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July 10, 2008

Land reform in South Africa going badly wrong

Land reform in South Africa is a key ANC policy but it is going badly wrong as black claimants and white farmers struggle over land.

Bernhard Mojapelo is university educated, with a good job in the city. But his main passion in life is for a vast stretch of barren rural scrubland. Thanks to South Africa's land reform, he and his tribe have been able to lodge a claim for it.

"Land is a source of life," Bernhard says. "When we were dispossessed and driven away from the land we felt shame and our children looked down on us. Land reform is a victory for us Africans in terms of social prestige and dignity."

Land is an emotional issue in South Africa. Millions of blacks were made landless under colonial rule and apartheid. When the ANC took over in 1994, a minority white population - about 10% - owned nearly 90% of the land. The transfer of land to black hands became an ANC priority. But, as land reform approaches its deadline there are signs that for rural and farming communities it has failed.

Once a loyal ANC supporter, Bernhard now feels cheated. "The government was very ambitious with its land reform. But it had no blueprint or master plan," he complains. "It was only a political goal. They didn't monitor it or work out what people really need."

Down the dirt track from Bernhard's house lives another land claimant from his tribe - Patrick Mojapelo. Patrick has lived though colonialism and apartheid: "My land is my home. This is where I was born and grew up," he says. "This feeling is stronger among blacks than whites. It's part of myself. It's where we have our graves."

They are claiming ancestral land from before 1913, when the colonial Land Act forced blacks off their historical land. It was promised that 30% of agricultural land would be transferred to black claimants by the official deadline of 2014. So far it's just over 4%.

Transfer has been slow and inefficient. And in the successful cases the complaints are that there's too little money or training to support the new farmers.

Patrick and Bernhard live near Polokwane, the capital city of Limpopo - South Africa's most northerly province, bordering Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Botswana. Zimbabwe's disastrous land reform - with farm invasions and racial violence - are close and constant reminders to South Africans.

Travelling north through Limpopo, the dry flat scrubland gives way to deep valleys and green hills covered in tall blue gum trees and farms growing macadamias, guavas, avocados and mangoes.

Limpopo is the most productive fruit and vegetable-growing region in South Africa and nearly the whole province is under land claim. For decades agriculture here has been dominated by successful white farmers, like Theo De Jager, who is also regional president of the largest farmers' lobby group, Agri SA.

Originally an enthusiastic supporter of land reform, he sold his first farm two years ago under the government's "willing buyer, willing seller" scheme, where cooperating farmers are paid market price for their land, which is then transferred to the black claimants.

But Theo's former farm now lies in ruins - dead cattle, dead crops, abandoned by the new owners. All the buildings, including the grand family home, have been ripped apart and pillaged for cables, glass and wood.

Most of the transferred farms have failed and there is mounting concern over food productivity. Theo's new farm is also under claim but this time he will not be a "willing seller."

"If we want to feed 50 million people in this country," he says, "then we need to think differently about land. People will die of hunger if we keep saying we must give land back to those people who roamed here 150 years ago. They're not farmers today."

Since 1994 about 15,000 white farmers have sold up and many have left South Africa. Theo de Jager speaks for many when he says: "We have three options: to stay and risk losing everything; to pack our bags and go to Canada or New Zealand, or stay and try to convince the government that they're wrong."

Theo and his friends voice some of their other fears: "I don't farm any more," says one, "out of fear, seeing what happened to family in Zimbabwe. It could happen here."

"We've already had over 2,000 murders of white farmers on their land," Theo adds. "Most are due to the general crime situation in South Africa," he admits, "but some have been linked in court to claimants who killed farmers who were not "willing sellers." And that adds to the fear."

Theo's struggle for his land has only just begun.

The ANC has decided to introduce a new Expropriation Bill, a controversial move which, if passed, will give the government greater powers to expropriate land and property from existing owners. For many, this Bill conjures up visions of Zimbabwe. For others, like Bernhard and Patrick, it is a welcome move to speed up land reform. It is farmers like Theo, they say, who are obstructing the process: they are no longer willing to sell and are asking too much money for their land.

Doors Le Roux, an Afrikaner guava grower in the Levubu Valley and a member of the Transvaal Agricultural Union, says if the claimants come to take his farm he will defend it by force.

"This is delayed revenge. It's revenge, black on white. The Expropriation Law is a short-cut to stealing our land. We could move to a land grab situation - we're already moving towards it. The government says people will get their land and they're not. The claimants are getting restless. I will fight with all possible means. It could get very ugly."

The Expropriation Bill has already been through tempestuous Public Hearings across the country. It will be voted on in parliament when MPs return after their winter recess. Despite the criticisms, the ANC is committed to making it work.

Their line is clear: the legacy of apartheid and colonization are still hard realities in South Africa today and land reform will help overcome that legacy.

With a general election early next year this showcase policy will be displayed in all its glory. For Bernhard, Patrick and thousands of other black South Africans, when they get their promised land it will be a dream come true.


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