The Burning Land
The Burning Land is an 8-part adaptation of George Alagiah’s exhilarating debut novel, set in the present day amidst a global climate conflict. The series follows Analyst Lindi Seaton & idealist Kagiso Rapabane, as they are dragged into a world of corrupt governments, illegal trade deals, propaganda and murder.
As the world struggles to feed its growing populations arable land has become a precious commodity and climate change has triggered a new world scramble for natural resources. Low levels of institutional governance and law enforcement has opened the door to powerful transnational corporations and governments brokering secret deals.
Arab sheikhs, Chinese government agents, British venture capitalists and EU bureaucrats – they’re all queuing up to jump on the land train. And its next stop is South Africa - the gateway - where the value of land is measured not in dollars or pounds, but in the blood, sweat and tears of its people. It is what Nelson Mandela fought for.
From the steel and glass of The Shard in London, Clive Missenden once a mandarin in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office has done the math. The profits he and his clients in the Grasslands Equity Fund can make from the buying up and stockpiling of land will dwarf what they’ve made from gold and diamonds. Missenden has no qualms about offloading “vacant” land from the comfort of his office. Land trade is lucrative and as far as he is concerned anyone in the way is an inconvenience. It’s not displacement and dispossession it’s just good business. A simple equation of supply and demand.
Lindi Seaton is the daughter of white liberals Harry and Helen Seaton who were exiled to the UK during the height of the apartheid era, unlike her parents who share their opinions freely, Lindi likes to stick to data and holds her cards close to her chest. A field worker and Risk Analyst for the South Trust specialising in environmental & conservation conflict resolution, and when needed crisis control. Lindi’s work has taken her to Indonesia, South America & Central Africa. She’s seen military operations forcing indigenous peoples from their land, big corporations clearing forests, villages and wildlife habitat for infrastructure. “Don’t make it personal" however was Rule number 1, clearly stated by her superior Anton Chetty. Making it personal clouds judgement. It’s a rule she lives by, Lindi just focuses on the facts. Prior to her time at the South Trust, Lindi had a career at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office which came to an abrupt end when she came up against Clive Missenden - then her line manager – over a land issue.
London’s South Bank and Missenden's doorstep is heaving with environmental activists the Disappearance Insurrection who are taking to the streets with their unique brand of non-violent civil disobedience. Thousands of protestors in faceless masks, armed with banners and coloured flags obstruct the roads and bridges, chaining themselves together and lying lifelessly to form a ring around London’s financial district - silently daring the bankers to try and pass. The police are pushed to their limit as they try to stay calm and manage the chaos.
To make matters worse The South Trust seem to have Missenden in their sights as they announce the release of their latest Africa report and a sudden request for a meeting with Grassland Equity from that loud mouth Chetty’s office. Missenden saw what their Indonesia report did, the last thing he needs is validation that his projects are not the “pro-poor development” they promise. In this charged environment Missenden's African venture runs the risk of becoming the poster child for everything wrong with the unholy marriage of the corridors of power at Westminster and evil private capital, and he’ll do whatever he needs to do to keep Chetty and Seaton from sniffing around.
In South Africa The Land Collective an underground cell of eco-warriors will no longer stand by and watch South Africa’s precious land sold off to the highest bidders, while the country’s crooked elite pocket the profits of shady deals and foreign investors move in. Small time sabotage and arson are what they know to make the world pay attention. Kagiso Rapabane is an idealist and a reluctant saboteur, unlike his counterpart at the Land Collective fiery Sharmi Meer. For Sharmi this is revenge, payback for crimes of the past and she has no limits to where she will take the Land Collective. Social videos are her stage and despite their secret identity Sharmi takes delight at the copycats beginning to follow them. These are her people and this is her mission.
When activist Lesedi Motlantshe is murdered, tensions boil over. The death of one of the country’s bright young hopes and the son of a prominent anti-apartheid campaigner, Jacob Motlantshe, ignites the powder keg of years of frustration and shattered dreams of the people. When the police reported that they were questioning a group of migrant Mozambican labourers over Lesedi’s death, it sparks a wave of xenophobic hatred against the Mozambicans. South Africa is on fire and the world is watching.
Anton Chetty tends to shoot first and ask questions later and at a hastily called press conference he pins the killings and the violence in South Africa to the allegations of a land grab which he promises to unveil in the South Trust Africa report. Deciding to Increase the pressure on Missenden, Chetty decides to send Lindi to South Africa to gather proof on the ground that report is legitimate.
As soon as Missenden gets wind that Chetty is sending Lindi to South Africa he lets a connection in Foreign Affairs know that an unwelcome person is arriving in Johannesburg. If South Trust get to the field and expose the shady government tenders in place and the mere handful of jobs created to clear conservation and inhabited land, it could put paid to his African adventure. When Lindi lands to carry out her investigation she is immediately intercepted at customs. She knows from that moment that Missenden's net runs wide and she claims she is on holiday. Released she makes her way through to Johannesburg, knowing she is being watched.
As greed and corruption taint the optimism of a nation Lindi finds herself thrown together with Kagiso the son of the Seatons’ former domestic worker. Despite Anton’s rules the political becomes deeply personal for Lindi and Kagiso. As the pressure grows for the government to bring Lesedi’s killer to justice Kagiso finds himself framed for the murder and goes on the run to unearth the proof that will clear his name. Forgetting all her rules Lindi goes with Kagiso and the pair discover that Lesedi was ready to expose political corruption at the highest level. Could this be the elusive evidence of Missenden's complicity?
Lindi and Kagiso must get this information out to the media and expose this web of corruption, but the events that have been set in motion are in no one’s control, least of all theirs.
