A TREK INTO THE UNKNOWN
a report by Marion Mayer Hohdahl
Camera: Efpé Senekal
Video editor: Tanya Heymann-Uys
Jan Tromp, a South African farmer, has signed over his farm and fields to his son. He’s migrated to the Congo to chance his luck there.
His hopes for South Africa have disappeared. Sarie and Frans Cronjé feel the same and they want to follow in the footsteps of their friend as soon as they can. The Tromps show their friends photographs of their new home.
O-sound, Jan Tromp, farmer
South Africa isn’t politically stable anymore. We’ve got a new government with these people taking over - communistic, socialistic people. They got their education in a communist atmosphere. They are starting to change things in South Africa and that’s why it’s not stable anymore.
Many farmers think the same. They’ve had a tough time. Seven years of drought has ruined some farmers. It’s been a long time since trains last travelled through here.
In Frans Cronjé’s factory the machines will only be running for a few more weeks. He wants to go to the Congo. Both his children are grown up and the promised 400 hectares of land with a house appeals to him. He used to have land - but he had to give it up.
Stay in this country? We are going bankrupt. There’s no future for farming in this country.
O-sound Sarie Cronjé
We’re together. We will have more time for one another in the Congo than we have in South Africa. I want to leave.
The container is already on its way. The bags are almost packed. Their house has been on the market for a year, but there haven’t been any nibbles, so the factory and the machines remain unsold. The Cronjés keep postponing their departure date, but Frans has visited the Congo many times to check it out. He’s already found a house and the fields are ready.
The last resort - everything has to be auctioned off to get together the necessary cash for the move. His neighbours take whatever’s a good bargain. But nobody’s interested in the larger items. The house, the factory, some workbenches. He’ll have to leave South Africa without a tractor and car - there’s not enough money to ship them.
Question: Are you happy with the sale?
Answer: No, not at all. There's no money.
Question: And the house?
Answer: I couldn’t sell it.
Question: So what will you do?
Answer: I’ll have to rent it out.
Question: Will you have enough money to start over there?
Answer: I hope so.
Question: What’s the biggest disappointment today?
Answer: Everything has been given away, and not sold at the right price.
Finally, the longed for day - their arrival in the Congo. Frans and Sarie Cronjé are picked up by their neighbours. It’s another one hours drive to Socoton - their new home.
This used to be a communist agricultural co-operative - before communism gave way to capitalism. The white South African farmers don’t have enough capital to get everything going immediately. But the Congolese government has put the land at their disposal - including a small amount of start-up capital.
The first church service in their new home. Not everyone has come - four families have already left and gone back to South Africa. Some have fallen out with each other, others have moved on to other areas. The South African Farmers Organisation which has enticed most of the farmers here and made them pay them a contribution, has more or less let them down.
South African farmers here have been having problems with the local population since the beginning of the year. The blacks have gone on strike, and the harvest lies uncollected. The Congolese say the South African whites are racists, pay too little and take away their lands. Previously they all had jobs. Now, only a few are employed. The atmosphere amongst the Boers is bad, and no-one knows how things will develop.
Frans Cronjé in front of his new house. It’s still not renovated, and perhaps it never will be. If the blacks don’t want them, then he doesn’t want to be here. He thinks about moving on.
I don’t have any problems with the blacks. They've got a problem with us. They try to kill us, I mean kill the project. That’s why no-one here succeeds in doing anything.
Good advice would be welcome. The Boer farmer didn’t imagine his life like this in the Congo.
Wilhelmien and Prop Olivier are the Cronjés neighbours. They came here with their young family over a year ago. Now they want to leave. Not back to South Africa, but somewhere else in the Congo. They want to try their luck alone and don’t want to live with other Boers. They’re thinking about Pointe Noire - a port city with the necessary infrastructure. The children need schools close by and six year old Tiaan needs a doctor.
I think people came here for different reasons: either to make some fast money which is not happening, or they’ve come for a better future, or better farming possibilities. I think everyone has their own reasons for coming here. I hope that they don’t want to establish a small white country in the middle of a black country – that wouldn't be fair to the Congolese.
For families with children its particularly difficult. Wilhelmien teaches her daughter. For fifteen years she taught ballet to children in South Africa. It’s not possible for her to earn any extra money here.
Her husband was behind the move to the Congo. A qualified welder, he always wanted to have a farm, and be a farmer like his grandfather. In South Africa he couldn’t afford it, and it looks like the same thing is going to happen in the Congo.
From their body language and attitude you can see that the blacks are teasing you. And it makes you feel uncomfortable, and it makes you feel sad. The kids aren’t really safe anymore because the little Congolese children throw stones at them, push them off their bikes and annoy them.
