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“Promised Land”–New Doc Follows Struggles over Land in South Africa

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A new film premiering tonight on PBS called Promised Land follows two legal struggles over land in contemporary South Africa. In 1994, the African National Congress-led post-apartheid government promised to redistribute a third of the land within ten years, but the struggle for economic justice continues. We speak with filmmaker Yoruba Richen. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: South Africa remains in the news during this final week of the World Cup, but behind the drama of the games and away from the spotlights of the soccer stadiums, there’s another story unfolding about the reality of post-apartheid South Africa. It’s been called the greatest challenge since the country’s liberation. More than fifteen years after the end of apartheid, the struggle over land remains a deeply divisive issue between blacks and whites. In 1994 the African National Congress-led post-apartheid government promised to redistribute a third of the land within ten years. But the struggle for economic justice continues.

    UNIDENTIFIED: Over the last ten years, less than three percent of agricultural land has been transferred to those who were dispossessed in the past. This is unsustainable, and it’s a ticking time bomb.

    UNIDENTIFIED: You must get your land back.

    LANDOWNER: We are the landowners. We must protect the value of our land.

    UNIDENTIFIED: Commercial white farmers, all that they want is to make profits. When we can’t have anywhere to live, we want our land back, and we want it now.

    UNIDENTIFIED: It is not about whites. It’s not about blacks. It’s about the very fact that we are landowners, that we own land. We have rights in terms of the Constitution.

    UNIDENTIFIED: I’m just scared that we’re going to go the same route as the rest of Africa: they kick out the whites, then they take over, and the country never comes right.

    UNIDENTIFIED: I don’t want to say it’s a reverse of the forceful removal, but he doesn’t have choice.

    HANNES VISSER: There’s not much that an individual can do in order to defend himself against institutions such as the government.

    UNIDENTIFIED: I’m a fifth-generation South African. This is my home. Where am I going?

AMY GOODMAN: That’s an excerpt of the trailer for the new film premiering tonight at 10:00 p.m. Eastern on PBS as part of the POV

documentary series. The film is called Promised Land. It follows two legal struggles over land in contemporary South Africa.

Last week, I spoke with the film’s director Yoruba Richen, a former Democracy Now! producer, about the film.

    YORUBA RICHEN: I started the film about six years ago, and I began because I had recently read that the land issue was still an intractable problem. At that point it was ten years after the end of apartheid. And I began looking into it, and I found these stories of a transformation that was trying — that was trying to happen. The first person I found was Roger Roman, the character Roger Roman, the white farmer who goes through his own personal transformation and gives up half his land in an effort of racial reconciliation.

    AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Roger Roman right now.

      ROGER ROMAN: In the 1994 election, one of the effects that it had on me was — I think that, for me, it created the opportunity to become an African. So I bought the farm as part of my process of getting to know my own country. After two or three years, I got a letter from a local white council, which, although we were still — we were already in the new South Africa, this council had remained as a hangover from the apartheid days. The council had been approached by about thirty of the white landowners in the area to get rid of all what they called “black squatters,” illegal squatters.

      Coming out of the doorway there is Ntate Obed Moja. He’s the man who’s 103 years old.

      NTATE OBED MOJA: I was born in this place.

      ROGER ROMAN: In this house here, wasn’t it, Ntate?

      NTATE OBED MOJA: Yes, in that little house, in that little house.

      ROGER ROMAN: The fact that one man had been living here since his birth in 1901, how he becomes the squatter, and the whites who have purchased or stolen the land in the interim are not the squatters, it’s a bit ironic.

    AMY GOODMAN: That’s Roger Roman. Tell us more about him.

    YORUBA RICHEN: Well, he was a fascinating — is a fascinating person, very unusual in his recognition of the white privilege that he had had all his life in South Africa. And as the — you know, as the film shows, he is asked to — after he buys a piece of land, he’s asked to kick the native black indigenous people that had been living on it, and he refused to do so and really looked into himself and decided that he could no longer be a part of this system, that even though it was 1998, at that point, would still — would still foster in this inequity. And he was — and he chose to do it, and then he became a land activist, and that’s what he is now. And he has a — his organization Land for Peace really is trying to get the white landowners to not necessarily do what he did — what he did was maybe hard for a lot of people to do — but to be a part of the process of land reform.

    AMY GOODMAN: How did you find Roger?

    YORUBA RICHEN: I found him, honestly, through reading and calling people before I left for my first shoot. And I got him on the phone, and as soon as I got him on the phone, I knew he was a very compelling character, just from the phone conversation. And so, he was the first — one of the first people, if not the first person, that I met when I was down there. And he is the one who led me to the larger story that is depicted in the film.

    AMY GOODMAN: Describe that story.

    YORUBA RICHEN: So, the other story — there are two other land claims that I follow. One is the Mekgareng community outside of Johannesburg. And they have been trying to get — they put in a claim for their land, which they and their ancestors were removed. According to them, these removals started in the '60s and went all the way up until — the ’50s, and then went all the way up until the ’80s. And they filed for this sometime in the late ’90s. And the white community, the local white community, which is made up of about 300 farmers, decided to challenge them and to — and they don't believe that they have what they call a valid land claim. And so, it’s been this battle in this area, and it’s still, in 2010 — it’s still — you know, it still goes on.

    AMY GOODMAN: So, you have the story of this land claim. Tell us the other.

