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October 01, 2008

South Africa sticks to target on black land ownership

South Africa will stick to its ambitious plan to put 30 percent of farmland in black hands by 2014, even though it is lagging way behind target, a senior government official said on October 1.

Land restitution is a racially sensitive issue in South Africa, troubled by the decline in agriculture in neighbouring Zimbabwe where white commercial farmers were often violently evicted by President Robert Mugabe's government.

After the fall of apartheid in 1994, the government set itself a target of handing 30 percent of all agricultural land to the black majority by 2014. So far, however, it has only acquired 4 percent of land from private owners for redistribution, and says it needs to accelerate the process. Authorities have gradually embarked on seizures to return land to blacks whose land was forcibly taken under previous governments.

"We have no intentions of changing that target. That is where we are going and that is what we would want to see," Thozi Gwanya, director general in the department of land affairs, told an agriculture conference in the capital Pretoria. "The plan may have been ambitious, but if we had no plan at all then there (would have been) no change," Gwanya said.

Farmer groups say the delays in land reform are slowing investment in agriculture, stunting the sector's growth and hampering the goals of lifting poor blacks out of poverty.

In an effort to try to speed up the land reform process, the government tabled an expropriation bill in parliament in July that would allow it to forcibly seize land from farmers if willing-buyer, willing-seller negotiations failed. But the bill was shelved after opposition parties, farmer bodies and other civic groups protested. They said it was unconstitutional and would be similar to Zimbabwe's land grabs, which disregarded property rights and were a major factor behind the country's economic decline.

The groups fear the bill could be reintroduced following changes in South Africa's government after the ruling African National Congress (ANC) forced President Thabo Mbeki to resign.

Analysts say the powerful COSATU trade union federation, which is allied to the ANC and the Communist Party and has called for speedy land reforms, may have more influence with new President Kgalema Motlanthe's government.

"As far as we understand the bill has only been shelved. It has not been permanently withdrawn," said Nichola de Havilland, deputy director general at the Centre for Constitutional Rights. "Dependent on the role that the (ANC) alliance partners are given in the new government, we could see the bill resubmitted after elections next year," she told the conference.

ANC leader Jacob Zuma is expected to become president after the general election due around April.

Officials say mainly white farmers have stalled the land reform programme by demanding excessive prices. The whites farmers blame bureaucratic shortcomings for slow progress.

"We understand that there may be some pressure on the government politically on the land issue, but I don't much see the point of doing something in the wrong way," said wheat farmer Jaco van Rensberg. "Doing it right may well save us some embarrassment later on, or going the way of Zimbabwe."


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