Suurbraak rolling mass action: a commentary

Commentary on the march held in Suurbraak Sunday 14 May, 2017.

This report provides:

  1. commentary on the march
  2. commentary on the period shortly after the march ended
  3. commentary on the handover of the list of demands
  4. update on the racial incident
  5. ruminations about  where this is all heading

To read about and see footage and images of the march for housing, upon which this report is based, please go to: Ons soek huise’: Suurbraak march for housing

1. The march itself

Politics vs the community: Whereas earlier I had had grave misgivings about the possibility of party political interference in community affairs and/or the stoking of pockets of discontent within the Suurbraak community the march was, instead, from the outside, community driven; kudos therefore to the organisers for getting the community behind them on the matter of housing.

Posters tell me that Myburgh is the enemy of the people – but is he? It is clearly apparent from the posters that the Swellendam Municipality and the mayor, Nicholas Myburgh, are perceived by the organisers and the marchers to be the baddies. As far as I can make out, other than Myburgh’s imperious attitude at the start of the initial meeting he chaired, he and Swellendam Municipality have acted in good faith (see my earlier reports in this regards and, particularly, the section headed ‘Swellendam Municipality to blame? ‘ in Reasons for, report on, and thoughts about the Suurbraak protest).

Housing: As mentioned in previous reports, it’s unclear why the organisers are targeting Myburgh and Swellendam Municipality, which operates within the constraints of a financial housing allocation determined by central government.

Update #01: Louis de Villiers in private correspondence pointed out that raw numbers mean little without relative population data, so I’ve removed a table that indicates waiting lists of residents in various towns in the Municipality until such time as I can source the population figures.

Update #02: Apparently the word has gone out that I am against houses being built in Suurbraak which, given everything I’ve written over these four blogs, is bizarre and mischievous (see my ‘State Capture’ in Reasons for, report on, and thoughts about the Suurbraak protest). Here’s what I’ve been saying: money for housing raised by taxes is distributed by treasury to each province, which is required to spend the allocated funds honestly and fairly which, I believe, Swellendam Municipality is doing. My expressed concern, however, was why is there insufficient money allocated to Swellendam Municipality to build houses for all those on the waiting list? My conclusion was that money that should be going to housing and the poorest of the poor has, instead, been syphoned off (refer: Betrayal of the promise: how South Africa is being stolen) while, additionally, a trillion Rand is required by many of these same people to build nine nuclear power stations. This being so – and my suspicion is that there might be some truth in my conclusions – why then are Myburgh and Swellendam Municipality being blamed for the non delivery of housing?

2. Shortly after the march had ended

I mentioned in my previous report that sandwiched between the march and the handover (of the list of complaints to a member of Swellendam Municipality) there was an unfortunate incident in which the name of a member of the community was chanted, which I experienced as unnerving and ominous.

The law of numbers: I thought to myself at the time: who were the individuals chanting this man’s name? Was this orchestrated or spontaneous?  How would these residents feel about themselves afterwards? How does this man whom they’re taunting feel? Safe? What mustn’t all the children witnessing this be absorbing into their psyches?

No matter what this man might or might not have done in the eyes of community, did he deserve such a public humiliation?

Today it’s this man but who might it be tomorrow, and what form might a crowd use to express its point of view?

3: Handover of the letter of demand to an official of Swellendam Municipality

Although the letter Beukes read out articulated a number of problems and demands, I shall comment only on four issues. However to note that as far as the last page of Beukes’s letter is concerned I’m talking from memory as my camera card was by that time full and because I do not have a copy of the SCA’s letter as requested of Beukes, via email. (You can view footage of Beukes reading his letter, including a translation into English in: ‘Ons soek huise’: Suurbraak march for housing)

Representivity: Beukes argued against a Suurbraak #01 and a Suurbraak #02 (see the embedded video below). Therefore I trust that the newly formed SCA includes representatives living on both sides of the river – particularly as it seems that the SCA has assigned to itself a public watchdog role aimed at a geographically identifiable sector of the community (as in north of the Buffeljags River or oor die rivier). If the SCA, as currently constituted, does not include representation from oor die rivier (I’m dubious because I, for one, as far as I can tell, did not receive an invitation to join this newly formed civic association), then that doesn’t reflect well on Beukus’s earlier call for a unified Suurbraak and, I suspect, the legal standing of the SCA and/or its watchdog-related demands, which seem to apply only to one sector of the Suurbraak community.

