16. Promised Land
Written by Abednigo Sibiya
Music by Kathryn Bostic
From the film Promised Land
Directed by Yoruba Richen (USA 2010)



Heaven’s End?

This is my little piece of heaven. I was born here, my father was born here, my grandfather was born here, and my great grandfather was born here, and my great great grandfather was born here, My great great grandfather came here during the Big Trek. The capital city of South Africa, Pretoria, was named after one of the Pretorius brothers and the house that I presently own was built by my family in 1830. If you think that where we’re standing now, my grandfather stood, my great grandfather stood, that is something special.’ [1]

That was Johan Pretorius, a white South African landowner, speaking in Yoruba Richen’s documentary Promised Land. Johan was describing the town of Broederstroom in the North West province of South Africa, one of the white settlements founded in the early 19th century by Afrikaners, descendants of Dutch, German and French migrants, also known as Boers – farmers.

Searching for information on Broederstroom and the great trek – or the big trek, as Johan calls it – from the British owned Cape Colony to independence in the South African heartland, we found a couple of references to the promised land trope. There’s this, from The Great Trek – Colonisation and Land Supremacy, from South African History Online:

The determination and courage of these pioneers has become the single most important element in the folk memory of Afrikaner Nationalism. However, far from being the peaceful and God-fearing process which many would like to believe it was, the Great Trek caused a tremendous upheaval in the interior for at least half a century…

The Great Trek was a landmark in an era of expansionism and bloodshed, of land seizure and labour coercion. Taking the form of a mass migration into the interior of southern Africa, this was a search by dissatisfied Dutch-speaking colonists for a promised land where they would be ‘free and independent people’ in a ‘free and independent state’. ’[2]

There’s no indication on the Library of Congress website, Countrystudies, of an author but whoever wrote the entry for The Great Trek, uses a little Old Testament to describe the Boer’s journey:

The exodus from the Cape was not organized in a single movement at the time, but it was later termed the Great Trek by nationalist historians, and its participants were called Voortrekkers (pioneers).’ [3]

One such Voortrekker would have been Johan’s not so distant ancestor, Andries Pretorius, Commander in General of the Boer army. Pretorius was the military architect of the decisive triumph in the history of the colonisation of South Africa, the Afrikaners massacre of the Zulus in 1836, which signalled the beginning of the Republic of South Africa.

Pretorius’ men were heavily outnumbered. Tactical errors by Zulus ensured the Boer’s victory. So did the fact that the Boers were heavily armed and the Zulus had spears. Thousands of Zulus were massacred and from what we’ve read, not one Afrikaner was killed. The event, known as the Battle of Blood River, was used by myth minded historians to give ground to the idea that the Boer quest for ownership of South Africa had its basis in divine sanction – you’ll recall in our page on the Abaqondisi Brother’s song Izwe Lesithembiso – The Promised Land, we mentioned a poem by Daniel du Toit, Verse van Potgieter’s Trek, which cast the naked black hordes’ as Canaanites, the British as Pharoanic tyrants, and the trekkers as the Israelites ‘for another Canaan elected, led forward by God’s plan’.

Well, Andries Potgieter, the hero of that poem, and Andries Pretorius, had been squabbling over who would own which part of South Africa for years, but when the British gave the South African Republic its independence in 1952, the two Voortrekkers settled their differences and agreed that their heirs would rule the Republic after their deaths. Pretorius’ son, Marthinus Wessel, was the first president of the South African Republic, and he named Pretoria in his father’s honour. In Yoruba Richen’s film Promised Land we find Johan Pretorius at the end of his rope, figuratively speaking, and [legally and therefore] literally speaking, at what could be the end of his family tree.

Johan is one of a small number of white land owners whose claims to ownership are being contested by the descendants of the land’s original, black owners. It’s early days yet – Richen’s film informs us that in 2008 only 4% of South African farmland had been redistributed to black Africans – but the small number of legal victories achieved by the descendants of the country’s original inhabitants could be an indication that we are entering an era in which the Afrikaner vision of a ‘promised land’ is legally divested of its material and economic basis, which will probably hurt Afrikaners more than having the metaphysical and moral ground pulled from beneath their feet.

Before we get to Yoruba Richen’s film, we’d like to give you an idea of how difficult the process of land reclamation is at the moment. We thought you might like to read an article from the February 10 2010 edition of Business Day (Johannesburg) at allafrica.com by Stephan Hoffstater:

South Africa: Court Denies Claim State Cannot Afford

Johannesburg — The Land Claims Court has made a landmark ruling against restoring land to a community dispossessed under apartheid because the state cannot afford it.

The court ruled that only grave sites on several farms near Rustenburg in the North West, not 7 500ha of highly productive agricultural land worth an estimated R70m, would be restored to the Baphiring community.

The ruling is likely to set a precedent for thousands of outstanding rural land claims on highly capitalised commercial farms, forestry plantations and game lodges, and could offer the Land Claims Commission a neat way out of its chronic budget crisis.

The commission faced massive backlogs worth billions in signed commitments to land owners and claimant communities that it could not afford to honour.

