When Roger Roman read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, he says, his life was changed. After seeing what he had assumed to be “history” from another perspective (the book’s authors are white, but offer an alternative view), he was disturbed by “the dispossession by white Americans of the Native Americans,” Roman asserts. He was moved to take action. A white South African, he gave his land to black claimants.
As Roman recalls this story in Promised Land, he’s still visibly moved. He invites the film crew to walk with him on the land, and to meet a black man, now 103 years old. Though he’s lived here for all his life, has been called a “squatter” by 30 of Roman’s fellow white, land-owning neighbors and so deemed fit for eviction. Roman goes another step, founding Land for Peace, an organization aiming to hurry along the process of reconciliation initiated by the African National Congress (ANC) in 1994. One part of that process calls for the redistribution of land: the government promised to reallocate ownership of a third of it within 10 years.
Sixteen years later, the plan has hardly been fulfilled. In part, Yoruba Richen’s smart, subtly complex documentary submits, this inaction results from the impossibility of the government’s compromise. Screening on 26 May at Stranger Than Fiction and then airing on TV as part of PBS’ POV series on 6 July, the film makes deft observations concerning graceless legal mechanisms. At the same time, by looking at two particular land disputes—claims made by the 9,000-member Mekgareng community and 1,000 descendants of Abram Molamu—the film shows essential complications in the process. An opening title card notes, “At the heart of apartheid is the division of the land.” But that land (like most land on the planet) is never just land: it is a measure of citizenship, a means to civil rights and self-identity; it is multiply meaningful, across generations and immediately, an emblem of economic and mythic status, political and emotional well-being.
Promised Land lays out initial problems in the government’s compromise, namely, its assumption (or best hope) that changes might be wrought based on a “willing seller, willing buyer” model. In fact, most white owners have been unwilling and many black buyers have been ill-prepared, their legal claims unrecorded (owing to decades of oppression, abuse, and exploitation) and their claims still stuck in a kind of first gear, grinding. As claimants are righteously aggrieved and seeking redress, they are not explicitly building effective business plans. Perhaps the greatest challenge lies within the government, wavering and unable, leaving too much of the work to be done by individuals and communities in search of answers.
Those answers are inevitably hard. If Roman’s response to historical injustice is to feel responsible and energized, taking his own next step to adjust that history, other white landowners—all men in this film—see their part differently. “I did nothing in the past I should feel ashamed about,” says Hannes Visser. “If I have to feel ashamed about what some other people have done, I feel ashamed on their behalf. But this process that they say, ‘reconciliation’: isn’t reconciliation something that’s supposed to come from both sides?”
Actually, reconciliation can mean otherwise—including agreeing to absorb and work to address injustice and inequality—but Visser’s view of responsibility is very specific, focused on his own experience, not identified with a structure or system. Where Roman insists on his power to change terms, Visser assumes he need not, because his intention and his lifetime have been his own, alone. (That, and, his family has owned the land for generations, blurring any statute of limitations on who owes what to whom.) And, as Blessing Mphela, a Regional Land Claims Commissioner, puts it, “The land is the basis of power, the basis of power and wealth.”
Visser’s case involves Molamu’s family, a claim led by Kathy Motlhabane, Steve Bogatsu, and Pinky Gumede. Educated and middle-class, they’re working with lawyers to argue that Abram’s initial sale of the land was unjust, premised on systemic exploitation by white buyers. Though Visser counters by citing his longtime friendships with his black employees: “They’ve been here four generations,” he notes as the camera pans to show two men nodding and not speaking. “I was the only white boy, so it was only natural I played with the black boys around me.” Visser goes on to explain his consequent sense of largesse: “I put them in a position where they can take care of their families, then eventually they can take care of me.”
As the documentary offers points and counterpoints, its visual compositions lean inevitably to showcasing the need for sweeping, efficient, and carefully planned change, reform that might be both effective and sustained. Whether white men mean well or ill, or however their effects are understood, they are still making decisions that shape black people’s lives. As of now, none of the parties feels fairly treated. Promised Land reveals they are all moved by an unresolved correlation between pledges and property—abstract and material, timeless and immediate.