Playing the man: I mentioned earlier that I felt the demonization of Myburgh and Swellendam Municipality during the march, to have been inappropriate. As far as Myburgh’s open letter to the Suurbraak community is concerned I agree with Beukes that it wasn’t proper for Myburgh to have played the man – as in Beukes (dat die hele aksie nie wentel oor sekere individue nie maar wel die gemeenskap); this being so, it was surely equally improper for Beukes then also to have played the man – as in Myburgh – in his letter of demand.

(You can download a scanned version of Myburgh’s open letter to the residents of Suurbraak written in Afrikaans here.)

Zoning: Maybe the best place to start is with my son, Matthew Mentz’s dissertation towards his M.Phil (Mentz, M. (2013) Unearthing the determinants required for off-grid subsistence: a case study. Stellenbosch, University of Stellenbosch [available online]) in which he posed the research question: whether it was possible to live sustainably on a small plot of ground. The plot in question was oor die rivier in Suurbraak which, perforce, required him to look into the whole matter of zoning. What he learnt and reported in his thesis has a direct bearing on the current impasse.

Apparently almost the entire village of Suurbraak and the allotments across the river were (provisionally?) zoned Residential 1 (R1), which would have meant that Matt’s vision and that of his spouse, Sasha, to grow their own food and to farm with goats and chickens would have come to naught. Not only would R1 zoning have affected their farming operation and that of others oor die rivier, it would also have put paid to Stan Gaffley’s farming operation and others in the village.

Deeply concerned, Matthew then pointed out to Willie Hattingh, Town Planning and Building Control Swellendam Municipality, that R1 zoning was at odds with the original intention of the London Missionary Society who ceded the 2755 hectares of land to the inhabitants of Suurbraak in 1812, and that the land, therefore, technically, belonged to the original owners but held in trust by the Municipality. (Mentz 2013:154)

Matthew noted in his dissertation that Swellendam Municipality was well aware of the contradictions and open to discussion throughout.

Meetings with the head planner of the Overberg area in 2011 and 2012 highlight the key issue, see appendix 4 (Hattingh 2011). The outcome of meetings with Mr Hattingh is that the residential 1 zoning being applied in Suurbraak is not in actual fact strictly correct. As yet the zoning scheme for Suurbraak has not been approved by Provincial Government, this means that Suurbraak falls under Section 14(1) of Ordinance 15 of 1985 that zones land from 1 July 1986 onwards, based on lawful utilisation on that date (Hattingh 2011). (ibid 182)

And that:

in my latest interaction with the municipal planner Mr. Hattingh (2012), I was informed that the municipality was in the process of revising the zoning of certain areas of Suurbraak to extensive residential zoning, this zoning would facilitate the ‘niche’ settlement approach. (ibid 186-7)

On telephonic enquiry by me, Friday 20 May 2016, an official in Town Planning and Building, Swellendam Municipality confirmed that the allotments oor die rivier and, I assume, all or most of the plots in Suurbraak village are zoned ER.

What exactly is ER? Pages 134-140 of Provincial Gazette Extraordinary 7300 of Friday, 22 August 2014 set out the purpose of ER zoning, which is to:

  • protect the transitional urban fringe area i.e. the area between urban and agricultural uses from being further subdivided and in so doing protect the rural character of the area
  • control and accommodate rural residential landholdings on the urban fringe and smaller erf subdivisions within existing rural settlements and thus promoting rural lifestyles, market gardening and related cottage industries
  • provide for activities, uses and associated infrastructure and buildings that are in keeping with the rural character of the area (ibid 134)

ER zoning therefore allows for agriculture (as in the ‘cultivation of land for crops and plants, or the keeping and breeding of animals’), the erection of agricultural buildings, the running of B&Bs, etc.

