartheid.’ No! We are free-market people.” On his bookshelf, Roets had a bust of Ronald Reagan. “We want the state to be small and out of the way. Apartheid was a big-government system.”

Roets dismisses the term “white genocide.” “Farming is an occupation—you can’t have a genocide against an occupation,” he said. But, he argues, “there is a large-scale killing of farmers.” AfriForum has verified fifty-four murders of farmers in 2018. The police count sixty-two, of whom forty-six were white. These killings constitute only two-tenths of one per cent of the homicides in South Africa. But to Roets and his constituents they represent part of a politically motivated strategy to push white people off a continent that they have inhabited for hundreds of years. “In the vast majority of farm attacks the attackers have stated that they were primarily motivated by the intention to rob,” he writes. But he asserts that they are also influenced by “hate speech, land reform, labor disputes, racism.” He has pleaded his case before the United Nations, and to politicians in Australia, the United States, and Germany, hoping that they will press the A.N.C. to address farm murders and to abandon plans for expropriation without compensation.

In “Farmlands,” Lauren Southern warns of a coming race war—“an ever more realistic bloody future in South Africa.” She interviews Jeanine Ihlenfeldt, a third-generation white farmer in the Eastern Cape, whose father, Schalk Featherstone, was shot to death by a black former employee in 2015. The camera follows Ihlenfeldt as she weeps in her father’s living room, the site of his murder. Southern suggests that the attack was a straightforward act of politically motivated racial hatred. She neglects to mention that the murderer was previously convicted of stealing a pickup truck from Featherstone and spent time in jail for the crime. “It was just retribution: ‘You put me in jail for stealing your bakkie, I’m going to kill you,’ ” Ihlenfeldt told me. The perpetrator was on tik—South African meth—at the time of the killing; he had stabbed his girlfriend to death a few days earlier. (He is currently serving a life sentence.)

“I felt exploited,” Ihlenfeldt said of Southern’s film, when we met in February. Ihlenfeldt, a fifty-four-year-old mother of two with short white hair, told me that she was interviewed under false pretenses. “Another farmer phoned me to say he’s got this Canadian chickie doing a documentary about the drought—can he bring her to me? Hence, I was in my farm boots and my shorts, to go and show them the effect of the drought on the farm, and Lauren sat down and said, ‘Tell me about your dad.’ Completely caught me off guard.”

We met in the town of Graaff-Reinet, near the farm where Ihlenfeldt grew up, and to which she had returned after her father’s murder. Ihlenfeldt and her husband, Pete, do not think her father’s killing was politically motivated, but they are convinced that there is no future for them—or for white people in general—in South Africa. “My son spent four years at university, but because he’s white he doesn’t get the job,” Ihlenfeldt said. “Our kids are saying now, ‘I want to get out of this country,’ because of entitlement.” Ihlenfeldt was referring to Black Economic Empowerment legislation, which rewards companies that hire black employees and penalizes those that don’t. “The only way is to leave,” she said. “Middle-income people, the tax base, they’re leaving every day.”

South Africa is still a place in which it is highly advantageous to be white. The average white person there earns five times as much as the average black person. (In McGregor, people of color cross to the white side of Voortrekker Street every day, to tend gardens, clean houses, build fences. White people are rarely seen on the colored side.) Yet many whites feel that their status is threatened. In the past two decades, according to estimates, some four hundred thousand more whites have left the country than have moved in.

The Ihlenfeldts may follow. After seeing Southern’s film, a German legislator contacted them with an offer. “He’s part of this committee that’s been tasked to look into farm attacks and get farmers to Germany,” Pete said. “If we arrive tomorrow with the clothes on our back, politicians there will give us asylum. They’ll give us a safe house for six weeks. They’ll feed us. They’ll clothe us. They’ll try to find us jobs.” Peter Dutton, Australia’s minister of Home Affairs, has expressed the intention to do something similar; in March, 2018, he announced that, owing to the “horrific circumstances” faced by white South Africans, his department would give “special attention” to any of them seeking to immigrate to a “civilized country like ours.” (The statement was condemned by Human Rights Watch, and an Australian senator said, “The bloke is an out-and-out racist.”)

Pete Ihlenfeldt hopes to see foreign intervention in South Africa. “I think they should back us, to stop the farm murders,” he said.

“How?” Jeanine asked sharply. There are some twenty thousand homicides a year in South Africa. Would foreign forces guard only the white farms? “It’s not a genocide,” she said, shaking her head. “You must understand: Afrikaans culture is completely different from English. They are far right—that’s why they love that word, ‘genocide.’ ”