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Orange Farm, the land-grab blueprint

South Africa

BOOK EXTRACT: PROMISED LAND

Orange Farm, the land-grab blueprint

Land reform and the possibility of expropriation without compensation are among the most hotly debated topics in South Africa today, met with trepidation and fervour in equal measure. But these broader issues tend to obscure a more immediate reality: a severe housing crisis and a sharp increase in urban land occupations. In Promised Land, Karl Kemp travels the country documenting the fallout of failing land reform, from the under-siege Philippi Horticultural Area deep in the heart of Cape Town’s ganglands to the burning mango groves of Tzaneen, from Johannesburg’s lawless Deep South to rural KwaZulu-Natal, where chiefs own vast tracts of land on behalf of their subjects.

The story of how Orange Farm came to be is remarkable in how typical it is, emerging as it did from a boiling fury directed at the apartheid regime, which was temporarily put on ice by the famous compromise negotiated at Codesa.

The first black township in the Vaal Triangle was founded in 1905, just as large plots of land in nearby white farming area Walkerville were devolving into their modern shape. This township was called Evaton.

The original farm, Wildebeesfontein No. 12, had come under the ownership of the Evaton and Adams Company, and the land was sold to all prospective buyers regardless of race, resulting in a mixed freehold community – one of the few places in the country where black people managed to hold onto land that was not necessarily ancestral, just part of fair and equal opportunity. The multiracial nature of the township is reflected in the street names – you’re as likely to drive down Bellingham Street as you are Dumela Street. Today, Evaton has mostly black residents.

Sharpeville came into being in 1935, as part of the relocation of black people working in Vereeniging to an area further away from whites. The project by most accounts was a slow, laborious one, and took twenty years to complete. The Sharpeville massacre took place five years later, and thirty-six years after that, the country’s first Constitution was signed there.

Around Sharpeville and Evaton are four other famous Vaal townships, mostly built in 1955 to accommodate population growth and in-migration – Boipatong, Bophelong, Sebokeng and Tshepiso. Some of the most renowned political violence in South African history took place here – the Evaton riots and the Vaal uprising of the mid-1980s, the bloody factional fighting between the ANC and the IFP in the early 1990s, and the mysterious “third-force” Boipatong massacre in 1992.

Vanderbijlpark, on the border with the Free State, is the southern tip of the Vaal Triangle. Hugging its north, east and western sides are the townships of Boipatong, Sharpeville and Bophelong, respectively. To the north-east lies Vereeniging, and to the west of that, straddling the N1 and the R28, are the far larger townships of Evaton and Sebokeng, the former also being the oldest.

Orange Farm is the blueprint for a contemporary land invasion. It was not planned or developed, and came squalling from the womb of the struggle as the Evaton riots and Soweto rent boycotts intensified. There are several theories about who squatted here first. Most agree that it was farmworkers evicted from the neighbouring white Weilers Farm area. Then came those escaping overcrowding and the violence of the mid-1980s in the Vaal townships. There were, as always, backyarders who couldn’t afford to pay rent. And finally, there were those who expressly claimed territory in defiance of the apartheid government’s rent increases in places like Soweto and Sebokeng. People like Bricks.

They built the first shacks in or around 1987. Orange Farm lurks opposite the Golden Highway and Sebokeng, and is a sister township to the latter in the way that Azania is to Kayamandi, but on a far greater scale, and far older. Orange Farm also has its own Azania, but we’ll come to that.

The first and oldest part of Orange Farm is counter-intuitively said to be Extension 2, where people from Soweto came in great numbers to settle. This was just before 1987. The impetus for the shift started in 1983 when, buckling under pressure and realising that something had to give, the apartheid government introduced the Tricameral Parliament, giving coloureds and Indians the (somewhat qualified) vote and aiming to introduce some form of local self-government to black people in “white” areas outside the reserves and homelands. This latter push took the form of councillors whose salaries were paid by the state, and who were intended to give voice to the township residents. Naturally, they were maligned and mistrusted from the get-go. Right after the introduction of this programme, the state pushed for rent increases in the townships, which the councillors were charged with enforcing.

Some commentators point out that the rent increases were the last straw for many people, as they were unable to feed their families due to the expense. On 3 September 1984, the first day of the Vaal uprising, deputy mayor of the hated Lekoa City Council Jacob Dlamini made the mistake of shooting at a mob that had come to his house in anger. He was lynched and set alight on top of his car, leading to the arrest of the “Sharpeville Six”, a famous case even among the litany of apartheid-era trials. Three other local politicians died, thirty of the protesters were killed, and what had originally been planned as a mass stayaway and demonstration evolved into the most widespread period of resistance to apartheid ever recorded. The army was sent in, and many of the councillors and those under their sway joined them in vigilante action, leading to massacres, arson, looting, periodic mass stayaways and perennial unrest that spread across the country. PW Botha made his Rubicon speech in the wake of the uprising, and South Africa saw various states of emergency declared over the years that followed.

