The tiny plane banked and headed north. It was a sunny morning in 2015, and the pilot and I were flying out of a Johannesburg airfield towards the Zimbabwe border. Having lived in South Africa for six years, I wanted to see from the air a problem I had often thought about: a problem proposed by the end of apartheid, when black people had to enter into and possess a world that white people believed they had created.
Two decades earlier, in 1994, Nelson Mandela had been inaugurated as the country’s first black president. He’d gripped the hand of FW de Klerk – its last white president – and said in Afrikaans, his former jailers’ language: “Wat is verby, is verby!” (“What is past, is past”). These words had expressed the hope for the country’s transition: that with the right attitudes – repentance from white people and forgiveness from people of colour – the damage that segregation had done could be left in the past.
And some parts of South Africa did look miraculously transformed. Apartheid was the most rigid form of legalised racial segregation history has ever known. Now, on the new high-speed train that connects Johannesburg with its airport, white men stood and yielded their seats to black women who were doing business deals on their iPhones.
But it also felt like a dread was hanging over the country. In one newspaper, I read a letter written by a black South African who warned that the country’s level of dissatisfaction would soon “make the burning of Mississippi” – the unrest in the Jim Crow-era American South – “look like a little bonfire”. And I noticed how much of the past was still present. Many roads were still named after Afrikaner heroes, and mine dumps still divided mostly white-dominated neighbourhoods from the ones black people lived in. But the view from the plane was the most graphic manifestation of this division. From the air, Johannesburg’s dense suburban developments gave way to equestrian estates, then to the folds of the Magaliesberg mountains. And then, beyond the mountains, farmland began. And suddenly I saw it. It was so stark.
Apartheid leaders had tried to carve South Africa into multiple countries: a “white” country and a handful of black “homelands”, which they insisted were completely different, sovereign nations. Politically, that was always a farce. The homelands had puppet rulers and no local economies; they commanded little loyalty among their so-called citizens. Most of their residents still commuted to white areas to work.
No foreign country ever recognised the demarcation between white and black South Africa as real. And yet over time what began as an absurdist proposition had become real.
As segregation deepened throughout the 20th century, much of the fertile, rain-washed land had been given to white people, while the barren peaks and hot, dry, malaria-ridden lowlands were given to black tribal leaders. From our little plane, the borders between white and black landscapes were clearly visible: green was white South Africa and dust brown was black South Africa. Different patterns of habitation had emerged: in black South Africa, regularly placed little metal-roofed homes dotted the dun-colored earth. White-owned areas were large sweeps of unbroken pasture or cropland.
Intensive farming had been a pride and a fixation for white South Africans. The degree to which they made the land yield harvest was supposed to be their justification for keeping it. The apartheid government not only stripped black South Africans of the right to privately buy land, but poured massive amounts of money into assistance programmes for white farmers. From the air, the country looked as if a child had cut up travel-magazine pictures of some pastoral English fantasy and spliced them with pictures of the Sahel desert to make a collage.
I was curious to hear from black farmers what it was like to take over formerly white-owned farms. The intense association between whiteness and hi-tech agriculture posed a sharp challenge to black South Africans. Finally able to possess the land they had so long been denied, they felt driven to prove they could farm just as well or better. Land reform was one of the flagship policies that Mandela’s political party, the African National Congress (ANC), instituted after apartheid’s end. It set up a process to buy whites out of their farms and pass them to black people.
The ambitious goal was set to transfer at least 30% of South Africa’s white-owned agricultural land to black people. From 10,000ft up, though, I saw how challenging it would be. When I zoomed in on the lives of the people trying to make it work, I saw that it might be impossible.
Around 2010, the ANC appointed a man named Michael Buys, then in his 40s, to lead land reform in a fruit-producing province in South Africa’s north. I sat down with him in his small, neat office in the provincial capital. When an ad for the job had appeared in the newspaper, Buys recalled feeling a thrill. “I loved the idea of giving land back,” he told me, conspiratorially. “Even of taking it back.”
Buys had a vivid memory of when he first became aware of apartheid’s injustice. He was about 12, and the government was relocating his parents into a house in a neighbourhood that it was designating “mixed race”, evicting the home’s existing black occupants. Materially, for Buys’s family, this was a win. It was a decent house. But Buys had to stand on a curb and watch as the black couple loaded their possessions on to a military truck. The husband was crying. Even so young, Buys felt it was wrong.
