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Roger Roman: "Land Rights are Human Rights"

Roger Roman, a white South African featured in Promised Land, defied the norm and gave his land to the black descendants of its original inhabitants. He explains why he feels so strongly about land issues and writes a heartfelt tribute to a member of the Mekgareng community.

POV: Promised Land portrays your efforts to give your land back to black South Africans in your community. You even go on a hunger strike, at one point, to protest the eviction of black “squatters.” Why do you feel so strongly about land issues in South Africa?

Promised Land: Roger Roman

Roger Roman: I embarked on a fast to prevent the local council, acting on behalf of white landowners in the surrounding area, from forcing me to evict the 100 or so people living on my farm. The alternative was to fight the council through the courts. I had no reason to believe that the magistrates, sheriffs, lawyers and police involved in that process would deliver an outcome that did not involve the forced removal of these people. They hadn’t done so for the last century anywhere else in South Africa. To fast publicly requires a very clear and personal conviction. Mine was a simple refusal to participate in any way in an act of such utter inhumanity. It was both my right and my responsibility to act according to my own principles. Land rights are human rights. The right to land is possibly the most fundamental of all human rights. Where it is violated, there will never be peace, and that’s as true in the land of my birth, South Africa, as it is in the rest of Africa, the Americas and Asia, where colonialists deprived the indigenous people of their land.

POV: Tell us about your organization, Land for Peace. What is its mission? What is the organization working on now? And how can people help with your work?

Roman: I first came across the principle of land for peace in the context of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. At its core, the concept recognizes that there will never be peace in the region without a settlement of land rights. It acknowledges that people deprived of their land without their prior and informed consent will never rest until they feel justice has been achieved. What is true in Palestine is equally true in South Africa. Over the past 10 years, Land For Peace has offered paralegal advice and allied services to other people facing evictions and forced removals in surrounding areas. Our mission is to facilitate partnerships between landless people, landowners and government to achieve sustainable land rights and benefits. My dream is to establish an online platform to facilitate connection and interactions between the stakeholders in land reform and land rights in South Africa. Unless we develop a radically different alternative to our current land reform program we will inevitably follow a similar path to our neighbor Zimbabwe. The mission of Land For Peace is to contribute to creating that alternative through an online land forum and resource. We welcome any skills, experience and resources people can contribute to building this electronic facility.

POV: In the film, one of the white land owners in your community called you an “agitator”? What is your relationship with the white community now? Have any of the white community members changed their minds about land redistribution?

Roman: I’ll take that as a compliment! It’s about the most polite thing they’ve ever called me. The vast majority of white landowners see land reform as the greatest threat to their interests. My conviction is that the lack of land reform is the greatest threat to the interests of all — including the white landowners. It’s not the change that is the threat; it’s the failure to change that is. The failure to change radically the inherited colonial land regimes in states across Africa, South America and Asia has consistently resulted in ongoing civil unrest, violence and economic decline. It is clear that more and more landowners are realizing that land reform is essential to the future of this country. What are lacking are a clear and compelling alternative and a mechanism to implement it.

POV: In the film, you point out that white South Africans have to realize that there is a price to be paid for a peaceful South Africa, and they have to pay part of that price. How can white South Africans be persuaded to reconcile themselves with the history of apartheid in their country? How can people be persuaded to go against their own personal interests for the greater good?

Roman: I don’t know if it is possible to persuade people to reconcile themselves with their past. I think it is an intensely personal and introspective process that most of us would like to avoid. Perhaps it is not a necessary process either. In terms of reconciliation perhaps it is more helpful to focus on our mutually beneficial goals — a peaceful present and future that replaces the injustices of the past. I believe it is in the interests of white South Africans as much as any other group that we build an alternative to the past. That is for the common good and is in absolutely no way against their own personal interests.

POV: It’s clear from the film that land redistribution in South Africa is fraught with difficulties. What are your hopes for the process going forward? And do you have any suggestions for how the process should be handled?

Roman: It is very obvious that land reform and land rights are rapidly climbing up the political and national agenda in South Africa. This is in part because the failures of our current efforts are becoming more visible, costly and strategic. It is also in line with global trends that recognize that radical changes in human land use and management practices are central to meeting our collective climate change, food security and economic crises. That gives me hope that we are getting closer in this country to a radical overhaul of our land reform program. The success of radical land reform programs internationally depends on one factor more than all others, and that is the relationships and interactions between the stakeholders. I believe that we can achieve a uniquely South African alternative to the current neoliberal program together. Apart we are doomed to failure. That is the reason Land For Peace is advocating a network of local land forums with an enabling infrastructure.

Roger Roman says: I was born in Johannesburg , South Africa in March 1953. That was the same month that the white Apartheid government decided that black South Africans would not be taught math and science at school in order to keep them as the laborers in the white man's society. As a white man, I was born into privilege - both social and economic. I developed a career as a strategic planning and change consultant working in the U.S., Europe and South Africa. In particular, I focused on trying to assist local corporations make the radical shift needed to succeed in a non- racial country after centuries of racial protection and exploitation.

Two years after the first South African democratic elections in 1994, I bought a farm in Hartbeespoort. Shortly thereafter, the white Local Council tried to force me to evict people living on my farm as part of their program of ethnic cleansing of the area. Since then, I have been involved full time in land rights work and activism in my own country and in Africa in general.





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