Speech by Ben Freeth to the Guide on Land Grabs in South Africa, AfriForum Conference, Pretoria, March 18 2015

I have been given a daunting task today. I was asked to talk to you about how to protect your property in the face of Zimbabwe-style land reform and land grabs. As a victim of Zimbabwe-style land reform – which involves the systematic and violent theft of thousands of homes and farms without a cent of compensation and as such constitutes a crime against humanity- and with this crime still continuing after 15 years, this is a complex task. It carries with it a lot of responsibility.

The first thing I am going to say is that you cannot stop land reform. The important thing is that we manage land reform – and change it from being ‘Zimbabwe-esque’ – where property rights are destroyed – to something that improves and develops property rights – and gives individual title deeds, even in places where they have never been before.

Property rights have to be paramount in our thinking if we want to be involved in making Africa great. Enemies of democracy, human rights and the rule of law will always try to destroy individual property rights – or make sure they do not come into their recommendations for how poverty, hunger and under development should be fixed. The experiments of the 20th century which involved destroying property rights by State nationalization of farms all ended the same way, with those countries becoming poor and hungry.

Throughout Africa, property rights have been destroyed in country after country. We are the richest continent on earth in terms of our natural resources and agricultural potential, yet Africa’s people are the poorest people on earth – and getting poorer. That is why Africans – both black and white – are continually leaving Africa. They leave because their persons and their property are not protected. When Africans leave Africa, they go to places where property rights and the rule of law exist and are upheld!

There are very few places in Africa where there have been meaningful moves to bring in individual private property rights. Unfortunately, African leaders generally do not want their people to be independent of them. Property rights make people independent. Rather, African leaders want to control their people by not allowing them the “privilege” of individual private property rights.

I was on a Zimbabwean property last week that had been bought by government 30 years ago in the first phase of land reform. At that stage it had 300 hectares of irrigation and a further 9,300 hectares of wildlife and cattle. It employed several hundred people and was a thriving concern.

Last week, on the 9,600 hectares of that beautiful ground there was not a single hectare of cropping, the wildlife has all been killed and the only production left is 140 cattle. Ten workers are still employed – and they are all security guards. I asked when they were last paid and they told me that it was over two years ago.

I also recently went back to our own property, Mount Carmel farm in the Chegutu district. We were forced off the farm despite a High Court order in our favour – and despite the SADC Tribunal ruling in our favour. Between the farming and the hand-embroidered linen project we employed over 200 people on the farm and had mangos [40,000 trees] and citrus which we exported to Europe. We had wildlife – and tourists came to the lodge from all over the world; we had cattle and row crops that went into the local market.

When the Government Minister who took the farm for himself came, we did not stand a chance. The police arrived, firing live ammunition and arrested our main workers, tortured them and put them in a high security jail. They closed down the linen factory and stopped the lorry that arrived to collect a load of mangos in our cold rooms for export to Europe.

They then commandeered all the tractors and harvested over the next four months all of the mangos, then all of the citrus, then the maize and sunflowers. Our armed guards immediately had their guns taken from them. One of our senior workers was tortured by being thrown into a fire and then repeatedly dropped on his head on the concrete until he sustained a fractured skull. Then they took him to Chegutu and dumped him on the police station floor.

What is happening now? The wildlife has all been killed. The tractors have been driven into the ground. The fruit trees have not been irrigated, have had fires go through them and are dying. Some workers had their houses burnt down – as did we – and the farm today lies unproductive, with no one benefitting.

So what is our reaction to all this. How do people react to the kind of so-called land reform we have experienced in Zimbabwe? There are essentially 3 categories of people.

1. Those that capitulate. They believe that there is nothing they can do because it is all hopeless and they move off their farm, taking their title deeds with them and hoping one day to be compensated. Fear and apathy are our greatest enemies.

2. Those that join the system and, by supporting it, benefit from it ….. for a while. We have a number of such people – aiding the party and even in some cases invading farms themselves. I do not want to talk about such people.

3. Those that fight. They believe that all it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing, and they decide to fight for property rights and the rule of law for the good of all. That is what AfriForum is all about and it is a great privilege to work with them.

What I want to talk about today is how do we fight? The fight that we have ahead of is not a “Blood River” sort of fight. It is not a fight that is physical in any way, although we have to try to defend ourselves if we are physically attacked. The bigger fight, the fight for property rights and the rule of law, is a much higher sort of fight – it’s a fight for what is right. Our tactics have to totally change. The fight ahead is the fight for the future, the fight for the next generation, the fight for Africa to take its place in the world as a productive and thriving continent.