There’s no school for whites anywhere in the region and none for Afrikaans speakers, the language of the Boers. Wilhelmien teaches the children - as well as she can. But books have to be sent from South Africa, and it’s particularly difficult with the small one, who demands all her attention.
Eleven year old Ciska doesn’t have many friends, but she doesn’t complain much.
I miss my friends a lot. Because, in the books it says 'work with your friend'. But I never will go back to South Africa. I’ll stay in the Congo.
Because of the drought that we had in December and January It was the worst drought that they had in 50 years in the Congo. And also because of the stealing. I don't know if it is because of the drought that they start to steal the fish – but that's why I closed the dams there.
Even amongst the whites on the farm – they don't like the idea of my white daughter playing with a Congolese girl, and I see nothing wrong with it. So lots of little things that seem to break the project.
The local youngsters often show their displeasure over the new settlers. They take their wood from directly in front of the South Africans houses, despite the fact there’s enough elsewhere in the area.
Interview - French
Those there. Why are they here. What made them come here? We laugh at them. Before one man had everything in his hand. One man - when you count, there are six or seven that have stayed. They don’t have any money and can’t organise anything and try to us about. Do this.....do that...They can never make us. They’ve only come here to treat us badly. We want them to get the hell out of here and go back to where they came from.
Interview - French
The people don’t talk with us.
Insert: But they don’t know any French
Youth - french
No. Some also speak English ...and some of them French. They simply don’t want to have anything to do with us.
The next day there’s no water in the South Africans’ houses. 150 meters of cable was stolen during the night. It was the cable from the pump to the water reservoir.
We try to be friendly and help them. But they come and steal the cable. We’ve had problems before with theft. They tried to pinch the whole pump.
Jan Tromp’s had enough. He’s going to see the village chief. There’s been too many burglaries and too many thefts. With the help of the village elders the problem should be solved. He’s never sat down and eaten at a table with black people before, but if he wants to stay in the Congo that will have to change. But additional problems will keep arising – ones he wasn't aware of.
They say that the land doesn’t belong to the government and that they’re the owners here. I’m supposed to make a contract with them but I don’t want to. I won’t make an agreement with them because we will have trouble for many years to come.
There are already enough difficulties for the South Africans. The settlement is far from a commercial centre, and the 150 meters of electric cable needed can only be found in the city. A water supply from the river is the only solution.
In an emergency the Boers still stick together. They rotate collecting water for themselves and their neighbours. After four days, they find a cable that’s long enough. Every evening, its rolled up and locked up. It’s the only way to secure their water supply.
The settlement of Socoton lies halfway between Brazzaville, the capital, and the port city of Pointe Noire. There are no decent road connections between the two cities. Humidity is high and the heat overwhelming. In just a few days, a track can become completely overgrown. The villagers hack their way through the bush.
They grow sugar cane, manioc and peanuts - but only enough for their own needs. They’re too poor to buy machinery and even during the French colonial era the Congolese were never farmers. That’s why the current government have tried to attract experienced farmers who with their know-how will bring the land into full production. But will take a long time with the South Africans if they stay - and that’s if the local population allows them.
Interview - French
Gabriel Moussoni, village chief
What we need is a large enterprise. If we had one, if the South Africans had established one, that would have been it. There wouldn’t be any quarrelling. They have come - each one for himsef. One takes two workers, another five or 10 - that’s simply not enough. We’ve got a lot of young people. Too many that don’t have enough to do, too many who don’t have work.
And that annoys the locals. The South Africans work the land with their tractors alongside locals who are forced to walk a long way to bring in their harvest.
Interview - french
David Nguimdi, farmer
Since the South Africans are here they haven’t given us enough work. That’s what bothers us. If they gave us a little bit of work, then we could feed our children and I would be happy. We have to slave away with our hands, and that’s hard.
Everyone was expecting some kind of miracle from the farmers. David Nguimdi has six children to bring up. But without work, it’s difficult. He worked for a short time for the South African farmers until he was no longer needed. The soil is fertile, and there’s hardly any malnourishment, but no one here has any money.
David used to earn about 10 Rand a day. Not enough for his family to live on. He wants his son to do well in school so his life will be better than his fathers.
The village of 3’000 people is full of presses for raw sugar cane. The juice is poured into bottles and, after fermentation, is sold as a potent drink. Business is good.
Because they don’t have any work, the villagers simply hang around. The younger ones can no longer expect to work the land like their fathers. Their only hope lies in the big cities of Brazzaville and Pointe Noire. The South African farmers organisation and their local workers promised that 7’000 hectares would be cultivated – as much as was farmed in communist times. The villagers don’t understand that some farmers have divided the land between them, without any of them being the boss of the others.
