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April 14, 2009

Farm disputes in South Africa simmering

A dispute over land between a white farmer and a black family claiming tenancy rights on his property in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands has neighbouring farmers worried that bad blood between the two parties may affect other farmer/worker relationships in the country.

Colin de Gaspary of Bright Water Farm near Rietvlei is hoping the Pietermaritzburg Land Claims Court will soon announce an eviction order against the Masikane family which will finally end the hostilities and threats against him.

"When I bought my (farm) 11 years ago, I allowed Irene Masikane and her one son to continue living on a section of my property," he explained. "However, I stipulated that only these two people were allowed to live here. Now Irene’s daughter, Joyce, and her daughter, Dudu, are claiming the right to live on my property because they say that their family has lived here since 1949," De Gaspary said.

"But I have aerial photographs which show there were no dwellings on my property in 1973 and I know the Masikane family only moved onto my land in 1975. So they don’t have a right to tenancy on my property. I have a right to live in peace and I also have the right to evict Joyce and Dudu and anyone else."

Meanwhile, the Masikane family is digging in its heels and recently enlisted the help of the non-governmental land rights organisation the Rural Network to arrange a protest march against De Gaspary. Although a large group of protesters turned up on the day, most of them had been bussed in from townships around Durban, over 100km away.

A number of farmers living in the region were at pains to point out that the dispute was an isolated case and should in no way reflect negatively on relations between farmers and their employees or tenants.

"The public and authorities should be aware Colin de Gaspary is not a farmer, but a smallholder," one anonymous farmer pointed out. "The farmers in our area have good relationships with their tenants. It would probably be best for everyone if Colin sold his land and moved somewhere else where he could start out fresh."

De Gaspary said that in early May, he would be appearing in the Greytown Magistrates Court to face charges of assault which have been laid by the Masikane family. Later that month, his application to evict the family would be heard in the Pietermaritzburg Land Claims Court.

Other farmers, Ed Meyer and four other white farmers in Middelburg, South Africa, are fighting to keep land that a black gardener says his ancestors occupied first.

The South African government is trying to right past injustices without wrecking the economy. Andries Mahlungu is claiming ownership to the land saying the farm belonged to him "and his ancestors". In a formal claim with the government, he contended that his ancestors were there first. Now the white couple and the black man are locked in a battle over the farm -- and, in a sense, over the past and future of South Africa. The legal pillars of white minority rule came tumbling down with South Africa's first democratic elections almost 15 years ago, and the oldest of those laws was the Natives Land Act, which had severely restricted black land ownership since 1913.

The challenge that the new black-majority government faced was how to restore land to blacks, in a legal and orderly way, without creating a panic that would drive whites off productive farms and destroy the country's economy -- a scenario that was soon to strangle neighboring Zimbabwe. The solution the government came up with was to create a Commission on Restitution of Land Rights to adjudicate land claims and, when valid, compensate the current owners. So far, the commission has settled about 75,000 of 80,000 claims, returning hundreds of thousands of acres to blacks and paying white farmers market rates that have totaled more than $2 billion. With the deadline for filing claims now past, the government has pledged to settle the 5,000 outstanding claims in the next two years. But the commission is running short of money, and many of the remaining claims, like Mahlungu's against the Meyers' property, are being hotly contested. All across post-colonial Africa, governments have struggled to correct past injustices, with mixed results.

Talk Zimbabwe

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