Buys was acutely aware of white-run agriculture’s reputation, and the pressure for black farmers to produce higher yields. Yet he quickly became alarmed by the people coming to apply for previously white-owned farms. “Their business plans were way out there,” he said. The applicants envisioned immediately owning fleets of tractors, with incomes in the millions. “We would say: you are only just starting out! We would explain to them that even white farmers who have tractors and delivery vehicles and [irrigation systems] didn’t get to that level overnight.”
The applicants didn’t accept this, Buys recalled. They would retort: “This is our time. You are a black government. You are our people. You should help us get these things so we can be like the ones for whom we once worked.”
The ANC began by focusing on returning land to those they termed “beneficiaries”: the descendants of black people pushed off land to make way for the mechanised farms. In theory, this was the most direct reparation for the way land was stolen from black people. In practice, it quickly created two huge new problems.
The first was that, generations later, there were many more offspring than there had been original victims. And the beneficiaries – who, after a century of industrialisation, now came from diverse lines of work ranging from trucking to mining – had a far greater range of ideas regarding what should be done with the restored land than its original pastoralist occupants had ever had. Groups numbering into the hundreds were resettled on plots that had been owned by a single white family. Many quarrelled over its management, sometimes to the death.
The second, crueller problem was that the descendants of those deprived of rural land were also the least likely to have received the kind of education necessary to run a hi-tech farm in a globalised marketplace. Some couldn’t read; many hadn’t finished high school. Receiving a mechanised farm that immediately demanded the implementation of a computerised marketing plan for exporting the produce to Europe was, for these so-called beneficiaries of liberation, a little like receiving a welcome-to-your-new-country gift basket containing a screaming newborn baby.
Many “beneficiaries” were relatively old and some seemed to have come to the heartbreaking conclusion, after having lived most of their lives condemned to servitude, that servitude was indeed what they had deserved. “We are grateful we got the farm,” Daniel, a former mineworker in his 70s, now the de facto manager of a black-owned lychee plantation, told me when I visited him. Having none of the relevant technical experience, he couldn’t make the farm generate revenue and was now practically starving. “We know we are suffering because we ourselves are not correctly utilising the land.”
Daniel’s land sat in a corridor of fruit plantations that the government bought in the mid-90s and transferred to black people. Twenty years later, the landscape looked as though it had been hit by an apocalyptic event. Lychee and mango trees still grew along the sides of the road, but their leaves were brown and dry, and whatever withered fruit they produced was left on the tree to be gnawed by monkeys. Most of the buildings – sheds, packhouses for drying fruit – had collapsed and been stripped by vandals of their electrical wiring.
Speaking to me sitting on his farmhouse stoop, a threadbare shirt flapping around his thin arms and his hiking boots leaking their stuffing, Daniel told me he thought the missing object standing between him and being a real farmer was a John Deere tractor. If he only had a tractor like the ones he had seen on TV, he could be in business.
“You’re in luck,” I said. I had just come from a farm whose managers wanted to get rid of an unneeded tractor. I said they could drive it over that afternoon. Daniel paused for a long moment and then shook his head sadly. It actually didn’t seem to him it would really solve the problem, he said. Apartheid told black people they simply didn’t have a magic touch necessary to operate a farm, and that notion still operated powerfully.
Buys felt viscerally angry at people like Daniel. But he also knew his anger was a projection of his own shame. Of course many beneficiaries were underskilled. That was what the apartheid regime intended. “I was also embarrassed for myself,” he said. “Because I knew these people’s grandiose fantasies were due to the promises we had been making.”
“We” meant the new government. Just before the 1994 election, the ANC assured South Africans that appropriate housing would be provided to all and there would be “proper” roads and schools. It unveiled an economic policy that promised 500,000 new jobs every year. Buys felt even black elites returning from exile with PhDs didn’t adequately question “how all these things were going to be possible”.
Vishnu Padayachee, an economist, worked with the new government on its economic plans. He told me he remembered feeling trapped by “our insecurities”. He and his colleagues had been told for so long they were unfit to run a modern nation.
Before coming into power, the ANC had advocated socialist policies. As president, though, Mandela started deferring to his white, corporate-friendly finance minister and sent his top brass to do training sessions at Goldman Sachs. Some leftist analysts interpreted these moves cynically – seeing them as a symptom of the corrupting effects of power. But Padayachee felt they arose “directly from our terror”.
Padayachee’s colleagues often talked about South Africa’s democratic transition in language that implied it was a gift they hadn’t earned and, perhaps, didn’t really deserve. One top ANC leader marvelled that De Klerk gave black people “much more than we expected. If De Klerk had given us more, we wouldn’t have known what to do with it!”