Soweto famously still doesn’t pay for much of its electricity and water. It is said that the uprising created what is referred to as a “culture of non-payment” among many of the older townships; not paying for services is still seen as an act of resistance, despite the fact that the ANC has been in power for over two and a half decades.

Evictions for non-payment came at a huge premium for the apartheid state in places like Orange Farm, where the uprising created the space for defiant squatting and land-grabbing. The Transvaal Provincial Administration (TPA) was the governing body in the area, and after four years it caved and started allocating plots and houses to the squatters, including to the people who had occupied the land that was to become Orange Farm.

“When the squatter camp started in Orange Farm, they came in numbers from Soweto – the backyarders – and they occupied the land,” Bricks explains. “And why? The boycott was a successful campaign that lasted for long – from September 3, 1984, ’85, ’86, ’87, ’88, defying the apartheid government, not to pay the rent. Even the whole world was surprised. Because before, people could lose their house if you didn’t pay for seven days – you were kicked out.” His voice is thick with pride. “But because of how the rent boycott was organised, we managed to push it for many years.” He explains that areas in and around Orange Farm are “where the defiance campaign became strong … promoted by what happened in the rent boycott campaign”.

From there the story of Orange Farm is a story of constant protest and struggle for service delivery, first from the TPA and then from the ANC government.

“Many people thought that in the RDP, land was also included,” says Bricks. “That land will be distributed to those that were denied it during apartheid.”

I ask him what land he is referring to.

“It was all included, the residential, the agricultural,” he says. “The master plan, before ’94, was designed by the apartheid government. Even the township master plan. The idea was to change the master plan of apartheid … The land programme was meant for that, so people could change that.”

Bricks is caught up in his tale and speaks in spurts, his zeal to make me understand the situation often exceeding his capacity for rapid speech.

“The programme was thrown in the dustbin, and the ANC adopted GEAR,” he says. “Opening space for ‘business’,” he adds disdainfully. “Land was also propertised. It is now the competition between the haves and the have-nots. People were never informed about these changes … And then it was the eviction issues, and the introduction of the prepaid metres, and the bond housing … and if you are failing to pay, the bank is evicting you…”

He trails off, and then picks up again as the grievances and resentments strike him.

“And the so-called ‘RDP houses’. Everything was reduced. The size of the yard – it got less. The sizes of the houses built by the apartheid government was fifty square metres, with a two-by-fifty-square yard. After ’94, the size of the yard became small. And then the introduction of the title deeds.”

He pronounces “title deeds” in a contemptuous way and pauses on the words.

“Some people took their title deeds to the banks for a loan, or to the building suppliers,” he says, making it sound like giving a person ownership was an inherently misguided move; as if it was obvious that they would immediately squander the asset. To be fair, this is the exact complaint levelled by detractors against the provision of housing by government. But the fact that housing is subsidised and title deeds are not included hasn’t stopped people from selling and renting on the informal market.

“There was now a demand [for land and services],” says Bricks, describing the years post-1987. “People came in numbers to the administration offices to demand sites, and they started allocating and hoping. And some of the farm owners who were staying in and around Orange Farm, they started selling out to the TPA. That is how Orange Farm [grew] … Schools were developed. Some of the churches came and made requests for sites. There was no transportation from here to Johannesburg. The expansion of the informal settlement grew because people, where they could find open spaces, they started building shacks.”

“So, it’s the same as what’s happening now with the land grabs?” I ask.

Bricks nods slowly. “Exactly the same. It is the exact same approach.”

Our conversation ends. Bricks introduces me to his wife, who runs a nursery next to the office. The couple believe that education is highly important. But, his wife tells me, she wants the land on which the nursery is built, because she’s unable to expand the building otherwise. As I get ready to leave, I ask Bricks about the future.

“What is going to happen is that the ANC will be voted by the minority,” he says. “The National Party [was] a party voted by the minority, because black people were not allowed to vote. And this is going to happen again, because many people are saying they will not go to vote. And if you are not voted [into power], the majority will tell you that you are not representing them.”

There is a pause. “And then what?” I ask.

“They will be treated the same as the National Party was treated,” Bricks replies.

Outside, the sun is setting over Orange Farm, the bloody light spilling over tin and corrugated iron and brown bricks and dust.

“Violence is coming,” says Bricks. “We need to be prepared. We cannot run away from it. You see that message on the wall?” He stretches out a long, thick arm, pointing to the door. “If you don’t give, we take.” DM

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