“Hens-oppers and Bitter-einders’’ – history informs thorny land issues

One trait almost defines Chuck Stephens, Executive Director of the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership, whose eponymous founder’s courage he closely emulates; conviction in the underlying morality of his creative, often contentious, suggestions. As an old-school newspaper journalist, I can see the makings of a cracking story in putting his theories to outfits negotiating their white Afrikaner identity in a post-apartheid South Africa – and those punting restitution for black people. The true alchemy however, lies in getting both sides to engage without reverting to the historical shaming monikers of ‘Bitter-einders’ or ‘Hens-oppers’. All too aware of this, Stephens raises the spectre of geo-political partition over land, citing Orania and the Ingonyama Trust time bomb involving the Zulu kingdom, plus some tragic global examples. He comes up with centrist themes, anchoring his argument on the pragmatic tendency of land-holding Afrikaners to realise when a war is un-winnable and to seek out the most favourable solution. It would however, require the ‘Bitter-einders’ on both sides to swallow hard and overcome the historical stigma of being labelled ‘Hens-oppers.’ Unfortunately, organisations at both extremes base their identity and growing populist appeal on outrage, discrimination and sabre-rattling. – Chris Bateman

From Bitter-einders to Hens-oppers

By Chuck Stephens*

After the second Anglo-Boer War in South Africa, the British offered amnesty to the diehard guerrilla commandos who did not want to capitulate. A similar phenomenon happened after World War II in the Pacific theatre, where Japanese soldiers had been dropped on remote islands to defend them during the conflict. Perhaps even unaware that the war was over, they remained dangerous hold-outs long after peace broke out.

In Afrikaans, these commandos were called the “bitter-einders” and it was the invention of concentration camps that had especially embittered them.  One can understand their depth of emotions. The other school of thought was to surrender or to accept the post-war amnesty offered by the British. Those who did so were called the “hens-oppers” – because the put their hands up. This was not a complimentary term, to put it mildly.

Before long, the real-politic focus shifted from English-versus-Boers to blacks-versus-whites. But in several ways that I can think of, the two labels remain relevant even today. In last year’s elections, some of the “centrist” vote shifted. The “broad church” ANC lost some ground (and seats in Parliament) to the Leftist EFF. And the “near right” DA lost some ground (and seats) to the Alt Right Freedom Front Plus. For the purposes of this article, I am referring to both the EFF and the FF+ as “extremist” parties. Neither wants to put their hands up.

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Malema vocalises a lot of the “bitter-einder” attitude against whites. One can well understand his/their bitterness, given the history of exploitation and oppression of blacks by whites. But not all blacks – among them Nelson Mandela – were “bitter-einders”. Madiba did not have to surrender, so he was not a “hens-opper”. He emerged magnanimous. And yet in spite of the obvious examples of Zimbabwe, Venezuela and the former “East Bloc” of Europe, the socialist rhetoric continues unabated from the far-Left.

I do not dispute the right of the white tribe of Africa to self-determination. But many of the 30,000 boers (i.e. farmers) who possess about 70% of the arable land in South Africa are diehards. They are not going to be easy to move, and that intransigence could be why the ANC has taken its cue from the EFF and decided to go forward with EWC (expropriation without compensation). To my way of thinking, taking such measures is risky, and could provoke a back-lash from the Alt Right.

The risk that I see is Partition, as happened not that long ago in India and Pakistan. Otherwise known as the “two-state solution”. And this is not such a wild card. Orania is already on the map, and the Zulus are not sold on socialist solutions to Land Reform. In Ethiopia, Sidama is on the rise. God forbid that it should start an insurgency, like Eritrea once did, to break away. Now in Europe we see cases like Catalonia and Scotland where authentic ethnic groups want their independence. I worry that pushing the Afrikaner too hard on this issue could lead to a split.