    YORUBA RICHEN: The other story is the story of the Molamus. And the Molamus are a family, which is different than the Mekgareng. The Molamus are a family who are —- have actual proof that their grandfather, Aberham Molamu, was an owner of the land. They have title deeds to the land. And there’s much more documentation in their story about what happened to their family and how they were removed. And their family, they know that the -—- the documents show that their grandfather was compensated, actually, so he did receive some money for being forced off. And that is what is challenged by the — when they put in their claim, it’s a farm that — a piece of land that four farmers, four white farmers, currently own. Three of them eventually concede, and one stays to fight. And his name is Hannes Visser. And Hannes Visser has been on that land since the — I believe since the 1950s and '60s. His grandparents had it. And he has a business there, and he has his family there, and he believes that since the Molamus were compensated, that they weren't — that they weren’t forced off the land.

    AMY GOODMAN: So, Yoruba, how does the community take him on?

    YORUBA RICHEN: So, they file the claim. As I said, three of the farmers concede. And Visser decides that he’s going to fight it. And he says that they have been compensated and that the Molamus knew — he says they knew what they were doing. He knew what he was doing. So, why should he give the land back? And eventually what happens is they come to an impasse, neither side gives up, and the government steps in. And it’s the first farm expropriation in the country, and this was in 2007. And this was, at that point, you know, many years after the promises had been made to redistribute the land, and so little had happened, so little had been redistributed. And the government decided that they were, you know, going to take a stand in this case and take the land and give it back to the Molamus.

    AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the scene where Hannes Visser is moving out, and the family is there.

      KATHY MOTHLHABANE: The promised land, we are there.

      You see Aberham, and this is the wife. He died on the 9th of September, 1903. If the dead people see, he must be proud of us, as well.

      HANNES VISSER: I believe land reform is not an instrument in which to enrich people, but rather it should be an instrument which would make it possible for people to earn their own keep. Senseless for people to inherit a property, and they do not have the skills to operate the property.

      STEVE BOGATSU: Come and have a look at the scenery this side. Yeah, that’s beautiful, no?

      MOLAMU FAMILY MEMBER: Very beautiful.

      HANNES VISSER: I personally feel it hasn’t been just. It’s going to put me back quite a long ways. I won’t have sufficient funds to buy another farm. I’m not a prophet. I can’t prophesize. But it’s only in the future that we will see whether this process is a successful process, or is it a wrong process, where we’re undoing wrongs in the past by repeating the wrongs in the future.

    AMY GOODMAN: A scene from Promised Land, which is airing on POV. Yoruba Richen, why did you initially get interested in South Africa?

    YORUBA RICHEN: Well, I had had a longstanding interest in South Africa since I was a kid in the '80s. I followed the freedom struggle there. One of my first jobs in media was interning at South Africa Now, the program that was bringing news from South Africa during its state of emergency. And when Mandela was released, we went — we walked from, you know, our home in Harlem to Yankee Stadium to see him with my whole neighborhood. And I think for — I think, obviously, for so many people, the struggle was — the freedom struggle was inspiring and was our struggle, you know, and especially for African Americans here in the US. So it was just a country that I'd always been fascinated by and wanted to go and follow the developments. And as I said, when I started seeing reports in 2003 about — that the land issue, that the whites still owned — this was ten years after the end of apartheid — owned the majority of the land and that the inequity had, you know, barely shifted, I became very interested, because we hadn’t heard that. You know, we knew that the political struggle was won, but it’s always the economic struggle — right? — that is the challenge.

    AMY GOODMAN: And is the ticking time bomb, really.

    YORUBA RICHEN: Exactly. And is the basis of so — and I also was interested in it, because land is such the issue in so many countries, in so many post-colonial societies, that seems to be where this intractable problem lies.

    AMY GOODMAN: And we can bring it right through to today. The World Cup is in South Africa. The world is looking at South Africa, but there’s a part of South Africa they don’t see.

    YORUBA RICHEN: Absolutely, absolutely. You know, when they were building the stadiums for the Cup, which obviously is a huge honor for South Africa to have, and they’re thrilled to have it in many ways, but the landless there, the landless who live in the shantytowns, who don’t have — you know, who don’t have their own piece of land, who don’t have houses, there were many removals that went on through the country to build these stadiums. And this time the removals were of a black government, you know, to its people. So, again, it just showed that this problem still persists. This problem is at the basis of so many of the economic inequalities that are still there.

    AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to a last scene from Yoruba Richen’s film Promised Land.

      PHILIP RAFEDILE: We are Africans. We don’t say they are not Africans. We don’t say whites are not African. But we must be seen running this country. We must be seen developing this country. Mandela is old. Mandela did his work, sacrificing for twenty-seven years in jail. He was there for us. So, we can’t expect the old man to do everything for us. He said, “Now, claim.” And we have to make sure that we make his dream come true.

    AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of Promised Land by Yoruba Richen, and it’s a great honor to have had you here in our new studios, Yoruba, since I really think of you as having helped build them, having been a part of the Democracy Now! family.

    YORUBA RICHEN: Thank you. Thank you, Amy. It’s great to be here.

    AMY GOODMAN: Look forward to seeing this on POV.

AMY GOODMAN: Promised Land airs on POV on PBS tonight, 10:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. Yoruba Richen, former Democracy Now! producer, is the filmmaker who made the film.

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