Stronach Prize Letters Archive: Peter Kostiv

In 2006–2007, Petro Kostiv traveled to South Africa to help mediate and document land disputes between black and white communities in the aftermath of Apartheid. Below he reflects on the outcome of his efforts. His letters from the road follow.

November 25    December 25    January 24    February 25

A rewarding experience

During one of my visits to the Sahlumbe community, a resident told me at the end of our conversation: “You are our symbol of change. You were sent to us by God. Now we are going to fight even harder for our land. You are the very first man during our lifetime who came to see us.” It was a very memorable moment for me and I considered it a significant personal reward for working with black, landless communities. This comment also signified how forgotten black rural areas have been. It took a foreigner from California to become interested in this place.
A typical Friday in a village near Ixopo, KwaZulu-Natal The white farmers also expressed appreciation for my participation in their affairs. A South African farmer reflected on the information I taught him about the history of his land by saying: “Thanks for the articles — very interesting and quite shocking. We knew this kind thing [the removals] were happening. You read it in the press but somehow at the time it just didn’t sink in. In suburbia it seemed like ‘somewhere else.’ I was just out of school when it happened. I now wonder at the mentality of the [Apartheid officials] who could think that this would do any good whatsoever.” I found this man’s comment to be very powerful and historically revealing.

The history of this white farmer reflected the collective history of almost all white South Africans. During Apartheid he was young, innocent, indifferent, and living in white suburbia. Later on he bought a farm and had to live with the burden of history while trying to make sure that he didn’t lose the land he had acquired in good faith after Apartheid ended.

A home in Durban belonging to a white urban family There were also unexpected disappointments during my trip. My main purpose was to mediate between an African community and white farmers whose land was in jeopardy of being taken away by the government and given back to the Africans. The situation became very unpleasant at one location under dispute. The white farmer, who was the chairman of the biggest dairy company in South Africa, was very irritated because he thought that the claimants had no legitimate right to his land. The African claimants, on the other hand, thought that he was a liar. There was no desire by either party to talk or negotiate. I met with these people several times in an effort to organize talks between them, but in the end I realized that I had no chance.


Petro's Letters Home

November 25, 2006

Dear friends,

My first letter comes in only now as I have begun my project a bit later than projected. This is my third time in South Africa, and I feel very content to be back here with a personal project. I altered my original plan by deciding to stay in Pietermaritzburg, not Durban. The main reason for my decision, which I made with my mentor’s help, was that my partner NGO, AFRA (Association For Rural Development), is based in Pietermaritzburg. AFRA is a very helpful resource for my project because it has an extensive collection of historical and current material for my research on forced removals. I explained my project to Lisa del Grande, AFRA’s director, and she agreed to help me with all I might need, even giving me a desk in one of the offices. The organization also told me that it would be glad to use my research findings in its future projects.

Petro drives through the Ixopo area in KwaZulu-Natal to meet with land reform participants. One member of AFRA observed during my initial interview: “Petro, you do not sound very American. You know we do not really like Americans here.” I smiled and explained that I was actually a Ukrainian-American from Berkeley. I think this helped. I know why (or at least I think I do) so many people around the world defy Americans. They say that Americans are very ignorant. While I agree that some Americans are this way, I also think it is ignorant on the non-American’s part to generalize about our country. Sometimes I think people should look at their own country and history first before they attack Americans. For example, I met a white South African who now lives in Namibia and who is overtly anti-American, yet he also served in the Apartheid military and thought that Apartheid was not too bad. I listened to him, smiled, and said that Namibian beer was the best I have ever had in my life.

My project is coming along. I have had a few meetings with my mentor and we determined which communities in KwaZulu-Natal we are going to work with. All of these communities have unique histories. My first case study is being conducted with the community of Ekuthuneli located in northern Natal. Last weekend we planned our first major field trip there. But on the day of the trip, we received a call from the community that the roads to Ekuthuneli were impassable due to the implacable rains in recent days. Our trip was moved to next weekend, which is tomorrow. The community of Ekuthuneli actually was never forcibly removed, but what makes this case intellectually interesting is that the community functions under traditional African law. AFRA previously did a lot of work with Ekuthuneli so this is a good way for me to learn how to work with indigenous communities. AFRA has invited me to go on field trips with them and meet with those who want to make their land rights official, meaning they want to change their property law from the traditional African law to the law that South African political and financial institutions will recognize.