Clearly the Municipality had a challenge to blend and regularise iterative customs and legislation (the original Khoikhoi in 1809, the British occupation of the Cape at the time, London Missionary Society in 1812, Apartheid legislation, a new Democratic South Africa, and the Suurbraakoorgansraad) and has, it would seem, done an admirable job in zoning parts of the village of Suurbraak and the allotments oor die rivier RE.

Had the zoning for the town and/or the allotments oor die rivier remained R1 then neighbours could have complained about Matt and Sasha’s goats, Stan Gaffley’s horses, oom Boeta’s beeste (cattle) and all the roosters in town. Now that Swellendam Municipality has zoned much of Suurbraak and oor die rivier RE they cannot.

During the protest on the braak on Sunday 7 May 2017 Beukes stated (translation):

‘Two years ago, to my understanding, that was zoned agricultural (points across the river). No one could build houses there (general agreement). Two years ago the agricultural zoning was unilaterally converted to residential; in other words, an area where people can live. Do you know this? (calls from the audience) Do you know this? (calls from the audience). No one discussed this with us. Not a single person asked our permission. So (holds his hand up for silence).’

Click on the window below to view the footage:

Apropos, Matthew pointed out to me that the village owners of the allotments oor die rivier were always in their rights to sell the title deeds to their land and therefore never required permission from anyone. Furthermore, that agricultural zoning allows for the construction of dwellings. So it seems to me that some of Mr Beukus’s assumptions and conclusions are not entirely accurate and, therefore, a call by the SCA to halt all construction oor die rivier (and in the village?) is problematic and would most likely be challenged.

From my side (and I’m sure others will join me) I’m grateful to Swellendam Municipality (and, historically, Matthew for his difficult questions and his dogged participative persistence) for a legislative framework which legalises the farming activities on both sides of the Buffeljags while simultaneously ensuring its rural ambience.

In balance: Above I complimented the organisers for amassing a march which, from the outside, seemed to be community driven. I’m less sanguine about the letter of demand. Here’s why. If this march is about the non-delivery of houses by Swellendam Municipality, why now involve the Minister of Local Government and Traditional Affairs, the Minister of Land, the Human Rights Commission and Public Protection, public leaders (??), national parliamentarians, and the media? Is it to put additional pressure on Swellendam Municipality or are there perhaps  other reasons? And what comes to mind is the focus in the letter on those living across the river. And I think back on that very first Sunday I attended the protest on the braak and experienced the anger in the community (see ‘These are some of the reasons for the protest’ and ‘Report of what happened and was said during the protest’ in Reasons for, report on, and thoughts about the Suurbraak protest), much of it understandable (see also my report below about the racial incident), and some of it unsettling. This is why Suurbraak needs a leadership which is responsible, and doesn’t fan hatred and split our community.

Although Suurbraak is a microcosm of South Africa as a whole, Suurbraak has also been blessed in its own way. For instance the original Attequa Khoikhoi inhabitants of the valley never lost their land to colonisers (see the section headed ‘Xairu’ in Reasons for, report on, and thoughts about the Suurbraak protest). The London Missionary Society (LMS) intervened on the request of Attakwa-kaptein Hans Moos, and when the LMS withdrew the original owners received title deeds to their plots and homes in the village and their allotments oor die rivier. During the Apartheid period it was the white people who were forcibly removed. Now plots and allotments are being voluntarily sold by the original families and there’s discontent. Why? I have asked this and other questions throughout these reports within a context of someone who loves this valley and wants to live in harmony with nature and its people.

4. Report-back regarding the racial incident

In my previous report: Reasons for, report on, and thoughts about the Suurbraak protest (refer in particular to the following sections: ‘Race’, ‘A perfect storm’ and ‘Racial tension’) I shared a worrying incident in which a white man oor die rivier used racist language against two brown men in the village and how one of the men from the village subsequently laid a charge of crimen iniuria against the white man and how, in return, the white man laid charges of assault against both men from the village.

Although this incident didn’t emerge directly in the march, save for one poster (see the feature pic to this post), at the time the incident aggravated an already tense situation thus heightening my concern that the community might split along racial lines. Therefore I feel that the following update is relevant also to this report.

