Community Transformation Through Land, Water, and Agricultural Reform

Community Transformation Through Land, Water, and Agricultural Reform

Day 3: Cape Town, South Africa—Access to Land, Agrarian Reform, Women & Farmworker Rights

Our purpose: We are in South Africa to learn from and with allied activists and sister movements on how we can build global movements for liberation and social change.

Our Day’s Itinerary:

  • Community Site Visits with Surplus People Project

 

One of the key ways apartheid perpetuated violence in South Africa was by forcing black communities off their land and prohibiting them from owning land. Since apartheid ended, South Africa has struggled to rectify this, with rural women farmers suffering the most. Today was all about gaining a greater understanding of this oppression, and to see the work being done by these communities to change conditions for the long-term.

Our community visits were organized by the Surplus People Project, a partner of the International Development Exchange (IDEX), which works to support the struggles of impoverished rural communities. In the 1980s, the Surplus People Project supported South Africa’s black communities to resist forced removals, evictions, and the privatization of land. Today, the Surplus People Project focuses on helping these communities transform through land, water, and agricultural reform.

We split into two groups – one group met with farmworkers in rural townships; the other with young people creating urban gardens. Both experiences were incredible and inspiring and changed the way many of us think about this work.

The rural group went to Riebeeck West and Malmesbury townships to visit with local farmers associations, about 90 km outside of Cape Town. We were met by 25 local leaders and community members who explained how forced displacement due to government selling of land to white commercial farmers propelled the different associations to come together and launch the Agrarian Reform for Food Sovereignty Campaign. It’s a sophisticated, multi-faceted effort that includes negotiating with an unresponsive government for land ownership, instituting agro-ecology principles and organic farming methods, supporting emerging farmers with seedlings and training, and fighting multinational companies like Monsanto on GMO labeling and seed sovereignty.

 

Heading to Riebeeck West, a township outside of Cape Town, to see the connections between agrarian reform and violence. Western Cape is home to many wineries.
Heading to Riebeeck West, a township outside of Cape Town, to see the connections between agrarian reform and violence. Western Cape is home to many wineries.
Gathering together with the community for a lively discussion on agro-ecology and violence against landless peoples
Gathering together with the community for a lively discussion on agro-ecology and violence against landless peoples.

Movement Makers were deeply impressed by the clarity of how they link agrarian reform with gender justice, youth leadership, climate justice, migrant rights, and environmental sustainability. One woman leader shared how participating in the campaign helps women in the community believe that they can speak up, which also helps them break the silence around violence they may be experiencing. She helped organize 900 women to march 45 km from Johannesburg to Pretoria to present President Zuma with their demands for each woman to receive a hectare of land. “My parents and their parents worked the land,” she declared. “We are here to protect our legacy. If the President can’t make up his mind, we are not going back to him again. We are taking the land!”

Shireen Demas, an organizer with #SurplusPeopleProject talking about their march of 900 women who walked 45km to Pretoria to present their demand of 1 hectare of land for each woman.
Shireen Demas, an organizer with Surplus People’s Project talking about their march of 900 women who walked 45km to Pretoria to present their demand of 1 hectare of land for each woman.

We also had a sobering discussion on the challenges of maintaining membership and morale after years of work have yet to result in positive changes  in the farmworkers’ day-to-day lives. Their challenges mirror many of our own in the United States: intimidation of workers by owners, little recourse through the courts or police, lack of resources to support workers going on strike, and more. But one of the leaders perhaps said it best: “You can work toward building mass support, but you can’t force revolution on them. It’s like the citrus fruit. We cannot make them ripen. All we can do is feed the soil and wait.”

The urban group visited two urban permaculture gardens that are being led by young people. In densely-populated Khayelitsha township, the Movement Makers got to help plant lettuce in a garden behind the school, which was started to teach other young people how to sustain themselves without having their own land. The second garden is just blocks away from our hotel in Cape Town and is “squatting” on unused government land. This garden is so abundant that it produces enough food to sustain the six people who maintain it as well as to hold a weekly farmer’s market that caters to nearby residents.

Movement Makers helping to plant in the youth-led community garden in Khayelitsha township.
Movement Makers helping to plant in the youth-led community garden in Khayelitsha township.

Movement Makers were deeply impressed with their approach to land access as liberation. As explained by one young leader: There are three kinds of poverty – of the mind, the spirit, and the belly – and gardening feeds them all. Food from the garden feeds the belly, learning about plants feeds the mind, and being able to grow something from the earth feeds the spirit. They emphasized the idea that the energy you put into growing something comes back to you when you eat the plant you grow – the ultimate kind of sustainability.

The vibrant energy of the young people means that arts and culture are closely interwoven into their fight for access to land. Drum circles and open mics regularly take place around the gardens, and is another way to invite in more participants and supporters. This energy is palpable when discussing the eviction notice the second garden recently received: “While we wait to hear from the courts, we will create paradise.”

This international learning exchange was planned in conjunction with our esteemed partners at International Development Exchange (IDEX).

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