Its budget allocation has dropped to R1, 7bn from R2, 1bn last year. No extra allocations were made despite several requests to the Treasury last year. This fiscal year the commission plans to spend R1, 1bn to meet previous commitments, 25% of which is ring-fenced for post-settlement support. No new commitments will be made this year.

Farmers’ union AgriSA expressed surprise at the ruling yesterday, hailing it as a major turning point in the government’s approach to land restitution.

‘This is a radical departure by focusing for the first time on land as a productive asset,’ said its deputy president, Theo de Jager.

But community representatives said they planned to appeal the ruling and warned of imminent land invasions to publicise their opposition.

The costs of buying and maintaining the farms were astronomical, the court heard.

The R70m price tag for the land did not include the ‘substantial’ cost of compensating landowners for ‘solatium and the financial losses which will be suffered as (a) result of the expropriation’, the judgment said. Expert witnesses told the court equipment and running capital costs alone would amount to another R65m.

The court ruled that it was therefore not feasible to return 400 Baphiring families to their ancestral land while keeping the farms productive. ‘Resources in terms of expertise and financial assistance is necessary but lacking in the present case,’ the judgment said.

A state attorney said the Rural Development and Land Reform Ministry, which the commission falls under, supported restoring the community’s ancestral land but the state could not afford to pay for it. He recommended that ‘equitable redress’ be limited to R2,6m in the form of a R6 500 cash pay-out for each family.

‘It’s a harsh one,’ Baphiring leader Christian Mabalane said yesterday. ‘We are going to appeal and toyi-toyi … this is not fair compensation. Government must find the money.’

His forebears were forced off their land at gunpoint in the 1970s and moved to Mabaalstad, an arid, infertile reserve 80km away.’ [4]

On Promised Land

Beginning in 1913, blacks in South Africa were forbidden to own land. They were forcefully removed from their land and re-settled into so called ‘homelands’ which were located in the most undesirable areas in the country. Over the course of ninety years, an estimated 6 million blacks were deposed from their land. In post-apartheid South Africa, one major struggle is land reform. There are many efforts and experiments to bring justice to a long aggrieved black majority. It is part of the process of ‘racial reconciliation’ that the country is undergoing. South Africa often faces its history in the blunt realities of everyday life. As filmmaker Yoruba Richen argues: ‘It is easier to let people drink at the same water fountain than to let them share in the wealth.’

Promised Land follows two black communities’ multi-year struggle to recover land taken from their ancestors during apartheid. Through these two stories, the epic battle over land and race is played out with dramatic consequences for all sides.

The first story follows is the fight led by the Mekgareng, a black community removed from their land 40 years ago. In 1998, they petitioned the new democratically elected government to reclaim the land, which is now highly valuable and currently owned by white farmers and developers who are fighting to keep possession of the land.

Promised Land’s second major story takes place in 2006, when the South African government ignited a firestorm. For the first time in the country’s history, the government forced a white farmer to sell his farm in order to return it to the descendants of the black owners who were removed from it in the 1940s. Through these two stories, viewers will see why the land issue is a ‘ticking time bomb’ that has potential to explode and destroy the fragile racial compact in the new South Africa. [5]

About Yoruba Richen

Yoruba has been working as a journalist and a documentary filmmaker in New York City for the past 10 years. Her work focuses on illuminating issues of race, space and power. In 2007, she won a Fulbright award in filmmaking and travelled to Salvador, Brazil where she began production of Sisters of the Good Death – a documentary uncovering the origins of the oldest African women’s association in the Americas and the annual festival celebrating the end of slavery. Before coming to Brazil, Yoruba was a producer for the independent television and radio program Democracy Now with Amy Goodman. In 2004, she was awarded an International Reporting Project fellowship and travelled to South Africa to produce and direct Promised Land - a documentary about race, reconciliation and land reform in post-apartheid South Africa. Portions of Promised Land were broadcast on the PBS program Foreign Exchange with Fareed Zacharia and screened at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles.’ [6]

About Kathryn Bostic

Kathryn Bostic has composed music for numerous plays, films, TV commercials and concerts. She is a recipient of the Sundance Fellowship for Filmscoring and a Film Independent Project Involve Fellow. She composed music for award winning documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson for the PBS American Experience production ‘Marcus Garvey’ and the Independent Lens production of ‘A Place of Our Own’. She has also composed the music for ‘Taking the Heat’ directed by Bann Roy which also aired on Independent Lens.’ [7]


[1] Promised Land, directed by Yoruba Richen, www.promisedlandfilm.com

[2] The Great Trek – Colonisation and Land Supremacy, from South African History Online:

[3] The Great Trek – South Africa Table of Contents – U.S. Library of Congress

[4] South Africa: Court Denies Claim State Cannot Afford, by Stephan Hoffstater, from Business Day allafrica.com, 10 February 2010

[5] Filmmaker Yoruba Richen Tackles Race, Space and Power in South Africa, by Nicola Burrows,

[6] http://www.promisedlandfilm.com/director_profile.htm

[7] http://www.promisedlandfilm.com/crew.htm



<   >