Sahlumbe will be my most challenging case since very little is known about this place after people from the Majola tribe were forced to move there from white farms in the late 1970s. The issue that concerns me most about Sahlumbe is that the geographic area historically belonged to a tribe called Madonda. When white farmers forced the Majola people out and placed them in Sahlumbe, the Madonda began to kill many of the Majola residents. These killings are not well known in South Africa, but they demonstrate how indifferent the Apartheid government was to the plight of indigenous African peoples. Next week I am going there for the first time with a translator who will help me to try to figure out what has happened to the Sahlumbe community since 1979.

This house used to belong to white farmers prior to the land reform movement. Now black Africans live in it. There's no drinking water and the electricity was turned off by the government.Ixopo, my third case study, is a land restitution case where I have been invited to be an observer and advisor. I have met with one man who wants white farmers to share some of their land with their black neighbors. He thinks that white farmers need to train the Africans to utilize this land effectively. Some whites are willing to accept this proposition, but others have expressed distrust of the idea. One farmer said: “How can I help these guys if I do not even know them?” His statement touched on a major issue: after so many years of black people being oppressed, how could this white farmer know and recognize African people’s aspirations since for so long to have aspirations for a black person was illegal? My role is to listen to both parties since they have asked me to express a neutral opinion about how I think their case should be dealt with.

South Africa is a very complex country. Its economy is booming because a lot of investments are pouring in in anticipation of the Soccer World Cup in 2010. I go to a gym to train with black, white, and Asian South Africans. At the gym, race is not an issue. We all train together, and I can’t believe that just twelve years ago, blacks and whites could not share a gym together.

Yet, crime remains rampant. I hear of and read stories about people getting robbed, killed, and raped. I met one Australian lady who spent three years working with an orphanage in a township near Durban; last week she was attacked by some young men from the same township. They came to her house with machetes and guns to steal her laptop. She previously spent three years volunteering with AIDS orphans, but after this incident she said “No more.” She rushed to buy her ticket back to Australia and did not want to be in South Africa anymore. Although she is Australian, hers is an example of why so many South Africans leave their country. They love it, but if one can’t sleep safely at night, what else matters?

I am staying in the same room where two men tried to break in during my last visit to RSA in March. This time I have security bars on the window and thus sleep peacefully. I see the connection between rural poverty and crime. People have nothing in the rural areas. They come to Johannesburg or Durban and think they will find a better life. But life does not get better, and there is always the pressure to feed families. This pressure creates desperation, and as a result ... crime.


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December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas from South Africa!

During my second month in South Africa, I was mainly involved with field trips to the three Zulu communities. Twice this month I traveled to Sahlumbe to see how the place was doing. I have met with the people, the induna (chief), and the counselor of the community. We found out how the people were removed from their former place of living and also how they are doing now. Surprisingly, very few residents want to return to their previous place of abode and instead want to improve their lives at Sahlumbe. For the young, Sahlumbe is the place of their birth, and moving to another locale is too arduous for the very eldest residents. We have organized a community meeting on January 13 where the residents will discuss with us how they envision any potential improvements of this place. Then based on what we hear from the people, we will report to South Africa’s Department of Agriculture and to other agricultural business units that have money for agricultural developmental projects. 

A Zulu meal of fried liver and maize meal was placed on the floor for Petro's team. For the Ixopo case, we aim to organize two separate meetings: one with white farmers and one with the black want-to-be-farmers or new farmers (the claimants of land). My role is to listen to both parties. Based on my previous conversations, I know that the white farmers want to avoid taking their case to court. The black claimants lodged a claim eight years ago but it has not gotten to the courts yet. Whites would rather work something out with the claimants without going to court. If the case does go to court and a typical decision is made about whether the land should be returned to blacks or remain with whites, then very little space will be left for future collaboration between the two parties. Made from goat skin, Inkatha is the Zulu name for the sacred grass coil, symbol of the Zulu nation.Gaining more land may be satisfying in the context of S.A.’s land reforms, but this does not guarantee successful exploitation of the land. So it is very important for whites and blacks to work together for a better agricultural future in South Africa. I will be a “mediator” (that is how the people who invited me to participate named my position).

