Chris Petersen’s long struggle

By Marius Fransman

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EVERY day, for almost 30 years, Chris Petersen never stopped believing that the Constantia farm he had lost in 1966 at the stroke of an apartheid bureaucrat’s pen would be returned to him – and his family.

Through the rest of the 60s … through the forced removals of District Six, Petersen kept on believing. The 70s came, and with it the Soweto-inspired countrywide revolts, and the state’s jackboot response to them; and still he believed. In the ‘80s, not even PW Botha’s iron fist and two states of emergency could stop him from keeping the faith.

And then, suddenly, apartheid collapsed.

And, with the birth of the new South Africa, Petersen’s conviction that he would get back his farm grew – and grew.

In 1994, when South Africa’s new, democratic lawmakers started drawing up legislation aimed at providing redress for the estimated 3.5 million people who had been dispossessed of their land, Petersen swapped belief for action.

He set about tracking down every family that had been run out of Constantia. He believed that a group speaking in unison stood a far better chance of being heard – and taken seriously.

“My dad knew them all – and even though they had been scattered far and wide – he reached them all and persuaded them to work together,” said his daughter Marie Frans.

Petersen believed in fair play and the inherent goodness of the human race. But, sadly, in this instance he was wrong. Over the next 14 years, he and his fellow claimants learnt a bitter lesson….

They learnt that the old Constantia, the Constantia they knew, had changed; in the new Constantia, there was no place (other than as hired help) for people who were considered too poor to fit in.

Joan Heming, a stalwart of the Constantia Property Owners Association, had said as much. In an interview in 2001, this former Democratic Alliance councilor was quoted as saying: “If you want to attract people to bring their businesses here [South Africa], this [Constantia] is the place where they want to live in.

“Rather than being for the poor, I would see it as being for the kind of people that would help drive the economy forward.”

Anthony Goldstein, another top official of the Property Owners Association, put it this way: “The best way to develop the asset [Constantia] is not to touch it.”

Having created its vision for Constantia, the Association began using every resource at its disposal (including the enormously expensive use of consultants) to preserve a way of life that had been created in part by apartheid-era forced removals.

Some would describe this situation as hugely ironic, given that during the days of whites-only elections, Constantia was an opposition (to the National Party) stronghold.

The consequence of this “rich-only vision is that coloured families, who (prior to being kicked out) had ties with the area going back to the early 1800s, found themselves no longer welcome in Constantia.

Interestingly, among those who Constantia has welcomed into its ranks, pillars of society who Joan Heming would have defined as “being the kind of people that would help drive the economy forward” have been Sir Mark Thatcher, son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who hurriedly left the country following allegations that he was involved in a plot to overthrow the government of another country.

Two other pillars of Constantia, former LeisureNet health club executives Peter Gardener and Rod Mitchell were convicted of fraud totalling millions of rands.

Graham Maddock, the former financial director of the Fidentia company (that swindled thousands of dependents of black miners out of their pensions), was forced to swap his Strawberry Lane, Constantia, home for a state prison cell after being jailed for seven years on 54 counts involving fraud, theft, money laundering, contraventions of the Financial Intelligence Centre Act and the reckless or fraudulent conduct of business.

I wish I could say that Chris Petersen’s long fight for restitution ended successfully – but, unfortunately, I can’t.

He died last October, with his dying words being about his life as a farmer in Constantia. Petersen’s family, and the other families who make up the organization known as the Constantia Land Claimants Beneficiaries, have vowed to continue and, indeed, to intensify the fight to get back their land.

I support them – and as the MEC responsible for Government land in the Western Cape, I will do everything I can to help them.

The announcement last week that my Department – the Department of Transport and Public Works – planned to build at least 500 houses on parts of the old Porter Estate (of which many would be offered to land restitution claimants, following negotiations with the Land Restitution Board) reduced the Joan Hemings and Robin Carlisles of this world to what can only be described as a state of irrational panic.

I wonder why.

Responding to my announcement, Heming issued a statement, along the lines that either the Constantia Property Owners Association or the Tokai Ratepayer’s Association (I’m not sure which; she seems to flit between the two) were planning to have the Estate declared a World Heritage Site.

She claimed that my intervention was putting that plan at risk.

Excuse me, but I believe that she’s spouting trash.

All she’s trying to do is stir up the emotions of those South Africans who, understandably, want to see the scenic, cultural and historical icons of the Western Cape and South Africa preserved.

Her real motive is to create guaranteed space for Constantia and Tokai to continue marketing the type of exclusivity, which some would describe as “economic apartheid”.

The Porter plans of my Department are obviously a threat to the vision of “brand” Constantia and Tokai.

Seeing that Heming raised the issue of World Heritage Status, let’s look at it: to be considered for such a status any place, building or area needs to pass muster on at least two of 10 criteria, most of which revolve around historical or cultural considerations, or on a unique history.

I agree that parts of the estate are beautiful. But our plan takes this beauty into consideration. Together with the South African National Parks Board, tourism authorities and would-be tourism entrepreneurs, we intend developing the scenic attractions in the estate for the enjoyment and appreciation of all.

Regarding historical and cultural aspects, there are a few things that I feel must be raised.

Black people have longstanding ties with the area. These ties started in pre-colonial times, with Khoikhoi herders, and continued after the arrival of the Dutch and British, with (again) the Khoikhoi, slaves and those who would later be called coloured people.

But it must not be forgotten that the relationship between white and black has, in the main, been one of master and servant, and dispossession.

I pray … I pray that attempts by Heming and her supporters to apply for World Heritage status for the Estate is not based on historical and cultural criteria.

Let me tell you why I feel this way: there are numerous reminders that black people once lived, loved and died in the vicinity. It cannot be denied that whites made it extremely difficult for blacks to continue living here; indeed, after the National Party came into power, laws were passed to keep blacks out.

I believe therefore that it would be preposterous – and the height of hypocrisy – if whites, albeit of a different generation, were to try to prevent blacks from taking advantage of new housing opportunities here on the grounds that historical reminders of black habitation of the area are in need of protection.

I would like to raise one other important point – and it concerns the location of the areas (my Department refers to them as precincts) that have been earmarked for housing. Let me give you just two examples: from the attached map, you will see that one of these precincts is located on the corner of Firgrove Way and Spaanschemat River Road: Another precinct is situated beyond the school on the opposite site of the road. Both areas are close to existing residential areas.

With the best will in the will, I cannot see how these, as well as the other areas that have been earmarked for housing development, fit the criteria for World Heritage status. To a large extent, they are open pieces of veld.

I suspect that the objections are based on a syndrome that has been growing in South Africa as our new democracy has kicked in: it’s called the “not-in-my-backyard syndrome”.

Robin Carlisle, the Democratic Party spokesman for Transport and Public Works, and (as he likes to boast) Corruption, issued a statement last week in which he described my announcement about the Porter Development as an election “foefie” aimed at showing that the ANC is still the party of the poor.

I have always championed policies that are pro-poor. I make no excuses for that.

Carlisle’s statement, though, says more about him than it says about me. His unseemly haste to support Heming, who has made no secret about what type of person she wants living in Constantia and, seemingly, also Tokai, shows where he stands in relation to the poor; in my mind, it is certainly not with them.

I would like to point out that I have the authority to transfer government land to land restitution authorities for purposes of restitution.

In the coming months I will demonstrate just how determined I am to exercise that authority.


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