From Parys with love

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Parys. It's difficult to think of another South African town that immediately evokes such a wide range of contemptuous hilarity. Except maybe Pofadder. Or Boksburg. Or Pietermaritzburg. But I digress…

It's about my 5th time in Parys. Most of my visits here have been bleary-eyed drop-ins for breakfast at the break of dawn after an overnight haul from Cape Town en route to Johannesburg. It's barely an hour from here to Lenasia and Soweto with the Jo'burg CBD a mere 15 minutes drive further.

One of my visits to Parys was quite deliberate – a holiday weekend at a B&B run by a journalist colleague of many years, Graeme Addison. Thirty years ago, Addison introduced me to the thrills of white water canoeing on the uMkomaas River in KZN. (I wiped out spectacularly on rapid number 8 but lived to tell the tale.)

Today, Addison runs his B&B on the shores of the Vaal and has shifted his focus to white water rafting. The Orange River's largest tributary which once gave its name to the province on one bank tumbles, spurts, jets, and frolics with glee through this town.

But I'm not here to renew acquaintances. I'm here because once every year, my radio station shuts down for almost three days and the entire team heads off for our bosberaad.

The more politically correct among us might want to refer to this more fashionably as a lekgotla – trust me, it isn't. It's essentially the only opportunity for almost every member of my 100+ team to get together, get a bit silly, and generally have a lot of fun. It's also the only time that I get to communicate to our staff our plans for the year ahead.

Bringing my team to Parys is a study in contrasts.

This is a town where a restaurant sports historical memorabilia from the height of grand apartheid including magazines with Hendrik Verwoerd on the cover. (The food and service at said restaurant is superb, by the way – clearly a passion for questionable antiquities does not necessarily spark bigotry.)

My team, on the other hand, is overwhelmingly young, overwhelmingly gifted, and overwhelmingly black – sure of their standing as among the most talented would-be superstars on the entire continent. "You can hear them out there," our host remarked wryly to me when I arrived at reception enquiring where the YFM team was stationed.

In short, it would be easy to mistake Parys for a would-be Orania. It isn't. For one, the magnificent riverside properties marketed by the likes of Pam Golding are not for the less-than-well-heeled. More crucially though, Parys is the crucible of a trailblazing exercise in land reform.

It's an initiative spearheaded by the Free Market Foundation, an organisation I have supported for a number of years.

The philosophy behind the initiative is not complicated. Essentially, it takes the view that the best way to land reform is not by trying to carve up successful large farms and distributing the spoils among sharecroppers. Instead, it makes a case for giving people title deeds to land that they have already lived on for years.

Parys is part of the Free State's Ngwathe municipality and there are some 33 000 plots owned by the municipality which have been occupied for decades by tenants.

The Free Market Foundation plan is to "upgrade all 33 000 lawfully held plots in Ngwathe to unambiguous, tradable and mortgageable ownership at no cost to the lawful residents".

If you understand the nature of South African bureaucracy, you will appreciate why this has been a bit of a legislative and administrative minefield. In the run up to the launch, the FMF and project partners resolved numerous complex issues ranging from the conversion of property-related debt to civil debt, waiving electrical compliance certificates, and managing mismatched council and deeds registry records.

Today, the FMF has reduced the cost of transferring the properties to R1 650.

The FMF is now on a fundraising drive to raise money to transfer 2 000 properties this year. Some 340 properties are already with the conveyancers.

It's a project that I intend supporting out of my own pocket, and I urge those of you out there who can afford this amount (which is most of you reading these words) to do the same. R1 650 is a ridiculously small amount of money to give a person the dignity of home ownership.

Nothing builds stability in any community quicker than security of tenure. A person who owns land will generally improve the land by building better housing. She will then look to improving infrastructure, schools, health care and all of the other amenities one expects in a neighbourhood.

Each-one-house-one. It has a nice ring, don't you think?