Riemvasmaak: New Trust, New Hope
RIEMVASMAAK – The bone dry, dusty, rocky but spectacularly dramatic landscape of the place that is Riemvasmaak lying on the North bank of the mighty Orange River was originally settled in the 1930s by people of Xhosa, Damara, and Nama origin. Until they were forcibly removed by the Apartheid State to their “ethnic homelands” in the then Ciskei in the Eastern Cape and what was to become the independent State of Namibia, to make way for a military testing site that is. With the advent of democracy in 1994 Riemvasmaak leapt to the forefront of modern day South Africa’s fledgling land reform programme as the first land restitution case where land rights were restored to their rightful owners. The process of normalization was given added impetus at the time by the designation of Riemvasmaak as a Presidential Lead Project under the Mandela administration.
Although they were blessed with a resource endowment that included prime irrigable agricultural land, significant mineral deposits and tremendous tourism potential based on the spectacular landscape and the mineral rich hot springs along the Molopo River, the community has struggled for almost twenty-four years to realise the productive value of these resources. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the generations that they spent geographically separated by thousands of kilometers by Apartheid’s racist planners and social engineers, matters have been complicated by the struggle the “returnees” have experienced in building a sense of community. In the early days, massive deficiencies in social and economic infrastructure inhibited development at Riemvasmaak. This was exacerbated by the fact that the two major parts of the community settled at Sending on the plateau and Vredesvallei close to the river opposite the intensive high-value table grape production area of Blouputs. Over the years there have been big improvements in infrastructure and a bridge, the lack of which was often cited as the major impediment to agricultural development at Vredesvallei, has been built and now enables easy access. But despite big improvements in the state of Riemvasmaak’s social and economic infrastructure agricultural development in particular remains as elusive as it has been over the past twenty years or more.
There has never been a shortage of investor interest in developing the irrigable agricultural land but weak institutional arrangements, corruption and a dysfunctional Community Trust have discouraged investment. In 2009 the Community Trust was placed under administration by the Master of the High Court in Kimberley after the misuse of Trust funds was uncovered. In the years that followed, community relations with the administrators deteriorated and no-one, not even the Minister of Rural Development who visited Riemvasmaak in 2014, seemed able to resolve matters. Perhaps the worst and most recent example of the constraint to development that corruption and a dysfunctional Community Trust represents is seen in the total collapse of the approximately 176ha of established vineyards at Vaaldrift one of the additional farms purchased for the Riemvasmaak community by the State in 2008. At the time the farm was leased to an organisation called South African Fruit Exporters and managed by their empowerment company called Bono. Initially the Community Trust received an annual lease income of R1.5 million but over the intervening years this was inexplicably reduced outside of the provisions of the lease agreement to a third of that. Because the Trust was dysfunctional and it seems because of the Administrators were unable or unwilling to take a decision on the renewal or issuing of a long-term lease, SAFE/Bono simply abandoned the farm in mid-2017 leaving the Vineyards untended and unwatered with the result that they are all now dead! A crying waste of a productive resource, one that will take tens of millions of Rand to rehabilitate.
It is one thing to fail to develop. It is another to regress in this way to the point of destroying what were productive economic assets. The naysayers of course lay the blame at the hands of the Community Trust. But are they really to blame. Did government and its agencies do enough to ensure the proper empowerment of the Trust or did they simply fail the community? Even if there was corruption why didn’t the law take its course and the Administrators corral the necessary government and parastatal agencies to do what was required to assist this community to realise the value of its economic assets? There will be those that say “it’s not as easy as that”. Actually it is. Supporting historically disadvantaged rural communities by giving them agricultural land and water is almost sabotage by design; or, at least by omission. The need for a much more comprehensive integrated “package” of support is and was obvious even in the heady days following 1994.
That it wasn’t forthcoming is a sad indictment on all concerned. Thankfully in late 2017, things came to a head with a community inspired push for the election and appointment of new Trustees. A new Trust is now in place and has been recognised by the Master of the High Court and it has already shown it is serious about driving development. At a meeting held last week between members of the Trust, its Agricultural Committee, a prospective agricultural development and management company and the Land Bank, the latter has indicated that it would be willing to entertain the submission by the Trust of an agricultural development business plan and funding proposal. A private sector party, that as a matter of principle does not seek equity participation at Riemvasmaak, has already consulted with the Agricultural Committee of the Trust, undertaken site visits and has made recommendations for a strategy of phased development of the community’s agricultural assets. The idea on the table, which needs to be elaborated and agreed with the Trust, would be to start with the replanning and redevelopment of the farm Vaaldrift where existing infrastructure makes the raising of development capital easier, followed by the development of lands serviced by as yet unused infrastructure installed by the provincial Department of Agriculture.
In subsequent phases, undeveloped land at Vredesvallei and Koedoekamp where little or no infrastructure currently exists could be developed. All parties agreed though that stability in the Community Trust and acceptance by the community of the proposed agricultural development plan are essential pre-requisites for any new development. Mindful of the recent history and the risks that weak institutional arrangements pose, the Secretary to the Trust has called for support to empower the Trustees to manage the affairs of the Trust properly, including making the right decisions regarding the best institutional framework for any commercial agricultural development. If only for the fact that the installation of a new Riemvasmaak Community Trust brings new hope for development and the realization of the massive economic potential that development of their agricultural assets can bring to this iniquitously impoverished community, his call cannot go unanswered. Happily, indications are that a progressive private sector player is prepared to take the lead in this process. The public and parastatal sectors must be mobilized to reinforce the combined initiative of the Community Trust and the private sector.