By the 90s, no postcolonial sub-Saharan African nation was considered a straightforward success story. Many, like Ghana, appeared to come out of colonialism strong, only to see their economies falter; others got bogged down in civil war. “One shouldn’t underrate the depth of unspoken [western] disillusionment about post-colonial Africa,” a Reagan-era US diplomat told me. South Africa was under pressure from abroad to prove that at least one of sub-Saharan Africa’s then nearly 50 nations could be an unqualified success.
Some on Padayachee’s economic team wanted much more redistributive policies. Others, though, pointed out that black people were taking responsibility for a system designed by white people, and it would only give white people satisfaction to see them break it. Therefore, the new government should do everything white advisers said. To Padayachee, it was maddening, this absolute inability to shake free from what white people thought of their actions.
One of the people who believed the new government’s promises was Elliot Matshubeng, the son of a village chief in a homeland. Growing up, he didn’t initially entirely realise he was disadvantaged. In the local language, his village’s name, Lefatla, meant “where the sun comes from”, the origin point of beauty itself. And his father’s homestead had a stately aura, a feeling of cool elegance. I saw it one spring when I took a bus from Johannesburg to meet his family. The main house sat at the end of a long, sweetly pastoral drive punctuated by a set of mango, papaya and wild fig trees bending gracefully over a packed-earth patio.
By the 70s, Matshubeng’s father, Elias, had attained a supervisory position on an asbestos mine. He’d realised that to get ahead, he would have to study how white people thought and what qualities in black men they respected – not submit to them, but work them like clay, massaging their egos until they took the shape that furthered his goals. At the time, the apartheid government was handing out business permits in the homelands to try to prevent black people from migrating to the white-run cities. Cultivating the goodwill of the white mine managers and their friends, Elias eventually won a coveted permit to open a chain of grocery stores. He began to buy up cattle. Admiring locals clustered their thatched-roof houses around his estate. “My father,” Matshubeng told me proudly, “was the first one to bring serious money back to his village.”
But the end of white rule actually ruined Elias financially. To my surprise, Matshubeng called black liberation his family’s “collapse”. Apartheid’s restrictions on movement had benefited some homeland businesses, as people were forced to shop locally. After the restrictions were removed, people preferred to go to the big mall in a formerly white area nearby. In the early 90s, in the space of a year, Elias’s grocery stores went from bustling to empty. Now the family were forced to subsist on cornmeal porridge and morogo, or cooked wild leaves. The locals moved their houses away from Elias’s estate stone by stone. After almost his entire herd of cows were stolen, “my father sat down and said: ‘I surrender.’”
When he graduated from high school in 1998, Matshubeng decided that opportunity must lie elsewhere. “Everyone was telling me: ‘Go to Johannesburg,’” he said. By then, “we knew we came from the dark places”. He used this phrase often to describe his homeland. It was dark for lack of electricity, but also dark for lack of sophistication and opportunity. “We all assumed Johannesburg had become the bright area.” So, at 20, Matshubeng left his parents and younger siblings and headed to the city.
He had a plan. “I would work for two years to buy a new house for my parents. The third year, I would marry.” I asked him what kind of job he had imagined for himself. “Being at a desk,” he said. Then he laughed.
It hadn’t worked out that way. The end of apartheid opened the cities to black people, but it didn’t create many new roles in them, so many new black entrants remained visitors, condemned to standing in endless queues as if locked in some eternal process of immigration. Matshubeng spent two years searching for an office job. In that time, he landed just one day of work in a cold-storage facility. He and the other new hires lumbered around the frost-covered interior shelving pallets of frozen beef. At the end of the day, the new hires were fired. Management decided it didn’t need the extra hands after all.
After Matshubeng realised he might never find a job in Johannesburg, he started spending afternoons at a community library. In one aisle, he found an intriguing set of brochures for agricultural colleges. It struck him that commercial farming was a greater dream than acquiring an office job. “It had been this white thing,” he told me. That understanding made him feel defiant. “I want to prove to young black people: you can be a farmer, as a black person.”
Making it through college was a huge undertaking. Unable to pay for a room in a campus dorm, he lived and studied by candlelight in a shed in a friend’s yard. After he finished the programme, he undertook a research project at a company called Mike’s Chicken. The owner, Bertus Kirstein, had started with a pair of sheds and grown it to a sprawling complex of 50 computer-operated broiler-chicken houses.
By the time he went to college, Matshubeng’s childhood confusion about his father’s decline had ripened into a kind of disdain. In Kirstein, a jovial, knowledgable man, he found a new father figure. “I didn’t have an idea of who I could be when I grew up,” Matshubeng told me. “I had never seen that person. Now I saw him.”
