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April 09, 2009

South African ruling party to speed up land reform

by Muchena Zigomo

South Africa's ANC plans to speed up the country's land reform programme to help end poverty among the poor black majority, but the ruling party says it will not forcibly seize farms from white landowners.

After the fall of apartheid in 1994, the African National Congress, which is widely expected to win general elections this month, set itself a target of handing 30 percent of all agricultural land to the black majority by 2014.

But progress towards the target has been slow, and only about 4 percent of land has been acquired from private owners amid funding problems that government officials say might hinder the government from meeting its goal.

Land reform is a sensitive issue in Africa's biggest economy, where critics say the programme has hurt investment in the commercial farming sector and drastically reduced the land that is available for commercial agriculture.

There are also fears that South Africa's land programme could mirror a similar "fast track" programme that damaged farming output and triggered an economic slump in neighbouring Zimbabwe, where white commercial farmers were often violently evicted by President Robert Mugabe's government.

The ANC has vowed that its own version of the programme will be orderly, despite criticism that some of the same problems faced by Zimbabwe, including lack of support for new farmers and poor farming skills, may thwart South Africa's programme.

ANC spokeswoman Jessie Duarte said the party did not plan to resort to expropriation, whereby the government forcibly takes over farms where willing buyer-willing seller negotiations with land owners have failed, in order to speed up land transfers.

"There is no plan to take over anybody's farm," she said. "The law is very clear, it is a negotiation that takes place and what we would like to do is to make sure that it goes through a little bit faster."

The ANC's plan to intensify land reform could see it acquiring more land under its restitution programme, by which ancestral land is being returned to black communities from whom it was taken before apartheid ended.

Duarte said the party planned to expedite restitution claims that are currently before the land claims court. "First and foremost will be to push for the land claims court to fast track the outstanding disputes that are with them at the moment," she said.

The party could also take back more idle farms granted to beneficiaries under its redistribution programme, which allows black farmers to secure loans to buy land from the government.

The ANC is backing a new but controversial policy dubbed "use it or lose it," which allows the government to take back idle farms given to blacks under redistribution. Last month the government repossessed an ostrich farm near the capital Pretoria, where several of the birds were said to have been lost, others were limping or suffering from disease.

While the government has touted the "use it or lose it" policy as part of steps to improve farming output, some farmers unions have slated it as an election gimmick designed to help the party win votes in the April 22 poll.

"At this stage it is a bit difficult to discuss the land reform issue (with government) because there are quite a lot of emotions going around because of elections," Transvaal Agriculture Union general manager Bennie van Zyl said. "I don't think any political party will put down the realities as they are at this stage, because it doesn't bring in voters to vote for you if you put in the cold facts."

ANC President Jacob Zuma has pledged to help new farmers with fertilisers, seeds and increase the land available to them.

"It's hard to see the direction of the land policy, post elections, because (Zuma) tells the Afrikaner farming community one thing and the ANC's rural supporters another," said Keith Gotshalk, a lecturer at the University of the Western Cape. "The only thing that seems certain is that there will be some form of overhaul for land reform, which is clearly needed, but in the right way."


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