Landless people take to the stage

18.09.2010

The farm-workers´ cemetery of Ongombo Ost No.140 Farm is a small, barren patch of land about an hours drive north-east from Windhoek. Sululu Isaacs, a landless Damara lady living in Windhoek is standing in front of the grave of her mother and tells us how she wanted to bury her mother there last year. It was her mother’s wish, since she was born and grew up on this farm, and all her ancestors have their graves there, too. The Italian owner of the Farm sent her away with harsh words. This led to an insurrection which many landless joined, calling for the expropriation of this land-owner by the government. The government turned this demand down and arrested about twenty activists in the course, but this was also the beginning of an independent and autonomous social movement of landless people in Namibia. Sululu Isaacks and other people founded an organization they called //Noason /Aes (our ancestors fires). Already by now poor and landless communities all over Namibia joined this movement.

sululu

Sululu’s (as she told us to call her) story gives an insight to several of the many problems that circle around the question of land in Namibia.

Emotionally she describes her deep connections to this land. She was born here, too, and grew up as a farm worker, but had to leave when the farm changed owners. She claims the right to have access and make use of this land as her ancestral right. Although for us it is somehow hard to understand why she should change her life in the capital, where she seems to enjoy many more possibilities to shape her life, for the tedious, dusty and remote living in the country, she assures us that she would not hesitate to move back there once she was given the possibility.

The topic of ancestral rights is not considered by the government in the land reform politics, which led to conflicts in other cases, too. Other aspects than this are addressed in the legislation, but nevertheless they are far from being solved. There are two most important aspects of the land reform in Namibia, beginning from its independence in 1990. One is to heal the injustice that many black Namibians suffered when they were expelled forcefully from their land by German colonialists and later through the apartheid system under South African rule. The second is, to give poor people the opportunity to make a living.

One program of the Ministry of Land and Resettlement aims at resettling poor, black Namibians on farms formerly owned by whites. Property rights are guaranteed, though, in the independence constitution, and thus the system of redistributing land is called “willing buyer willing seller”: the government buys land from farmers who are willing to sell and lets it to people who apply for it, not necessarily from the area. The general politics is to divide it in order to let more people participate in this process.

One example is the neighbouring farm Ongombo West .Its former German owners were expropriated by the government a few years ago because of ill treatment of their farm workers. This is one of the very rare cases (the only, we were told), when government resorted to the possibility to expropriating farms in certain cases. The land was given to different groups of people.

There is the old SWAPO veteran Comrade Veii who got land as a kind of pension for his participation in the liberation struggle and a long sentence on Robben Island Prison. The beds under the netting shading them are dry, though, nothing is growing there. He is old, comrade Veii tells us, and he is from another region of Namibia. His attempts to grow vegetables failed, they froze in the cold nights of early spring. Besides, the pumping system the government supplied him with when he got the farm is so sophisticated that the maintenance is contracted to a company. He has no money left to pay for this contract, so the pump does not work, and efficient irrigation is not possible. Here we see one of deficiencies of the resettlement program: people are given land, but neither the necessary funding to make investments nor the appropriate training.

comrade veii

We move on with Sululu, past the old farm house of Ongombo West which is now used by someone we don´t meet. It was used as a Kindergarten for the kids of the farm workers, but this is not allowed anymore.

Behind the house we find the corrugated iron shacks of former farm workers of Ongombo West. One lady invites us to sit down in her shack. They live on their livestock, she tells us – a few goats, which are the “bank account” of many rural Namibians, and the old age pension the state guarantees every Namibian over the age of 65. They as well don´t get any support from the government, “except a few wheelbarrows and tools”. On their patch of land is the old vegetable garden of the farm. They grew vegetables there, they tell us, but they didn´t manage to sell them, so a lot of it just rotted. “We don´t have the means to transport them to Windhoek, and there are strict packaging regulations which we can´t meet”.

Moving on to another shack many tents were shown to us. These were used when about 20 people squatted first a part of Ongombo Ost as a protest against the Italian owner. She called the police who drove the people to Ongombo West. During the following days about three hundred more joined in, often whole families with their animals. Most of them are landless; they hoped to build up enough pressure so government would change their situation. To us it seems that many came with the direct hope to be able to stay on this land. Instead the police arrested some of them, Sululu was one. The case against her is still pending, “I´m here illegally”, she tells us.

Sululu is visibly angry, although she tries to hide it, when she tells us that she used to work in the well running flower garden when the farm was still owned by Germans. “I know how to run it, I worked there. Look how everything is falling apart. Why does the government not let me stay here? We don´t ask the white farmers to go away. We ask them to share their farms with us! And if this is not possible, we are ready to buy a farm ourselves, to settle there with the people of our movement. But it is not possible. We don´t know how long we will take the situation as it is. We are not at the stage of killing each other any more, but when nothing changes, we don´t know if we will not do something we will regret later.”