Dutiful as a child; conscientious as an adult. Lindi is her own harshest critic. At South Trust – the conflict resolution organisation she works for – she is known for her caution. Lindi wants ALL the evidence before she acts. But when she is sent to South Africa, where events are unfolding at pace, she has to act on intuition. She finds the experience liberating. When she leaves the country, she does so as a stronger, more confident woman. She is attractive but not conventionally beautiful; alluring without trying to be so.
The fixer for his boss. He criss-crosses the world in a private jet. When he looks at his travel itinerary he doesn’t see countries, just places to make money. He is tall and lean. Arrogant. Patronising but knows when to turn on the charm and when to switch it off. A misogynist. A former British diplomat, the skills he once used on behalf of his country now help to fill the coffers of his master.
Diminutive in stature but larger than life in presence. As free with his four-letter language as he is with his opinions. An old-school radical, the kind that believes the likes of Mandela and Slovo, Thambo and Maharaj betrayed the cause, making their peace with wealth rather than destroying it. He is Lindi’s boss at South Trust. They are opposites. Where Lindi is reasoned, he is volatile. Through the novel he comes to terms with his own shortcomings and his respect for Lindi grows.
The reluctant saboteur, one of four in the underground Land Collective. An idealist by nature and a reconciler by preference – yet drawn into the divisive and clandestine world of sabotage by a fierce sense of what South Africa’s freedom was meant to look like. Yet, once the repercussions of his actions unfold – murder, violence, xenophobia – Kagiso is riddled with doubt. But cometh the moment, cometh the man. When Kagiso and Lindi are on the run she sees in him both leadership and bravery. He’s not clubbable. In his days as the up-and-coming policy adviser to government he was regarded as a bit of a loner. They wanted a BMW; he only needed his Yamaha motorcycle.
Muscular both in physique and temperament. She is the driving force behind the Land Collective, the clandestine cell that embarks on a campaign of sabotage to derail the sale of South Africa’s precious land to the highest foreign bidder. For Sharmi, sabotage is pay-back, revenge for what happened to those activists like her father who were abandoned and forgotten by post-apartheid South Africa. Sharmi has fire in her belly.
Dudu “Two-Boy” Modise
A rebel in search of a cause, the accidental activist. Two-Boy is not a political animal. The Land Collective gives his life a structure, a family of sorts. An addiction to the bottle hides a sharp mind.
A white man, an Afrikaner, atoning for his people’s past. He is an academic, a specialist in land reform.
Large and loud. The picture of “mother Africa”. She, and millions like her, were the unheralded heroes of the struggle for freedom. Resilience is in her DNA. Khetiwe is ready for a fight. She may be slow to offer the hand of friendship but once she has it is for life.
Josiah’s physical transformation from the lean Robben Island prisoner to the corpulent businessman tells the story of those for whom freedom means wealth. Every deal has taken him further away from the principles he once held dear. He is impatient with those who see his stellar trajectory as a betrayal. Why shouldn’t a black man be rich, as rich as the whites who once had the field to themselves?
She could have anything she wants but is content with what she has. Trim in appearance, modest in her tastes. Priscilla is gentle in manner but those who mistake it for weakness are in for a shock – as her husband Josiah discovers to his cost. She goes to church to pray; her husband goes to church to be SEEN to be praying. As the admiration she once had for her husband slowly evaporates, she invests her love – and loyalty – to her son, Lesedi. Though it will break her heart she is forced to choose between the two.
Bright, open-faced, engaging, confident – but naïve. The heir to his father’s fortune. Lesedi wants to do things differently but he is no match for those who surround his father, men who have too much at stake to let him get in the way. He talks about fairness and transparency but they talk about deals and side-deals. As his mother recalls after his murder: “the innocence that had been so endearing in the boy had been a weakness in the man”.
The Burning Land brings together a diverse cast of characters in a political thriller set primarily in London and South Africa. Set in a contemporary world where climate change is felt daily, a world heating up with the need for food becoming an urgent issue and a business opportunity for those with little conscience.
The series juxtaposes the vast beautiful and open landscapes of South Africa against the closed doors of the meetings rooms in luxurious buildings. Boardrooms where secret trade deals take place between some of the world wealthiest and most influential businessmen and politicians. Glass and steel are cold and hard environments contrasted against the bright, rough, raw and textured environments in South Africa.
Visually, we are taken from the shiny skyscrapers of London, Johannesburg and Dubai to South Africa’s teeming townships and destitute rural hinterland. We move from the champagne-and-silk hotel suites where land deals are struck to the squalid downtown backroom where the Land Collective meets to plot its next operation. One minute we are travelling in the leathery comfort of a private jet; the next minute we are with migrant workers being hurled this way and that in the back of a bus as they flee for their lives through the vast regions of South Africa to its boarders.
Before becoming the presenter of BBC News, Britain’s most watched news programme, George Alagiah was known for his work as one of the BBC's foreign correspondents. He covered the genocide in Rwanda, civil wars in Afghanistan and Liberia, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and the 9/11 terror attacks on New York, winning numerous awards for his coverage, including Amnesty International and The Royal Television Society among others. Prior to joining the BBC in 1989, Alagiah worked in print journalism for seven years. In 2008 he was awarded the OBE for services to journalism.
The Burning Land is George Alagiah's first work of fiction and sees him delve into the spaces between the despatches he has brought to the nation as a reporter. He has published two works of non-fiction: A Passage to Africa (2001) and A Home from Home (2006).
The London’s Guardian newspaper called it “gripping”. The South African-born crime writer Sheila Kohler described the novel as “suspenseful and enlightening”.