Maize is pounded to make an alcoholic drink. This is the local bar. Even the village chief drops in for a glass from time to time.
There’s big disappointment on both sides. The South African Farmers Organisation has let the farmers down - they don’t speak French and there’s a lack of translators. The land rights belong to no one, and the villagers steal and quarrel. The last hope of the newly arrived farmers is the politician responsible for the region.
Interview - French
Statement Maurice Niaty-Mouamba
One has to say that the organisation that brought the farmers here hasn’t done its work. For us that means a lot of difficulties. While we were still discussing and putting things on paper the South Africans had already arrived. It was the government that had invited them here to invest. Now, we have to support the South Africans. We’re trying to find a solution to stop the quarrelling, so finally work can begin and everyone can find trust and hope.
Everyone is hoping for success. The farmers want to look around, and they visit other South Africans who live two hours away from Socoton. There are only a few tar-sealed roads in this area, and when it rains, the route is difficult to negotiate.
Yet the landscape of Congo is beautiful and untouched.
Trudie Fouche and her family came here seven months ago. They decided to live in the bush - far away from Socoton - and far from the other farmers.
A short time ago this was jungle. They’ve levelled off the tracks. The fields have been prepared. They have no problems with the blacks.
This is definitely my home now.
I love it here. It’s so peaceful. We're so used to violence in South Africa, and this is a very peaceful country.
Nadia Fouche, 15 years-old
I’ve got a small problem. I’m not very good in school - only average. But we’ll get a computer programme for school. It doesn’t really hold me back.
Another South African couple have also done it. Sarie Cronjé visits both of them for the first time and can hardly believe what she sees. They’ve been here less than a year. Thirty hectares of vegetable fields are planted - chillies, tomatoes, onions, potatoes – all plants which are expensive in the Congo, bought mainly by foreigners. Eight locals take the produce to the market. Orders are even coming in from the capital.
The Wolfaardt couple haven’t had any problems with their workers. They accept they are dependent on each other.
Louise Wolfaardt and her husband have no complaints about their new life in the Congo - the 57 year-old is selling her tomatoes for six times as much as she did in South Africa.
I tell you something – we think they are very, very kind people. Since the day we started Loudima all the people have been very very lovable. The Congolese people are beautiful people.
Their happy life here shows the newcomers that South Africans can be successful in the Congo when they change their attitude.
Not everyone is so positive about their experience in the Congo.
I'm not willing to do it again, on the same basis that we've done it when we came here.
Are you disappointed?
Yes we are very disappointed with plenty of things. But we must make now the best os the worst.
Well in the first place we bought a farm, and we paid for a house. Ok we knew it was houses that needed a bit of repair, but as it seems now we have nothing. And so now we have a bit of a problem?
And who did that to you?
Well the company that brought us here...these were the guys who started this idea, nad up to now they didn't produce anything.
According to information, they received about 5million Rand already. Also which should have gone to the farmers, but we didn't receive it. So at the moment, we are a bit disappointed.
They are staying in Pretoria and we are the people on the ground. We have the most difficulties with the local people.
But the South African Farmers Organisation deny that there has been foul play.
We didn't receive any money so therefore we couldn't mismanage any funds. If a politician says that we would like to find out why he said that because we definitely didn't receive any funds from them. And we have been confronted individual Congolese in front of the armers. They told the farmers and us that the farmers had totally misunderstood them, and that was not what had been meant.
Jean-Merle des Isles could’ve given the newcomers a lot of tips. The Frenchman’s lived here for 50 years. He's been a farmer here through colonial times, Marxism and now the new capitalism. Until Congo's independence in 1965, it was known as the bread basket of Africa. Agriculture was of prime importance – but it hasn't always been easy/ Today, the country can’t produce enough for its own needs. He thinks it needs whites to get back on its feet again.
There have always been problems. Sometimes there’s not enough feed for the cattle, then not enough for the pigs. There are still delivery problems. Even the free market has done little to change this. Now they are trying to grow their own feed in order to prevent problems like the 1989 drought when they lost 700 pigs.
The 77 year-old, born in Algeria, has wondered how the arrival of the farmers will effect change.
Interview - french
Jean-Merle des Isles, farmer
We heard that new investors were coming to get agriculture going again, and we were very happy. But when we saw them come without any means we were disturbed.
We asked ourselves which miracle would help them. How do they want to get agricultural production going again without money?
Perhaps they only came here to enjoy the climate or simply to spend their time here. Perhaps they hadn’t really thought about how a modern economy functions. They need capital before they can make a profit.