On the 30th of December I am going to meet with the African residents of the area. By the end of my tenure, I will read my opinion to both parties. I will also meet with the land commissioner who is responsible for this case. In addition, I am writing a funding proposal on behalf of this African community to get $200,000 for a project in farming and sewing that the community plans to implement next year.

I also traveled to Ekuthuneli with AFRA to meet with the community. People were very friendly, but during our meeting they asked me how I, a resident of “such a rich country,” could help them in the future. I told them that I could write about them but that I had no money.


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January 24, 2007

Dear friends,

I am writing one day before the 25th because tomorrow I will not have access to the Internet. Last month I had a few opportunities to meet with white farmers involved in the land claim case at Ixopo that I am trying to understand. After meeting and talking with them, I have become even more uncertain about whether South Africa is going in the right direction in regard to its land reform policies and implementation. The farms on whose territory a black tribe lodged a claim in the Ixopo area belong to Clover, the biggest dairy company in South Africa. The chairman lives on one of those farms. I went to his very isolated and hidden farm in southern Natal and had a productive and quite prolonged conversation with him. He was very surprised to see a Californian student from Berkeley coming to his farm who was interested in land reform issues in South Africa. His wife, who joined the conversation, used to live in California and was delighted to meet someone from Berkeley, an area that she knows very well.

I will not go into many details of what we discussed because we agreed that I would return later to study the historical background of the claim and also how economically harmful it would be for the company to lose its land and its well-established dairy production infrastructure. I personally find it an intellectually interesting case because it demonstrates how difficult it is to implement successful land reform without hurting certain groups of people. Politically, it probably would be justified to take some of the land and give it to the black tribe. But economically it would be very inefficient to give a well-run dairy farm to a group of people who do not have the skills required to run it. In February, we are planning to organize a workshop with the claimants to try to explain the situation. Clover’s chairman, unlike many other white farmers, is a progressive farmer who is interested in empowering black people, however, he does not think that randomly taking away land from white farmers is a wise solution to the South African land dilemma. The chairman wants to collaborate with the black claimants by organizing workshops to teach them how to farm effectively. In the end he asserted that if any land would be taken away from Clover, however, he would emigrate from South Africa to New Zealand.

I am not exactly sure yet how I will use my research materials, though I am discussing this with a few potential sources through which I will publicize my cases. The most important fact is that both the white and the black players of these very relevant land stories want their voices to be heard.

Moving away from land reform, I would like to relate a story of how differently the South African young perceive certain events compared to Americans. One night in Durban, I went out to a dance club called Tiger Tiger. It was a purely white place. In the middle of the night, around 12:30 a.m., six men entered the club with their faces covered with black masks and guns in their hands. They ordered us all to lie on the floor and then announced that they were police looking for drugs. They were very aggressive: they had some people undress themselves and later they arrested a few people, including women. The most interesting part of this story is that forty minutes after the raid, the youth began dancing again like nothing had occurred. When I asked them how they felt about it, many said that they were accustomed to these types of events. They even thought it was fun. White South Africans say, “Our country is very hectic.” I am not sure if American students would think that this event was very fun.

Last weekend, by contrast, I went with Professor Freund to Hluhluwe National Park to enjoy the African bush and wild animals. What a beautiful land South Africa is!!! To have an elephant family peacefully eating leaves from a tree twenty meters away is an extraordinary experience.


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February 25, 2007

Dear friends,

I am writing this letter just a few weeks before leaving South Africa. KwaZulu-Natal is a very hot place in both climate and on the issue of land reform. These days are just unforgiveably sizzling and humid. Because of the heat, South Africans lead a very different lifestyle to which I have adjusted and which I find very healthy. They get up crazily early. I hang my laundry out before 7 a.m when it is still cool and I see some of my neighbors doing the same. In America I would think these people have some serious issues. But the majority of South Africans go to bed ridiculously early: by 9 at night they have wilted.

