I’ve decided to retain this article on Editor’s Choice as it has provoked a huge response and brings into sharp focus the sort of dire consequences of the ANC’s carelessness over expropriation without compensation. This may be considered as an ‘unintended’ consequence of the ANC’s ‘land reform process’. The IRR has argued repeatedly since the start of the process that this is the sort of dire situation that can spiral out of control. This is the most high profile thus far, most previous acts being against black farmers.

‘It’s mayhem here.’ 

These are the words of Mrs Luan Anderson, whose family has worked the Emerald Dale Farm in the Donnybrook area of KwaZulu-Natal for the past century. Within the confines of a tough, unforgiving farming economy, it’s a large, value-adding operation – a plantation, a dairy and a sawmill – providing work to some 350 people (sometimes more), and sustenance to their dependants, and injecting monthly R2 million into the local economy through the wages it pays.

It contributes to the local community as it can: it has donated land for a community soccer pitch, built a crèche, trained staff for it, provided books to the local school and paid for education opportunities for some of their staff.

For a rural economy where opportunities are often scarce, and the future always uncertain, it’s an asset worth preserving.

Events of the past week have placed that in doubt. Almost entirely unnoticed and unreported outside its own immediate community, an ugly confrontation has developed which bodes ill not only for the farm, but for the country as a whole.

Its origins appear to lie in what is (superficially) a labour dispute. In late 2018, staff at the mill, and later the plantation, went on strike – among their demands being that their Zimbabwean managers (legally documented) should be dismissed. The production manager at the mill left as he felt threatened, but the plantation manager – married to a South African and with a child – chose to stay. An official from the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) intervened in the dispute and tried to explain to the strikers what South African labour law permitted and what it prohibited. 

The strike now over (and a union having begun to organise at the mill), matters continued without much excitement. That was until owner Charles Anderson was called to a meeting on 28 March with a number of people previously employed on the farm, as well as some whom he did not know. The demands escalated from those made during the strike: Zimbabwean employees were to be dismissed within days (by 8 April), or ‘trouble’ would follow.

Anderson suggested to them that they take the issue to a meeting with relevant traditional and ANC leaders from the area before any action was taken. On 8April – a Monday – access to his property was barred by mobs burning tyres. Staff who lived off-farm found it difficult to get to work, and the farm residents were placed in a vulnerable and threatened position. A meeting was hastily convened by the local police commander, drawing in local notables such as traditional leaders and local councillors.

Under duress, he agreed that no more Zimbabweans would be employed and that those currently employed would leave over a protracted period as he found positions for them elsewhere. The protesters refused to budge, and it became evident that what was on the table was that either the Zimbabweans were to be summarily dismissed, or the Andersons were to leave.

Staff were – understandably – unwilling to risk harm by reporting for work. It was an indication of the level of organisation and control of the situation by the protesters that they made an offer to ‘allow’ the cows in the dairy to be milked, but only by certain specified workers and only at particular times – after which, they would be required to join the protest.

In the event, the dairy has remained online, barely, staffed by the family, some supportive neighbours and a handful of staff who braved the threats.

The situation lurched ever more towards violence. Photographic evidence suggested that trees were targeted for arson, and the saw doctor’s house was burnt down. At night, cattle were mutilated – 13 head on the night of 11 April alone.

The Andersons meanwhile sought legal relief, and on 11 April obtained a court order interdicting 20 identified protesters from obstructing access to the property, from intimidating the family or their staff, and from damaging property.

However, in a very disturbing twist, when the Sheriff of the Court went to seek police protection to deliver the court order, the police refused, claiming not to have the manpower to do so. 

Ultimately, and to the relief of the Andersons, a contingent of public order police officers was deployed. They assisted in serving the court order, and some protection has been offered to the Andersons. But whether the situation will be resolved – indeed, whether those responsible for criminality will be brought to book – is unclear. They face deep uncertainty.

That much damage has been done is clear, much of it on a profoundly human level. Roxanne Anderson, Charles’ daughter-in law, has this to say: ‘I left the farm with my children on Monday morning on a planned trip in their school holidays. We have not returned home at the request of my husband as he did not want to have to worry about our safety in addition to the numerous problems on the farm. I would not feel safe being left in our home with three young children, especially at night when William has been going out to move cows and fight fires. I would also like to minimize the damaging effect that the situation could have on my children. Despite trying not to let them know too much about what’s happening, my eldest daughter has been unhappy knowing something is wrong and has said she doesn’t want to return home because of our safety.’

This should concern the country far beyond the hills of Donnybrook.

For this contains many elements of a South African tragedy. The xenophobia, often recklessly stoked by unscrupulous politicians. And the recourse, real and implied, to violence and destruction. It also reflects the failure of the state to enforce its own laws and to exert its own authority.

The Andersons’ lawyer, Hans Jurie Moolman, says that it is unconscionable that the situation was allowed for fester for days before action was taken. It is symptomatic of a long-standing and debilitating malaise: ‘Rural police units are not equipped to deal with the threats they face. Despite assurances from government that land politics will take place within the law, it says something when a police commander gets to decide where his or her unit can assist and where not.’

Indeed, what precedent does this set for society as a whole?

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations. 

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Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy. A native of KwaZulu-Natal, he is a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg). He has held various positions at the IRR, South African Institute of International Affairs, SBP (formerly the Small Business Project) and the Gauteng Legislature – as well as having taught English in Taiwan. He is a regular commentator in the South African media and his interests include African governance, land and agrarian issues, political culture and political thought, corporate governance, enterprise and business policy.