After Kirstein’s farm, Matshubeng applied for and received a land reform farm that the government bought back from its white owner. He wanted young people to be inspired by it. He wanted them to say to themselves: “That one – it’s a real business, indeed.”
Michael Buys, the land-reform official, confessed to me what felt to him like a shameful secret. Under apartheid, “we were always looking at the white areas,” he said. “It looked like they had everything! There was a sense among us that the country that had been bequeathed to us was the white country. But it wasn’t.” He dropped his voice. “It was the whole country.” Every messed-up element that had existed under apartheid, in other words.
Buys’s superiors told him not to grill the land-reform applicants, since asking probing questions implied black people ought to worry about their abilities. “A black man comes in with an application for a farm,” his bosses would challenge him. “Why do you ask all these questions? You don’t think he’ll be able to do what the white people did?”
Buys was often the man tasked with dropping the beneficiaries off at the gates of their new farms. Sometimes, driving home, he would find himself gripping his steering wheel and blinking back tears. “As I’m driving away, I would be very sad – I already know it’s not going to work for them,” he said. “I could feel it. It is not going to work.”
He had truly hoped the sweat and tears that black people poured into fighting apartheid would be converted, without too much more painful struggle, into the capacity to steward, to grow, and, most of all, to finally enjoy their country. But then Buys would wonder if this wish wasn’t another byproduct of outside pressure. The world was impatient for South Africa to be an overnight “miracle” – maybe even more impatient than black South Africans were. Westerners in particular seemed to want South Africans to offer them proof that the campaigns they mounted to help end apartheid hadn’t been for nothing. In obsessing over the South African miracle in the 90s, Buys sensed foreigners wanted to be shown they had done something really significant for the earth’s poor and marginalised, and that they’d thereby dispatched their duty toward all formerly colonised peoples.
Things went wrong on Matshubeng’s farm from the start. He had not set foot on his property until Buys left him at the gate. When he got inside, he saw it was a ruin. The previous white owner had abandoned it months before the sale. The fields had grown over with prickly weeds and the sheds’ roofs had caved in. In his first weeks, he cleared a small field to plant tomatoes while he figured out how to proceed, but wild boar dug up all his seedlings. The previous owner also left a £5,000 outstanding electricity bill, and the electric company had cut the power supplying the farm’s water pumps and lights. At night, sleeping on the floor inside the farmhouse, Elliot would hear herds of creatures snuffling nearby. He’d go out onto the porch, turn on the flashlight on his cell phone and wave it in the darkness. A hundred moon-bright eyes would reflect back at him, and he’d feel more lost than he ever felt in the homeland.
Over the next two years, Matshubeng cleared the roads, ploughed the fields, and built new chicken sheds. I met him just as he was selling his first batch of chickens. He bounded out to the farm gate to greet me with a grin, exuding pride. He wore polished brown leather shoes and a T-shirt branded with a logo of a chicken and the name of the farm, Mashabela, after his beloved grandmother. His mobile phone buzzed persistently. As orders came in, he’d apologise, swivelling away from me to punch out replies.
That afternoon, though, would turn out to be a high-water mark, ahead of what would become the most crushing period of disappointment in his life. The farm the government had awarded him was simply inappropriate for rearing chickens. It was too small, with too little space for sheds; supermarkets wanted suppliers who could provide thousands of chickens at a time. Matshubeng switched to selling eggs, but egg-laying hens were hungrier. His plot was too small to grow feed, so he had to buy it all. He slid into debt, sold all his chickens, and gave up.
It had been an article of faith for him that, with hard work and determination, he could become a success. But the truth was that for him to succeed as a commercial farmer on classic “white” terms had always been impossible. White-style farming in South Africa may have looked good, but only because it rested on the segregationist regime. Most smaller farms that succeeded under apartheid did so because workers without labour protections were cheap and because economic sanctions insulated them from competition. When markets opened up after apartheid ended, farms that had been economically viable suddenly weren’t. White farmers have been failing in huge numbers. Between 1994 and 2009, when Matshubeng got his farm, three successive white owners had failed to make any profit on it.
Not long before he gave up chicken farming, Matshubeng and I visited Mike’s Chicken, the farm on which he’d modelled his dreams. We were received by Kirstein in his spacious office. The desk was the size of a dinner table and on the walls hung a set of oil paintings depicting strutting roosters. Matshubeng had worn his whitest shirt, and he eagerly engaged his mentor about the diet his chickens ate.
“Sixty-five percent maize, plus sunflower,” said Kirstein.
“And you enrich with bone meal?”
“I always say, ‘If you give the bird what it wants, it’ll give you what you want,’” Kirstein chuckled. But he seemed distracted, as if he’d just absorbed some kind of shock.
