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A different breed of Afrikaner

9 February 2011

Kobus Pienaar — or “Kobus Konstitusie” as he was known in NGO circles for his passionate belief in the fundamental importance of the South African Constitution — was a man deeply committed to the marginalised people of South Africa, to eradicating poverty and inequality, and to realising socio-economic rights. Kobus Pienaar has worked closely with PLAAS since 1995; many members of staff regarded him as a colleague and friend, and news about his untimely death shook us deeply. On Monday morning, staff met to remember Kobus and honour his memory.

Kobus and colleagues

Kobus chatting with colleagues at the PLAAS Institutional, January 2009

Andries du Toit recalled that he had heard stories about this man at Stellenbosch University years before he met him. In those days, there had been two prominent student leaders called Kobus Pienaar: the one, Wit Koos, was a supporter of the establishment and the National party; the other a fervent opponent of Apartheid and was therefore known as Swart Koos. History does not tell what happened to ‘white’ Kobus, but the life history of ‘our’ Kobus testifies to the integrity and consistency with which he lived out his values and commitments.

Ben Cousins recalled the first time he met Kobus with Henk Smit and Jean du Plessis shortly after his own return from exile in the early 1990s: ‘They were talking at high speed in Afrikaans. I hadn’t spoken Afrikaans for nineteen years. After a while I interrupted them and told them they were a different breed of Afrikaner to what I’d ever met before.’

They were not merely against Apartheid: they were young Afrikaans radicals, thoroughly schooled in critical social theory — intellectually keen, passionately committed to the social transformation of capitalist society, but also plain-speaking, convivial and down-to-earth in their personal relations, allergic to pompousness and skeptical of those who sought personal power or aggrandisement.

Kobus’ relationship with PLAAS was based in his work on land restitution, commonage and land tenure reform legislation. He strongly believed that a workable policy on land reform was essential for South Africa, and tirelessly campaigned for this cause. Crucial to his vision was the notion that land reform and restitution had to be linked to coherent, participatory development thinking. As a young lawyer in Port Elizabeth, Kobus was central to the visionary thinking pioneered by the Port Elizabeth Land and Community Restoration Association (PELCRA), which emphasised that Restitution had to be linked to the conscious re-constitution of community and coherent urban planning.

From 2001, he served as a module co-ordinator in the PLAAS Postgraduate Diploma and MPhil in Land and Agrarian Studies, and lectured on the Legal and Socio-Legal dimension of Land and Agrarian Reform. Researcher and Postgraduate Diploma Co-ordinator Moenieba Isaacs recalled how he enthused students about the merits and importance of adopting a rights-based approach.

He cared deeply about justice and fairness: injustices and inequities would visibly stir his indignation, but he never moralised or pointed fingers; he always tempered moral outrage with his mischievous sense of humour and his personal humility. Above all, he channelled his considerable energy into his professional and political life: he was a rights ‘whirlwind’ — often close to a ‘hurricane’ in his efforts to address socio-economic rights injustices through the law.

Kobus was an avid supporter of PLAAS’s work. In addition to his work on our teaching course, he also supported our efforts to monitor land reform implementation and disseminate information about land and agrarian reform. He was central to the ‘Land Clips’ service we run on our website and worked closely with PLAAS researcher Karin Kleinbooi on this. Karin Kleinbooi also recalled Kobus’s crude sense of humour, the laughter he often created around him and yet the sometimes serious, passionate and assertive way he would insist on particular points. She said it was impossible not to become friends with Kobus, given his warm embracing presence and his sharp quirkiness and incredible humour which often shed a different angle on serious and every day issues.

Kobus at lunch with colleagues

Kobus sharing drinks with colleagues at the PLAAS Institutional Launch in January 2009.

Just a few days before his death he attended a PLAAS workshop on Rural Transformation in South Africa, and shared his views on the new bill on security of tenure for farm workers, critiquing the proposed changes of moving farm workers to villages off the farms where they were born, lived and worked. Brimful of energy and enthusiasm, he spent the day joking and arguing with participants: again and again justifying everything he said in terms of the provisions of the South African constitution, insisting on the central importance of wide consultation and citizen participation in crafting a vision for rural development, and holding up what he called one of his ‘many hats’ — a bright red Father Christmas cap with a white tassel — announcing that he would award it as a prize to the person who came up with the most original and incisive contribution of the day. This is how those who participated in that workshop will remember him: larger than life, intellectually engaged, always ready to start afresh; but never self-important, and leavening all he said and did with a spark of humour.

This gentle giant stood large and firm in his beliefs, while proving an extraordinarily passionate fighter for socio-economic justice, who genuinely served South Africa well.

Kobus was a well-loved and deeply respected colleague at PLAAS, and we are devastated by the news of his death. We will all remember him for the indelible mark he has left on our work.

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