The weapon we have to take up is the weapon of light. We need to fight with light.

The Ten Commandments are absolutely pivotal here. The Children of Israel had just spent 400 years in slavery. They went into slavery as 12 brothers and they came out of it as a nation of two million people. The very first thing God gave that nation when they crossed the Red Sea and the Egyptians were drowned was the Ten Commandments. The Lord descended on Mount Sinai in fire. The mountain shook. It was a momentous happening. God wrote the Commands with his finger in stone.

The first four Commandments deal with our relationship with God. The next six deal with our relationship with each other. Two of those six deal specifically with property rights. God is so emphatic on property rights that he devotes a third of those Commandments to property rights. “Thou shalt not covet” [tenth Commandment] and “thou shalt not steal” [eighth Commandment].

When we have covetousness in the form of greed and jealousy in terms of what others have; and when that covetousness translates to theft – where people take from others, sometimes murdering them [6th Commandment] and giving false testimony [9th Commandment], and through the process there is no payment or any rule of law, we have a situation that is intrinsically wrong and manifestly evil and dark.

When this is happening, we need to take up the weapons of light. Even just a little light chases the darkness out of a dark room. But we need a lot of light.

The weapons we need to use are:

1. The local courts. In our country, the authorities hate the courts because it exposes them when they are doing dark deeds. It brings the spotlight on them. So the Supreme Court was invaded. Our judges were threatened and hounded out of office. The Commercial Farmers Union (CFU) made the tragic decision 14 years ago to withdraw from the courts. In South Africa you must never do that.

2. The international courts, using international human rights conventions and international law. These include the Southern African Development Community (SADC), The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR), The United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC), The International Criminal Court (ICC) and The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). We need to make alliances with other human rights organisations and people concerned about property rights and the rule of law – and get people and legislators talking and thinking and understanding and believing in property rights.

3. The media [news/books/films/TV/radio/social media]. Again, the CFU was told “not to wash dirty linen in public” if they wanted to dialogue with government. They withdrew from publicising what was wrong. They closed down The Farmer Magazine. They stopped the farm “sitreps” or Situation Reports which were sent out locally and internationally. This mistake must not be made in South Africa.

4. Academic research papers. With respect to Zimbabwe, we have a couple of British academics who have published research papers and books that muddy the water. They do not compare production, employment and investment levels with the levels of the original farmer who has been intimidated off his land – so they start from a zero base and conclude that the land reform has been successful because a ton of maize has been produced and a scotch cart has been bought. Unfortunately, in the absence of other academic research, such dishonest papers carry a lot of weight in the international community. We need to ensure that more balanced academics, who understand the benefits of individual property rights as a paramount and fundamental human right, are also publishing papers and books.

5. The prophetic voice and prayer in the churches. If the Ten Commandments are being trampled, it is vitally important that voices in the church and society speak out – and we pray for that.

If we do not all use these weapons of light, South Africa will lose – and both black people and white people will suffer. It will become like Zimbabwe – a country that cannot feed itself or look after its sick or educate its children or give its young people jobs.

I have spoken about the first thing that God gave the children of Israel when they became a nation: The Ten Commandments. I remember in 1998 going to the land donor conference in Harare where the United Nations was looking at how land reform could be done sensibly. At the end of the three days, all of the ambassadors got up, came to the front one by one and made pledges as to what their countries could offer. Some wanted to offer tractors, others money, others different things. I distinctly remember the Israeli Ambassador’s speech.

He said Israel is a very small country – 5% of Zimbabwe’s land area – and is only 50 years old. Half its land area is desert. It has no natural resources like Zimbabwe. All its neighbours have determinedly tried to destroy it. When their people arrived there, their families had just been decimated by the Holocaust and they were in many instances completely destitute. But despite that, the country has grown to being a bigger agricultural producer than every country in Africa apart from South Africa – and hectare for hectare it leads the world.

He said what Israel has used to turn the desert green is the human resource.

As a minority tribe, a white tribe, in Africa, I believe we can learn much from the Jews. If we use our human resource in a strong, principled, Godly and intelligent way, and we focus on ensuring the Ten Commandments are kept, we can ensure the rule of law puts a stop to the destruction of property rights, and we can help Africa come out of poverty and hunger and be the breadbasket for the world.

Ben Freeth is the spokesperson for SADC Tribunal Rights Watch and the Executive Chairman of the Mike Campbell Foundation.