Then he confessed he had. In a rush of words, he admitted that, that very morning, he’d sold his business to the government. “The Brazilians get two crops [of maize] a year,” he said. “And their farmers get subsidies.” These days, he no longer received a big subsidy. Costs were going up. “Last year was the worst, the worst ever,” he said.
Massive corporate farms could easily ride out such fluctuations, but mid-sized ones couldn’t. “To survive the ups and downs of being on the global market, you have to be integrated. You have to be huge.” The previous year, Mike’s Chicken had lost £1.6m. “The business no longer makes any sense,” said Kirstein. In the end, he had to sell to clear his debts.
Matshubeng was silent as we got into my car to leave. During the hour-long drive back to his farm, he stared out of the passenger-side window. Finally, he spoke. “We blacks saw businesses we thought had no challenges,” he said. “But we were lying to ourselves.”
It occurred to me that the black owner who took over Kirstein’s farm would probably have little knowledge of its perils, and, when he subsequently amassed his own debt, he would blame himself.
Both black and white South Africans often sounded surprised when I described white farmers’ failure. The stubborn narrative remains that the white-built agricultural sector was a jewel that black people are in the process of destroying. In 2010, the chief of staff to the land-reform minister wondered bitterly whether it wasn’t true that black people innately “can’t farm”. Land is “a liberation tool”, he declared. Yet it seemed black people were “using it to add to their poverty”.
This narrative operates in many other realms. Take the government itself. A storyline has coalesced that the apartheid government, while unjust, was bureaucratically efficient and financially sound. In an operational sense, in other words, it was superior – “first world”, if morally evil. Even black-run newspapers carry stories about modern South Africa’s failure to live up to the apartheid regime’s standards of “service delivery”.
People remember the apartheid era as one in which the lights were always on. Now there are frequent power outages, and innumerable newspaper columns express bafflement and frustration about the government’s failure to sustain the state-owned power provider’s operational standard. What these neglect to mention is that, in the early 90s, only half of South African households even had access to electricity. The new government massively increased electricity provision; today, nine out of ten households has access to power. The power grid has been expanded, but it’s also overtaxed. The way white South Africans see it – literally, from inside their houses in formerly all-white neighbourhoods – it looks like all the lights are going off in the country one by one. But, meanwhile, they have not come on for black South Africans as they expected. All South Africans anticipated getting electricity not long after 1994.
According to the South African essayist Njabulo Ndebele, the conviction that the state white South Africans created was functionally perfect has become stronger since the end of apartheid. Perhaps that’s because, without that illusion, there is nothing to hold the country up – no model, nothing to judge it by. And it might be too devastating to face the truth. The country cannot be stewarded, it must be reimagined, which only sounds like a thrill if you haven’t tried to do it.
But Ndebele reckoned this view of the past also kept South Africans “locked in a space of anguish”. Because when it comes to competence, the past was not as shining as is believed. Financial scandal repeatedly dogged the apartheid parliament. Institutional nepotism was the modus operandi for the civil service.
The apartheid government was almost bankrupt when it handed over the reins to black people. It was partly a relief for the last white leaders of South Africa to pass the buck. Instead of giving up a prize, you could say De Klerk managed to sell a used car on the verge of a breakdown to a family that only realised, when they got in to drive it, that it was a piece of crap. But the family had no other options, so it became necessary for them to convince themselves they’d got something of great value.
Such value has been built up for so long around white things in South Africa that I wondered how it would be possible for black people not to feel they were breaking them. This can breed tremendous resentment. I saw that in Elliot Matshubeng shortly after he gave up his dream of farming, when I came upon him sitting listlessly outside his shed. Searching for an explanation for his failure, he had uncharacteristically settled on blatant racism. “It’s because I’m not white,” he told me when I sat down beside him under the sun. “Truly speaking. I don’t lie to you.”
All the notions of black inferiority fed to him from the beginning were incorporated into that conclusion, I sensed. Towards the end, he had tried to strike a deal with a white slaughterhouse owner, who said Matshubeng had too few chickens to make the arrangement worthwhile. Matshubeng spat with outrage as he recounted the exchange. He was certain the slaughterhouse owner would not have treated him that way if he were white. “Even if my life someday becomes a success,” Matshubeng said bitterly, “as long as I live, that” – the slaughterhouse owner’s slight, and the sense that white intransigence alone had foiled him – “that I will never forget.”
This is an edited extract from The Inheritors: An Intimate Portrait of South Africa’s Racial Reckoning, published by Simon & Schuster on 19 July