Geography: There are three bridges over the Buffeljags linking the village of Suurbraak with the allotments oor die rivier and to grazing. The first is in the vicinity of the pump station, the second at the municipal camping site, and the third services an enclave of settlers beyond the town. The white man lives in the third enclave.

The men in question: Both the two men who were insulted have had streets in Suurbraak named after their forebears, thus signalling their long association with Suurbraak. I haven’t mentioned their names nor that of the man oor die rivier as I am unsure of the legal implications and I don’t believe it would be helpful in the present circumstances. I would, however, like to mention that when I mentioned to a neighbour that one of the men was facing an assault charge as part of the legal tit for tat, my neighbour exclaimed: “But he wouldn’t hurt a fly!”

Modus operandi: As I was the only person present during the protest from oor die rivier, and because I am white I felt responsible for a situation that had the potential of polarising the community along racial lines. Unsure of how to proceed I contacted my attorney buddy, Louis de Villiers, for advice, which was to try to avoid tit for legal tat and instead opt for mediation. Louis’ suggestion was to call in a friend who specialises in conflict resolution. Unfortunately the man in question did not reply to our email exchange or to my SMS so I thought it best to try to understand exactly what had taken place, trusting that the answer to the question ‘what to do?’ was embedded in the situation itself.

To that end I shot and the three of us shared a video with the Control Prosecutor at the Swellendam Magistrates Court that captured the geography. After viewing the video and during her meeting with the three, the Control Prosecutor managed to convince the white man to withdraw his assault charges, which then opened the way for the charge of crimen iniuria also to be withdrawn thereby diffusing what might, within the current context, have ended messily and/or tragically.

 5. Now what?

While doing my inkopies (shopping) in Swellendam, Allison (a shop assistant in one of the shops I frequent) asked how it’s going in Suurbraak, as she reads on Facebook that the people need houses, and di’s ‘n jammer (it’s a shame). I pointed out to her that in her town almost 3000 people need houses and how must the Municipality decide. And then I thought that if in the court of public opinion (which seems to be Facebook) Swellendam Municipality is guilty of not doing what they are in fact doing, namely, providing houses for Suurbraak and the other towns that fall within their jurisdiction, then what is going on? And then I thought about the SCA’s letter of demand in which a section of the Suurbraak community is singled out and I thought to myself, why?

Suurbraak has problems. These I discussed in an earlier post (Refer ‘These are some of the reasons for the protest’ in Reasons for, report on, and thoughts about the Suurbraak protest). Therefore, it seems to me, that communally and individually we need to establish which of these problems are critical, given the country as a whole, and, importantly, within our zone of influence to solve. Then it is up to each one of us to do whatever she or he can to help solve and not grow these problems in our day-to-day intercommunication with one another.

My concern is that, given the volatile and already polarised country in which we are living, an ‘us and them’ will harm and is therefore irresponsible. Consequently I believe that the present leadership must use their power to guide wisely in a way that will heal the valley and all who live in it.

This report is part of a series that documents the rolling mass action in Suurbraak and attempts to understand the causes. Previous posts include:

My intention in covering what seems to have become rolling mass action is to see things as they are. Please, therefore, suggest corrections or alternative interpretations in the comment box.

5 thoughts on “Suurbraak rolling mass action: a commentary”

  1. Land ownership and zoning is a most tricky issue. An allotment oor die rivier is surely seen to be agricultural (even if in private ownership with a title deed) vs the residential area in the village. And the commonage, where does that fit in? It is bold to state that the Attequa Khoi did not have their land colonised when it did come under the control of the London Mission Society and subsequently had title deeds issued. In other words, the state system of control did become exercised over this land. Is this not colonisation of land which had previously been informally regarded as belonging to all the community? Of course, in time, modes of ownership, management and control does change. And this is what is now continuing to happen in the more recent history where a remote municipality looks at a map and determines zoning to apply. Probably, for all kinds of practical or other reasons, mostly without real investigation of the issues on the ground and in consultation with the community. Whereas you’re apparently pretty content with the Municipality’s town planning actions, I tend to be more circumspect.

    Finally, families selling their land voluntarily: we know how skewed the relationships are and how these things can bring enormous conflict. We also know that the inkommers generally, even if still not rich, are far more empowered than those they’re purchasing from.