Sarie and Frans have decided they want to take a look at Pointe Noire. They take the train from Nkayi. It’s a seven hour trip through magnificent scenery.
From the south they cross through the rainforest - a new sight for Sarie. They’re hoping they’ll have better luck in the port city. They want to leave Socoto and the blacks whom they don’t get on with.
Bandits frequently rob the trains between Brazzaville and Pointe Noire. But this journey passes without incident. There are many stops in small villages or when the locomotive overheats - but time is no problem.
Arrival in Pointe Noire. The city is Congo's business hub. Huge oil reserves attract foreigners here, but the domestic oil industry will be burdened by debt until at least 2004.
The country only gets 17 percent of the profit from the oil.
And the population certainly aren’t profiting from this wealth. It's the big international oil companies like Elf, Shell and Agip who reap the rewards.
A South African from Socoton has already arrived in the city by the sea. He stayed with other farmers in Socoton for four months. He had wanted to work the land, but numerous problems made him leave. Now, he’s building wooden houses for hotels or individuals - with a lot of success.
It's just a matter of isolation – and they've got no idea what’s happening around them. That's the biggest thing I've seen. That’s what happened to me when I came to the Congo. The first time I saw Pointe Noire I couldn’t believe my eyes. For four months I was living in isolation and then I found this paradise. When I think about it, the whole Congo is a paradise.
Cassie shows his countrymen around this paradise. Only a few people live on the numerous waterways in the Pointe Noire area. The Congo’s population is only 2.6 million, and ost of them live in Brazzaville - the capital, or in Pointe Noire. The country’s interior is sparsely populated.
Those who do live here are fishermen, and their families. Without a boat they’d be cut off from the outside world.
The South Africans are curious, and choose to visit the locals. They never would have thought of doing this in South Africa.
Manioc leaves are stewing in the pot. It's easy to grow and is cooked alongside the plentiful fish. But regular work is harder to find around here.
Interview - French
Jean-Paul Tchiloemba, fisherman
For us, life in the Congo is spent more or less unemployed. There’s an oil boom, but we don’t notice it at all. We have to live in the jungle to feed the family. The jungle means fishing and hunting. That’s all.
Like many other African countries, Congo suffers because too many people in power work only to line their own pockets. No-one knows when this will change. The people have got used to injustice, but they hope that the opening up of the economy to market forces will help the profits to be more evenly distributed.
This poultry farm near Pointe Noire is an example of the state of the country. Half a million chickens were raised here. But the business went bankrupt because the owner was taking money on the side - that’s what the employees say. Nearly fifty factories in the Congo are standing empty. They could have been privatised, but there were no investors. Thieves would steal material for building if it wasn’t for the voluntary former workers patrolling the site to protect what's left.
Interview - French
Jean Bouéla, supervisor
If the state doesn’t want to take over then they should let someone from South Africa, Europe or France, never mind where from, have it. We only want work and to feed our people - and the owners would make a profit. We would be happy, even if at the beginning only 40 or 50 Congolese were employed. We’ve got the willpower. We are getting older and don’t have any work. That’s our death.
We’re travelling along the coast looking for a piece of land. The South Africans have heard that a village wants to sell some land. It’s one and a half hours north of Pointe Noire. The villagers want to deal directly with the foreigners.
No-one has a job here. To pass the time they play cards. The villagers hope that if the foreigners come they’ll have a better life.
I’d be very happy if the whites came, because there are too many young people here without work. So we would be very happy to know they are coming.
I would be very, very happy if they came. Very happy.
The village chief’s son shows the family around the plantation. 6’000 banana seedlings planted recently. Transport from here wouldn’t be difficult. By truck to the harbour in Pointe Noire doesn’t take too long. The Congolese here are a lot friendlier, say the South Africans. They want to be here, even if there’s no infrastructure such as a water supply or electricity.
Sarie and Frans look over the property. It lies on the other side of the village. 100 hectares are for sale for 2.5 million rand. They want to scrape the money together with the help of the others.
Frans wants to get the soil analysed to see if it’s good for agriculture. He and his wife have only been in the Congo for a few weeks but they think its time to move again. Even though they could have had the land for free in Socoton, they don't want to stay in an area where they were rejected by the local population.
The soil is sandy. Just right for peanuts, potatoes, all kinds of vegetables and maize.
Question: What will you do?
I'm definitely coming out here.
There's more potential here. I’m nearer the market. There are smaller grounds, but it will be much easier to get your harvest to the harbour or the place that you dispose of it.
Everyone’s in favour of moving if they can get the money together.
The Cronjé’s have already got the plans from the village chief. There would be room for other farmers from South Africa.
If the local population can work together with the South Africans, both parties could profit. If not, then the search for a new home will start all over again.