Film Description

Promised Land tells the story of two bellwether legal struggles over land in today's South Africa. In one, an impoverished community seeks the return of 42,000 acres of rich farmland now in the hands of white farmers and developers; in the other, an extended, middle-class black family claims 3,800 acres owned by a few white farmers. The black South Africans have family and tribal traditions and the ugly history of black expulsion from the land to make their case. They also have the government led by the African National Congress (ANC), which promised upon taking power in 1994 to redistribute a third of the land within 10 years.

A family walking in South Africa. Photo by Shandu Negsani.

On the other side are white landowners, whose deeds and bills of sale buttress their passionate belief that they should not be made to pay individually for the collective crimes of apartheid. In this belief, surprisingly, they are supported by the same ANC-led government that promised to redistribute the land. The contradiction in government policies, a compromise strategy meant to appease white fears during the transition to democratic rule, has worked out mostly to the disadvantage of black South Africans. A decade and a half after the inauguration of black majority rule, less than 5 percent of the land has been redistributed. Promised Land is a timely alert that the patience of South African blacks, waiting for economic as well as political enfranchisement, is running out -- that the hour hand has advanced dramatically on South Africa's "ticking time bomb."

With behind-the-scenes access to landless blacks, white landowners and beleaguered government functionaries, Promised Land is a gripping insider's account of the social and human stakes in South Africa's struggle over land. When filming for Promised Land started in 2004, there were some 22,000 active land claims filed by South African blacks that were awaiting resolution. Many of them had been "in process" for years and were finally being decided.

In Promised Land, the 9,000-member Mekgareng community wants the government to return the 42,000 acres from which it says its forebears were expelled 40 years ago. The group is opposed by 260 white owners. Leading the landowners is Johan Pretorius, who has deeds for his land dating back to the 1850s, well before the community's expulsion and even before the Native Land Act of 1913 (which banned black ownership of land). The Mekgareng have only one letter making reference to their forced expulsion. Though they are poor and lack the resources of the wealthy landowners, the Mekgareng have dynamic and able leaders, including Philip Rafedile and Solly Selibi.

The 1,000 descendants of Abram Molamu, led by Kathy Motlhabane, Steve Bogatsu and Pinky Gumede, have the advantage of being educated and having the means to afford lawyers, but they face the determined resistance of Hannes Visser, a farmer and meatpacker. Molamu originally purchased farmland in the Lichtenburg area in 1895; his sons later divided up the land but were forced to sell it to the government in the 1940s. The land was subsequently owned by a succession of white farmers. Visser believes the question of whether the Molamu family sold the land to whites willingly or under compulsion makes no difference in his case, since he acquired his property in 1968.

The individual dramas of the antagonists in both cases -- equally passionate about their rights to the land -- take place against the larger drama of a black African government trying to temper the economic expectations and frustrations of the black majority. Promised Land portrays a government fully aware of the potential for social conflict and reluctant to stoke the fires. With regard to land reform, the ANC has committed itself to a market-based "willing seller, willing buyer" model. In actuality, however, there are few willing sellers. In the view of many critics, the process instituted by the government ostensibly to encourage legal claims has only served to slow and even bury claims. In any case, few landless blacks can match the legal proofs of ownership possessed by the land's current owners.

Roger Roman is one white landowner in Promised Land who defies the norm in these growing conflicts. Faced with joining his fellow landowners in evicting black "squatters," including one man who had lived his entire 103 years on the land, Roman did an about-face. He went on a hunger strike to protest the eviction, gave his land back to the descendants of its original inhabitants and founded the organization Land for Peace.

The political compact made by the ANC with the apartheid regime, which exchanged majority rule for a suspension of questions about economic justice, was intended to save untold numbers of lives. But as black majority rule nears its 20th anniversary, South Africa's blacks are organizing themselves to right the economic injustices of their history. As shown in Promised Land, under pressure from Molamu's descendants, the government for the first time forces a white landowner, Hannes Visser, to sell property -- in this case a farm and meatpacking plant that has employed many blacks. While Visser tries to rebuild his life, the forced sale of his land ignites a political uproar that pushes South Africa's ticking time bomb closer to zero hour.

"It's going to put me back quite a long ways; I won't have sufficient funds to buy another farm," says Visser. "I can't prophesize, but it's only in the future that we will see whether this process is a successful process or is it a wrong process, where we're undoing wrongs in the past by repeating the wrongs in the future. . . . But when the whistle blows, irrespective of if it had been a fair win or not a fair win, the game is over. So you start a new game."

Government official Blessing Mphela notes that the challenges for blacks continue after redistribution. He says, "As we are restoring land to our people we've got to recognize that [as] part of the apartheid racial dispossession of land they've lost their skills in using the land, because we are talking about four, five generations down the line." Kathy Motlhabane, one of descendants of Molamu who now own the land, notes, "It's exciting but you know what? It's also fearsome because it's a big challenge. I think the most difficult thing is post-settlement. When the land has been given, what next?"

"To me, the land struggle in South Africa is emblematic of how all post-colonial societies are dealing with race, reconciliation and reparations," says director Richen. "Though there was great tension and mistrust among the Mekgareng and the Molamu descendants on the one hand, and the white landowners on the other, all sides freely shared their lives, feelings and opinions with me. I believe they did this because they share a desire to tell the story of their country in transition, reflecting a shared belief in South Africa's future."

Promised Land is a co-production of Promised Land Film, the National Black Programming Consortium (NBPC), American Documentary | POV and the Diverse Voices Project, with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.