Somewhere amid the burning oil pipelines and wrecked tanks, among the wounded filling the hospitals and the homeless winding out of their ruined cities, lies another potential casualty of the Libyan war: five and a half million olive trees the Italians planted in the desert in the 1930s. Few worldwide may be thinking of these trees as they watch the latest news. But, in South Africa, some people are praying for them. In late 2009, during happier days, Muammar Qaddafi’s regime invited a group of prominent South African farmers to the country to consider helping to revive Libya’s moribund agricultural sector. The Libyans had many abandoned farms to offer, but the old olive estate at Khadra was the most incredible. The trees were “in beautiful condition,” remembers Theo de Jager, one of the farmers who saw them. “There was massive potential.”
But Khadra is south of Beida, in the hotly contested east. What must the trees look like today, de Jager wonders? Have bombs broken their little, gnarled heads?
According to the South African farmers, the plan to import them originated with Saif, Qaddafi’s modern-minded second son. Libya has a lot of farmland watered by the Great Man-Made River, a huge irrigation project Qaddafi has called “the eighth wonder of the world.” Much of it has been long neglected, probably on the theory that oil money can buy just about anything man can grow. In the wake of the last decade’s food-price riots, though, Saif brought European consultants to Tripoli to assess how to get the farms going. The consultants suggested bringing in Indian or Chinese agriculturalists.
But the practical-mindedness of the son soon ran up against the Lear-like manias of the father. Colonel Qaddafi, deep into his pan-African phase, announced that he did not want anybody touching the Libyan soil who was not African. The European consultants were skeptical. Where, they asked, was Libya going to find cutting-edge African mega-farmers capable of managing a multi-million olive-tree estate?
Qaddafi had an answer. He had seen such a mega-farm with his own eyes. In 2002, during the African Union summit in Durban, South Africa, Qaddafi pitched the giant Bedouin tent with which he travels on the nearby plantation of Charl Senekal, an Afrikaner and the biggest sugar planter in South Africa. So the Libyans appealed to Senekal and a couple of leaders of his farmers’ union to check out their arable land.
They say apartheid was insanity. But landing in Tripoli introduced Senekal and four other accompanying South Africans to a different kind of surreal. Storefronts hawked bibs of jewels big enough to cover a woman’s whole chest, presumably for foreign oil barons’ wives. An aide of Saif’s led the farmers through the triumphal arch of Marcus Aurelius, which was bereft of tourists; loose bits of Roman mosaic came up when they lifted their shoes.
Outside of Tripoli, they saw dairy and chicken farms as well as the olive estate, pristinely intact but nearly deserted. The plan had been to go to a sheep farm, too, but midway, the cars turned back. The Libyans wanted to interrogate a South African journalist who had travelled with the farmers. They had unearthed an old article he had written about the politics of the Holy Land. “They had a copy of the article,” recalls de Jager. “He”—the journalist—“tried to show them he was really sympathetic toward the Palestinians! And then they looked at me and they said, ‘We even know the name of your dog.’” (De Jager calls the two dogs that guard his macadamia farm Qaddafi and Saddam.)
One would imagine such an invasive probing might have put the farmers off. On the contrary: The attention was interesting, even gratifying. In South Africa, white commercial farmers often experience the black government as barely willing to give them the time of day, much less bother to discover the names of their dogs.
“We loved it there,” Senekal tells me. He was somewhat surprised when revolution subsequently erupted. “The people looked very happy to us,” he says. The Libyan government had even bragged to the tour group that every citizen got a free laptop and television.
That level of social welfare, however, had posed a practical problem for the South African farmers. The Libyans they met on their tour didn’t look exactly raring to till. “All the farmers asked, ‘Where would we get farm workers from?’” de Jager remembers. “And the Libyans said, ‘Egypt and Algeria.’” The South African government also didn’t have the proper treaty with Libya to protect its citizens’ investments, so the farmers’ takeover of the olive trees was put on hold—and then the happy populace revolted.
“I’ll go back after the war,” declares Senekal. “It’s a huge place. They haven’t thrown enough bombs to eradicate all the olive trees.” In the meantime, his connection with a famous African ruler, even an embattled one, has bestowed Senekal with an aura of election down in South Africa. In recent weeks, friends and journalists have been calling him to ask if Qaddafi has actually fled Libya and is secretly hiding out on his sugar plantation. Senekal laughs the rumor off. Qaddafi isn’t the fake-mustache-and-hair-dye type. But, if ill winds finally blew the Bedouin tent south, he wouldn’t say no.
Eve Fairbanks is living in South Africa as a fellow at the Institute of Current World Affairs. This article originally ran in the April 28, 2011, issue of the magazine.
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