Read also: Land expropriation is not a silver bullet (quick fix) for poverty alleviation – Anthea Jeffery

So I am advocating a CENTRIST SOLUTION to Land Reform. I admit that this has been inspired by the “Year of Jubilee” which the Bible calls for – on a once-in-a-lifetime basis. But I will stop the Bible-thumping and concisely outline five variations on that theme. Any or all of them could work as CENTRIST SOLUTIONS to Land Reform.

AA – This stands for Accept Amnesty but don’t dismiss it as putting your hands up in surrender. In our generation, it is inspired by The Giving Pledge that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have been promoting for a decade. These guys are capitalists, not communists. They encourage billionaires to give away 50% of their wealth. Farmers may protest that they are not billionaires. My reply is that to a poor and unemployed youth, living in a township, you might as well be. One way to do this would be to cash-out your farm. Keep the proceeds from the sale of all your “movables” – machinery, stock, investments, etc… BUT DONATE YOUR LAND. (My assumption is that about half of your nett worth is tied up in your land.)

Do not give your land over to government. Only transfer the title of your land IN ESCROW into the name of a Jubilee Land Bank. My suggestion is that every District should have such a land bank, basically a Trust that is governed by Public-Private Partnership. These land banks must hold land donated for at least seven years, until the productivity and commitment of emerging black farmers can be verified. Only then can authentic food-producing new owners receive land title – for free. If their agri-business efforts fail, the farm remains in escrow with the Land Bank until it is under productive new management.

BB – This stands for Body Building. In other words, the white farmer should decentralise and create an enabling, entrepreneurial environment for emerging black farmers. Find ways for them to operate “concessions”. Some might run a repair shop for tractors and machinery? Others might run a nursery to prepare seedlings? Others might run the farm canteen or tuck shop? In other words, replace the “homogenised” structure with a “conglomerate” structure. One variation of this is called “share-cropping”. But that model held back those working the land from owning it. In this BB model, provision should be built in for some kind of ownership.

C – By this I refer to a Circle of friends. For example, ten boers could form a Circle and draw lots. One of the ten by this lottery mechanism must give over his or her land to the Jubilee Land Bank (as outlined above). The others form a solidarity group which commits to support the “loser” of the lottery. They might set up a processing plant, for example, which s/he manages. Either a coop or a company – that guarantees employment for the farmer who lost his land. All the other nine farmers stand behind it. In doing so, they are standing behind Jubilee.

D – This stands for Downsize. It’s as simple as streamlining your own operation to make room for some “HDI” farmers. They are also South African citizens. One goal of the NDP is to reduce the Gini-coefficient. That is the principle of Jubilee in a different language. Make room.

EEE – By this I mean Emigrate and Export Expertise. After the Anglo-Boer War, some of the “bitter-einders” left for Patagonia. There was another wave of emigration after 1994. The truth is that the white population has shrunk since 1994 – although not all were going to farm in their new settings. But there are countries that are in desperate need of competent, experienced farmers. This is a “critical skill shortage” – for example in Australia. My advice would be for the younger generation of the family farm to go first, and get settled. Then for the older boer to divest all the “movables” and take that money with them for their retirement – but donate their land to the Jubilee Land Bank.

These are just sketchy examples of CENTRIST SOLUTIONS. As President Ramaphosa recently said, Land Reform is an imperative, and we need to “find one another” on this issue. Extremism and polarisation are dangerous. The land, after all, belongs to God. Not to the State nor to any human. You might have made barns, silos or irrigation system, but God made the land and the water. “The cattle on a thousand hills belong to Him.” Blacks and whites largely agree on this baseline of belief.

In the UK they speak of “leavers” and “remainers”. I am pleased to hear that a group of young Afrikaners have actually adopted the name “bitter-einders” – in an ironic way. They are saying, We are going nowhere, South Africa is our home, so we will tough it out through thick and thin. They do not say this as “hard liners” of the Alt Right. They are Centrists and Christians, and they want constitutional democracy to work. God bless these remainers. They are not traitors like those who General Koos de la Rey respected even while he fought the British. Those “veraillers” simply saw the futility of enlisting in an un-winable war. Could history be repeating itself?

  • Chuck Stephens, Executive Director of the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership.