Opinionista Mark Heywood 21 November 2014

The Great Land Grab

This land is our land. This land is your land... This land was made for you and me.

Woody Guthrie would be turning in his grave. If he was to be reincarnated as a Johannesburg cyclist he would probably wonder whether anyone understood the message in his great song – particularly as its rendition by Bruce Springsteen was once misappropriated by Ronald Reagan and used as a rallying cry for right wing American patriotism. He would ask to be returned right away to that ‘fine and private place’.


Last weekend’s Momentum 94.7 Cycle Challenge (to give it its official name) is becoming one of the great city events of Johannesburg. Each year the road race is preceded a week before by a more challenging off-road mountain bike race. This race somehow still manages to find 55kms of paths and byways across the ever-shrinking rural skirt of Northern Johannesburg.

This year the race organisers developed an exciting new route out from Riversands (once-upon-a-time-not-so-long-ago a farm on the outer reaches of Fourways) along the banks of the Jukskei River, beyond the boundary of the N14 and into what is known to cyclists as Northern Farms, a network of crisscrossing paths on the edge of the beautiful Cradle of Human Kind.

November 9th 2014 was a beautiful morning. A big storm the night before had cleansed the atmosphere and the land. The blue was bright. A light breeze traversed the land and the dirty Jukskei positively roared with its flood of fresh clean rainwater.

One of the features of extreme exercise is that it creates an intensity of thought and a rare awareness of what is around you.

In this case the newness and unpredictability of the cyclists’ route added to both. So it was that after leaving the start and heaving up the first hill, we crossed onto Steyn City, a vast new residential area arising just beyond Dairnfern.

I have often driven past Steyn City and seen its walls rising where once there were fields. But up to now it has been an unknown behind its 10-foot wall. Hidden, like the garden of the selfish giant in the children’s fairy tale.

As exercise and environment merged and released endorphins my thoughts started flowing and building on each other. Unbidden.

At first the path we followed was on the outside of the wall. The lonely wall stretched for a good 15kms — just a big wall snagging through the, at this point, empty land. But what, I wondered to myself, was this wall keeping out? Was it really a fear of robbers and other intruders, or did it actually represent a fear of an invasion of the poor? After all, Steyn City’s next neighbour to the north is Dieplsoot.

These thoughts continued as we continued along the path, past an exclusive school called Heron Bridge and into a natural wonder-world in the Cradle where our road took us along a brook, across fields, past lazy cows; witness to the breath-taking roll of the land. Indeed – as cyclists – part of the roll.

Somewhere in the vicinity of Lanseria airport the route begins to head back to Johannesburg. An iron foot-bridge takes you over the Jukskei River to the inside of Steyn City. Below the bridge black children swam and laughed in the very dirty – but fresh looking – river. Their laughter was evocative.

However, once I encountered the Wall again my initial thoughts returned – and built upon each other. This time we were inside the annexed-off land, hugging the banks of the Jukskei – the Wall now on the other side of the river.

It really is beautiful down there. There is a line of indigenous bush that runs all along the river-side. I noticed a few solitary Herons and heard an excited post-rain chatter coming from the more common bird life. Shantih, shantih, shantih sang the riff-raff.

But apart from the Wall the land is still empty and relatively unspoilt. In a few years it will be different – polluted by pretentious mansions of the type we can imagine before the architects even get to work. They are dime a dozen in Johannesburg’s residential estates.

But still, for now, it is a strange and unexpected oasis, something the English Romantic poets would have celebrated.

And then thoughts came back. With a vengeance.

This patch of land with all its beauty is being stolen. What should be regarded as public property — our heritage, the view of the land, the wind off the river, the coming together of sky and earth and river and its natural populace in a view to be grabbed by any walker on a Sunday morning — is being made private behind a wall. Our land It is being turned into somebody else’s commercial value, a selling point for private developers.

That cannot be right!

I agonized as I rode on. Something was wrong? Yes, people build and buy private homes in beauty spots. That much is accepted. Witness how the rich have colonized the banks of Table Mountain and Lion’s Head in Cape Town. But can they take over a whole tract of land? Its view? Its river? Its birds and bush?

I rode on.

But soon, as if to add insult to injury, another beautiful picture came into view.

The path had once again forded the river and unexpectedly arrived upon a mansion of imposing grandeur. Cyclists stopped in their tracks, literally, to take selfies and wonder at the great imposing home above us. Whose mansion was this I asked? It did not take long to discover that it belongs to one Douw Steyn, the man who gives his name to this city/suburb. Apparently, so the gossip went, it cost more than R250 million to build.

Mark Heywood The great land grab

And then more thoughts came running in.

These inequalities which most people accept as unalterable will be the bane of our lives. I have no beef against Mr Steyn, but I do wonder how and when he accumulated this wealth. I find a tragic irony in the way the not so ‘new’ South Africa allows him recycle it (and further capitalise upon it) by new forms of dispossession.

Whatever happened to the commons?

There’s no ‘Nie blankes’ at the entrance to Steyn City. Probably, quite a number of the occupants of the new city will be those formerly disadvantaged by apartheid and land dispossession. But, domestic workers and gardeners aside, they will be from the new rich, (politicians, senior government officials and tender-preneurs). They will inhabit a place of perfect equality between rich people of all races; they will joy in its peace and safety, wander its secure streets; their children may bicycle, their teenagers may cuddle and canoodle, and the healthy may healthily take advantage of its outdoor gyms, jogging paths and bicycle trails. Good people will live there.

But Diepsloot will always be beyond the walls. And perhaps, one day, the poor will invade.

I would not blame them.

South Africans, this is no way to live. We should reclaim our commons. DM