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March 12, 2008

Is South African land reform creating new injustices?

by Eric Beauchemin

South Africa's pre-Mandela regime brought about one of the most racially skewed land distributions in the world. Since the collapse of apartheid in 1994, the black majority government has been trying to implement land reform, but are new injustices being created by righting past wrongs?

In South Africa, one of the most intractable legacies of white-minority rule is the right to land. After the first Dutch settlers arrived in the Cape in the 1600s, they started taking over native peoples' lands. Whites gradually expropriated more and more land, and by the early 20th century, blacks had been squeezed into reservations that amounted to only 13 percent of South Africa's territory.

The present controversy over land redistribution is being played out across the country, including the province of Limpopo, formerly known as Transvaal. South Africa's northern-most province is a very rich agricultural region, and because of its varying and distinct climates, it produces a wide range of crops, from tropical fruits and vegetables to cereals. In Letaba District in Limpopo Province, claims have been submitted against 98.8 percent of the white-owned farmland. One of the claimants is Eric Ralapelle. He is also the chairman of the Landless People's Movement, the LPM.

For the past decade he has been fighting to get back his people's land, which he says was stolen from them in 1913 with the introduction of the Native Land Act. Mr Ralapelle says he and other blacks can prove that the land is theirs.

"We managed to find some graves. Some old buildings are still there too. You'll find the farmer has just planted some bananas or mangoes. But the evidence is still there."

Even though South Africa has had black majority rule for almost 15 years now, it has been difficult for Mr Ralapelle and the other 19 million landless and poor blacks to get their land back. The post-apartheid government couldn't simply confiscate the land, because agriculture is one of the foundations of the South African economy.

But land reform has been a government priority since 1994. The authorities have even set up a Land Claims Court and Commission to ensure that the black majority gets the land back, but the process has been slow, admits Mr Ralapelle. He says:

"The problem is the pace in which the government is processing this thing." There is a pile of work to do, and they don't have the capacity to do that work. You will find that one official is handling more than 20 claims. So it will be hard for them to process that."

Commercial farms require a large amount of capital to purchase seeds, fertilizer and equipment, as well as to pay regular bills for things like electricity and water. The government has promised to give funding to new landowners, but it has been slow in actually handing out the money. As a result, many of the farms that have been reclaimed have collapsed within a year or two.

Mr Ralapelle and the other people in his community are hoping to get their land back in a few weeks' time. He expects to earn more money and also to become the master of his own destiny for the first time in his life. But for him, the most important thing will be that he will finally be able to tend to his ancestors' graves.

There are winners and losers in South Africa's grand land redistribution. The latter are white farmers, like Theo de Jager. He is the chairman of the Land Affairs committee of AgriSA, an organisation representing small and large-scale commercial farmers. A little over a decade ago, Mr De Jager bought a farm in Limpopo Province. But a few years later, he and his neighbours discovered that claims had been made on their farms.

There were 26 farms in the district, and during the negotiations with the local tribe and the Department of Land Affairs, the farmers agreed that they would sell half their farms. The land was eventually handed over to 3600 families. Some of the white farmers decided to form joint ventures with the new owners to help them learn how to run a commercial farm, but since then, all 13 farms have collapsed. Last winter, they were burnt down by the previous farm hands, who were angry at having lost their jobs.

Mr De Jager was housebound for three months, but he finally decided to buy another farm. About 80 kilometres from his previous farm he found one that didn't have any claims on it. But six months later disaster struck again. Mr De Jager says:

"When the farm became viable again these claims popped out. When I went to see the land claims commissioner, he explained to me that somebody resigned from his office. After he left the commission, they had to break open a steel cupboard. They found a lot of documents inside including these new claims. The commission did not realise that they had received them prior to the cut-off date in 1998."

Mr De Jager still finds it hard to believe that he will have to fight again to keep his land. But he is comforted by the fact that only four individuals have submitted claims. As he puts it, at least three of them must be wrong. Unlike many of his neighbours, who have left the province or emigrated abroad, Mr De Jager plans to stay in Limpopo as a farmer. He says:

"We, the Afrikaners of Dutch descent, have never been alone in Africa. We have been farming with the indigenous people - with the current land claimants - for 350 years now. We will never be alone. So we understand the land hunger."

When asked what he would do if he would lose his farm again, his answer is quite simple. "Buy another one."

Radio Netherlands

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