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Interview

Filmmaker Yoruba Richen talks about the history of land in South Africa, the difference between the legal right to the land and the moral right to the land, how she gained the trust of white farmers while working on the film and more.

POV: Apartheid in South Africa officially ended in 1994, but its legacy remains. How does apartheid intertwine with the land issues that are so central to this film and to South Africa’s history?

Yoruba Richen: When I started this film, I knew that apartheid was a system of enforced separation between blacks, whites and other communities of color in South Africa. Apartheid had been put into place in 1949, and it was based on the Jim Crow system that we had had here in the United States. What I didn’t know was that apartheid was based on the land removal policy in South Africa, which had been instituted in 1913. So even before an official system of segregation was in place, the dispossession of indigenous blacks from their land was the law of the land in South Africa. The official policy of apartheid was predicated on a law that mandated that blacks didn’t own any part of their land, so they could be removed when the government deemed it necessary, and they had to have passes to go into different areas, because they had no legal right to be in those places.

The African National Congress (ANC), which struggled for freedom in South Africa, had a 10-point plan, and point number two or three was “land should be returned to its rightful owners.” So land redistribution was an essential part of the ANC’s vision of a new society.

POV: In the film, several white people talk about having been on their property for generations. Who really owns that land?

Richen: Despite the fact that blacks are a vast majority of the population, they have very little land ownership presently. The whole system in South Africa was created to allow whites to have and cultivate large tracts of land. Of course, there are specific debates and arguments related to that history. For example, Pretorious says that there was nobody there when his family came to South Africa in the 1850s. But that idea — that when the white colonialists arrived no one was there — is something we’ve heard all over the world. Pretorious has the title deeds and contends that no one was moved off of his land and that his family has been on the land since the 1950s. In a situation like that, the South African government has to mediate, because white landowners can contest the redistribution.

Promised Land: Yoruba Richen and Johan Pretorius

Johan Pretorius, one of the subjects of Promised Land and filmmaker Yoruba Richen


At the heart of the film is the idea that there’s a legal right to the land, and then there’s a moral right to the land. How do the people on both sides understand what that means for their own situations?

POV: Tell us how you became interested in the subject of land redistribution in South Africa and how you began working on the film.

Richen: I’ve always been fascinated by South Africa. In school, I was part of an anti-racism group and we went to marches on South Africa. When I was 16, I worked on a PBS program called South Africa Now, which brought news from South Africa in the 1980s, during the state of emergency. I went to graduate school for a master’s in urban planning, and I looked at housing policies in South Africa, started to understand the policies related to apartheid and that apartheid was really an urban planning system. And I remember when the elections took place in South Africa — I was at a U.N. conference for women, and we all started crying as the news described the free elections.

I always wanted to see South Africa. I wanted to see how it was being built, how South Africans were creating a constitution and what a multi-racial society was like after those years of oppression. Then, in 2003 and 2004, I was working at ABC News as a producer, and that’s when Zimbabwe was in the news and we heard about the redistribution of land there by Mugabe. I became frustrated, because we just heard, “Oh, these poor white farmers. They’re being kicked off their land,” instead of hearing about the history of colonialism and what it meant for the indigenous black community. Then I read that South Africa had similar land issues. By then, 10 years had passed since the end of apartheid, and we weren’t getting much information about what was going on there. So I looked for stories there. I came upon Roger Roman, and Roger was so articulate in laying out large themes and relating them to his own personal story that I thought filming him would be a great way to show what he was doing and what it meant for society as a whole.

POV: Roger Roman seems to come down on the side of believing that the moral right to the land is more important. Tell us more about him.

Richen: Roger is a really fascinating character and, quite honestly, it was through him that I started to find the film. Roger is a white South African who went through his own personal transformation around land issues, and he gave half of his land to the black community, who had been called squatters. Roger also started an organization called Land for Peace.

Promised Land: Yoruba Richen and Roger Roman

Yoruba connects a wireless microphone to Roger Roman, a farmer in South Africa who has given half his land to the workers on his farm.


Roger went against the white community by giving half of his land away, and he did it in 1997 and 1998, when apartheid had just ended. He fought the white town council, the white farmers, and to this day he is still pretty alienated from the white community. One of the white farmers in the film, Pretorious, says about Roger, “I don’t understand it. Why would he do this?” Roger believes that land redistribution is a fundamental part of reconciliation, and he says that most whites haven’t reconciled with themselves and that’s the real crux of the issue.

POV: Roger also says that white South Africans have to understand that there’s a price to pay for change. The South African government does not seem to be handling the land redistribution issue very smoothly. Do you think that the government understands what that price is and how it should be paid?

Richen: It’s important to remember that the ANC took power in a compromise, and when they took power, the reality of what it means to be part of the global community, and what it takes to get support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other organizations, set in. The foundation of the ANC’s beliefs was communist, but the IMF and other organizations run under a capitalist system that makes it very difficult to redistribute resources. So I think that the ANC, which is in power in South Africa, knows that there is a price to pay, but it’s difficult for it actually to pay the price because of the realities of the global system.

POV: If the South African government doesn’t get land redistribution right, what the price will they pay? What price will all of South Africa will pay?

Richen: Roger thinks that the price they’ll pay is upheaval. He says that any African country that experiences liberation but does not deal with its land issues inevitably will experience upheaval within 20 or 30 years. I agree with Roger: That could happen in South Africa.

South Africa is dealing with a lot of issues, and land redistribution is definitely one of them. The majority of people in the country are still poor, still landless and still unemployed. I don’t want to give the impression that what has happened there in the last two decades isn’t amazing, but when you look at who has land and who has economic resources, the black majority is still disenfranchised.

POV: The film represents many different sides of the issue. How did you gain the trust of the white farmers during your filmmaking process?

Richen: The first time I met with the white farmers, I just happened to have a white cameraperson with me. And I honestly think that having a white cameraperson helped. I also tried to make the white farmers feel as comfortable as possible, because I wanted to tell their side of the story. I was very honest and upfront about that with them. Some people wanted to jump ship, but I said, “This film is going to get made, and if it doesn’t have your perspective, then I won’t be telling the whole story.” I told them that having their voices in the film was essential to understanding what was happening in South Africa, and I think the white farmers got that. Despite the prejudices and resentments that do exist, I saw a commitment to South Africa on all sides.

POV: What would you like audiences to learn from this film?

Richen: I would like audiences to be challenged in their viewpoints, just as I was challenged during the making of the film. I hope through the film we can gain a deeper understanding of what it means to have privilege, to be oppressed and to be in a changing society. I’d also like the film to make audiences think about what the reconciliation looks like in action.





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