    Of course there’s enormous opportunism and politicking around land distribution and this has been exceptionally badly managed by the government over the past 22 years. Also, simply “redistributing” the land is not necessarily going to solve the problem. An inclusive process involving all of the community is likely the more democratic and lasting way of resolving these issues.

    1. Thank you for your important observations.

      ‘Land ownership and zoning is a tricky issue’


      ‘It is bold to state that the Attequa Khoi did not have their land colonised’

      Assuming I’ve understood and interpreted your position accurately, I admit that I too am seduced by a romantic, purist, absolutist almost biblical take of an Eden trapped in or out of time before this valley ‘come under the control of the London Mission Society’ and ‘the state system of control’. But then what to make of all the European surnames in the village (Dutch, German, Irish and French)? Would this fact be indicative, do you think, of the (corrupting?) influence of colonialism or the natural, inevitable and dynamic unfolding of processes which underpin who we are today (which you also mention later in your comment)?

      Also, isn’t your critique essentially paternalistic in that it suggests that the decisions taken by the Khoikhoi Attequa people to invite the LMS to establish a mission station in the valley implies inferiority and/or subservience? Why shouldn’t it denote a meeting of equals and reciprocity? I’m sure that the Attequa had lots to teach the German missionaries, and vice-versa.

      ‘… a remote municipality looks at a map and determines zoning to apply. Probably, for all kinds of practical or other reasons, mostly without real investigation of the issues on the ground and in consultation with the community. Whereas you’re apparently pretty content with the Municipality’s town planning actions I tend to be more circumspect’

      I have tried in these four reports to be ‘circumspect’; therefore I regret that your impression is that I’m ‘pretty content with the Municipality’s town planning actions’.

      ‘Families selling their land voluntarily: we know how skewed the relationships are and how these things can bring enormous conflict’

      Alan Schmidt made a similar comment to the post ‘Reasons for, report on, and thoughts about the Suurbraak protest’, and I couldn’t agree more with both of you – particularly the associated conflict and pain flowing from a decision by one member of a family to sell property thus depriving siblings or children and therefore later generations of a legacy.

  2. It is unfortunate that we discuss these issues on the internet where the local community has no access to. It is also clear that Hendrik does not know the history of our village, that he writes his articles to the benefit of his family . In his articles Hendrik makes a lot of errors and can therefore not be as neutral as he is supposed to be. Because of his many errors I preferred not to comment on his earlier articles. I invite him to write an open letter to the community in their home language, Afrikaans. Never forget the cultural heritage of this community, my friend!

    1. ‘n Baie sinvolle voorstel Burton, dat die gesprek ok op meer van ‘n voetsoolvlak gevoer word. Ek sou voorstel dat jy in die posiSie is om Hendrik te help om dit te doen. Moontlik kan jy hom help om beter insig te kry in die geskiedenis van die dorp en sy mense. As ons saamwerk en met mekaar kommunikeer is daar groter kans om misverstande te vermy en uit die weg te ruim en te bou aan ‘n beter toekoms. Dit is wat ek verstaan jy hoop om te doen.

  3. I wished to follow up on Mr Burton Beukes’ comment. I found intriguing that one would preclude others from sharing their views – however subjective they might be deemed- on the historical developments underway in Suurbraak. Is the privilege of thought and analysis just the prerogative of people who describe themselves as “true” locals?
    Also I fail to understand where Hendrik’s analysis of the situation benefits his family… Is this because Hendrik refers to his son’s thesis ? Interestingly, this thesis focuses on determining the key leverages for sustainable livelihoods in Suurbraak, with agriculture put at the crux of the issue. If Mr Burton Beukes had the intellectual curiosity to read this thesis, he would see how in fact the thesis is really concerned with rural livelihoods an heritage. I would be most interested in reading Mr Burton Beukes’s objections to Hendrik’s analysis of the situation. If he is so knowledgeable of the village’s history and its people then let this be one of the platforms through which he can -democratically- share his views. There is no doubt that engagement with the village requires other platforms, but let’s not restrict the way we communicate.

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