During the past 17 weeks, my opinion on many aspects of land reform has changed. I feel there is much ambiguity about what is occurring in the sphere of land negotiations between whites and blacks. One thing is clear: everyone wants land. White farmers, I have concluded, genuinely want to farm, while the majority of black claimants (but not all) want land for very different reasons, such as leasing it back to the white farmer, selling it, or in some cases doing nothing with it at all. The Ixopo case is a good demonstration of this ambiguity. I brought to this case my positive intention to try to advise the two parties about how to solve their conflict. But with time, I realized that it was impossible to sort it out without going to court because the black party neither knew how nor wished to farm the land which they claimed historically had belonged to them. The white farmers showed more interest in resolving this case.
My mentor has discouraged me from being too persistent with this particular case. He based his advice on a story that took place earlier this month in KwaZulu-Natal. There was a meeting between a mediator, a white farmer, and indigenous African Sibhonsweni villagers who were “illegally” occupying the white farmer’s land. The meeting was intended to mediate the conflict over land between the two parties. The white farmer accused the black villagers of occupying his land since they were living on property to which he and other owners held the title deed. The farmer told them to get off his land because he was going to burn their crops and confiscate their cattle and goats. The villagers saw his ultimatum as an attempt to remove them from their homes. As the farmer sauntered towards his car, he was surrounded by angry men. Within minutes the angry mob killed him with a barrage of clubs and sticks. This farmer was not wise and was not a good man. He acted from pure greed. For many Africans, title deeds mean  nothing because they operate outside of how they perceive land ownership. The villagers in this case needed land to feed their families and had nowhere else to go.

The wife of the induna (chief) in Sahlumbe, facing the cameraI also was able to organize a community meeting at Sahlumbe, another site of my work. The most striking part of that meeting was that even though I had invited all people interested in talking about their communities (both past and future), not a single woman showed up. I asked why that was the case and the induna (chief), who came drunk to the meeting, told me that women did not participate in the process of decision making. I was not sure which decisions he was talking about but I decided not to elaborate. The women showed up a bit later and served all of us beer and coca cola. That induna was always drunk. This was my third time coming to Sahlumbe, and he was drunk each and every time. I doubted he would be a successful farmer.

Women in KwaZulu-Natal come home after a long day of work.Although it is a bit outside of my project, I think it is important to mention that the renowned KwaZulu-Natal historian David Rattray was murdered during the last week of January. It was a big deal in South Africa as South Africans are finally getting very impatient about crime. The murderers of Mr. Rattray were found and sent to jail for twenty-five years. The profile of one of the criminals recalls very well how Apartheid has damaged South African society: Nkwanyana (one of the murderers) had not been educated past grade five, was unemployed, and worked as a cattle herder in his parental homestead. This murder took place at David Rattray’s lodge in Zululand, which used to be land designated for black South Africans. Zululand is mainly abysmally poor. Not that I am shocked by this paucity as I have seen more destitute places, but it is shocking in contrast to how affluently some South Africans live. Growing up in such poverty and having no prospects for a better future are what makes these guys commit crimes.

To conclude, I would like to say that at the same time South Africa is a paradise and a hell. One can live like a king — just like David Rattray did — until one is murdered. Despite these negative traits, I find South Africa to be a very livable place and I have a much more optimistic opinion about its future than before. While many of my comments have dealt with crime (which is part of daily reality, unfortunately), I believe that South Africa’s crime is color blind and not directed towards one particular race. It will take time for South Africans to solve this big national dilemma.

My work with representatives of different races, classes, and generations of South Africans has opened new parameters for me and changed my old perceptions about this part of the world. The nature of my project is that more can always be done and researched, but for now I am satisfied with what I have learned from my experience. I have met many kinds of South Africans who have gladly contributed to my project and who have shaped the way I think about their country now. I will certainly stay in touch with them. I am attaching a few pictures from my field trips and my daily life in South Africa for your review.

Thank you very much again for everything.

Very sincerely,


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