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In 1994, the ANC government planned to redistribute 30% of agricultural land within five years. It did not happen. Instead only 2% of the 87% of the best land in the country held by white owners, has been redistributed so far - eight years of slow traffic. And time is running out. It could make Zimbabwe look like a picnic. PUSCH COMMEU of New African reports from Durban.

Special to Black History Supplement

It will either be a mutually assured destruction (MAD) or a mutually assured prosperity (MAP). The key will be a concerted multiracial effort to empower the deeply wronged black people of this country, beginning with a fast track re-distribution of land driven by the people-centred African philosophy of Ubuntu (I am because you are).

A lot will also depend on the willingness of white owners - beneficiaries of apartheid - to properly reconcile, and a commitment to put their money where their mouths are, and to make serious concessions.

The alternative is to lose everything in a revolution that can easily be sparked by the land question. Until Zimbabwe happened, white landowners in South Africa had taken Nelson Mandela's reconciliation project to mean keeping ill-gotten gains while blacks starved.

Then Zimbabwe happened! It was a veritable eye-opener to a probable endgame of the economic apartheid that still reigns supreme in South Africa. The foundations of it being land.

For context, it should be said that South Africa (land area: 471,445 sq miles) is five times bigger than the UK and Northern Ireland (combined land area: 94,214 sq miles). So the 87% of the land in white hands translates into more than four times the size of the UK and Northern Ireland. Yet, whites make up only 10.7% of South Africa's 42 million population, blacks are 77%, Asians 2.5%, Coloureds (mixed race) 8.8%, and the remaining 1% described as "other".

It began with the 1913 Native Land Act that allocated 87% of fertile, resource- rich land to whites and restricted blacks to 13% of barren land. Even then the blacks were forbidden to own the barren land allotted to them (they had no title to it). This was consolidated by the 1936 Native Trust Act, creating a class of minority white land owners and a huge mass of pauperised blacks, primed for exploitation because of their weakened status.

And then came the forced removals of the 77% black population to make way for white economic domination. With active support from the government, namely capital, expertise and motivation, and not by any inherent ability, large successful white commercial farms emerged. Not to mention the misappropriation of mineral resources that came with the land.

Traditional small-scale farming remained excluded from central planning and remained at the level of subsistence. Having no access to land and agricultural inputs, and suppressed by repressive influx control and pass laws, blacks were forced to become a huge pool of cheap labour for white commercial farms and industry.

Furthermore, "Bantu education" (designed to create slavish people) has meant that black South Africans have low levels of skill and knowledge in a sophisticated cash economy that was built to demand such.

The house that apartheid built for blacks is marginalisation, endemic poverty and suffering. In this economy, unemployment means misery for blacks because they have no land, little ability to survive at the subsistence level, little by way of social services and a psychological culture of dependency forced on them.

It has been a classic illustration of the vicious economic war against blacks in all spheres of the economy that has resulted in 96% of the wealth on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) being in white hands, inclusive of white shareholders spread along Europe and America.

Wealth is intergenerational, and what threatens most to derail South Africa's hard won transition is poverty - black poverty as highlighted by President Thabo Mbeki's description of South Africa as a country of two nations, one rich and white, and another poor and black.

The widely publicised Bredell land invasion a year ago fired the opening salvos, and the standing ovation received by President Robert Mugabe on his recent trip to South Africa to attend the Earth Summit, speaks volumes.

Landless people stage a protest march to national land summit in Johannesburg, July 2005

Coupled with that is the significant attention received by the Landless Peoples Movement which has called for a land summit and is busily threatening land invasions, Zimbabwe style.

But land occupation in South Africa has been going on sporadically over time, with economically hard pressed blacks increasingly occupying vacant peri-urban areas, in order to access job opportunities and better facilities. The government, to a large extent, has been helpless in stopping this trend. Blacks have the big vote.

Landless taking matters in their hands

In fact, the government has not been sleeping on the land issue. Its chief concern has been to ensure that the burning land question does not lead to capital flight and dis-investment. The result could be an economic meltdown in a white system cultivated over centuries and tied to the economic powerhouses in Western countries.

Added to this is globalisation. Thanks to globalisation, the phantom investor is King in the capitalist world order, and one has to make sure not to upset him; otherwise there will be dire consequences. Capital is white. There lies the Catch 22. For the government, it is a no-win situation. The slower the pace of land redistribution, the faster the clock on the land time bomb ticks away.

To calm white fears and avert a possible economic and political sabotage, South Africa's interim constitution of 1993 and the final one of 1996 recognised and protected existing land ownership. Inclusive was an obligation to ensure land reform. This was given form by legislation in the 1994 Restitution of Land Rights Act, divided into three key areas: * Restitution of land rights taken away due to racist laws or practices after 19 June 1913.

* Tenure reform to give security to people living on land without secure tenure. (Blacks were prohibited from owning property under apartheid).

* Redistribution to address the legacy of racial inequalities in access to land and to create opportunities for development.

The vision is an equitable and sustainable land dispensation that promotes social and economic development, while the mission is to provide access to land and to extend rights in land, with particular emphasis on the previously disadvantaged communities, within a well-planned environment.

A series of land tenure laws since 1994 have ensured a measure of security for farm workers who live on white farms. They are protected from arbitrary evictions. At least on paper.

In 1994, a reconstruction and development programme was planned to redistribute 30% of agricultural land within five years. It did not happen. Instead only 2% of land has been redistributed up to date.

Meanwhile the government allocates 0.3% of its national budget for land reform while it insists on paying market prices for land acquired for reform, known as "the willing seller, willing buyer" principle.

The 1994 Act also made provisions for expropriation in urgent circumstances and payment of compensation thereof.

The Commission for the Restitution of Land Rights and a Land Claims Court set up under the 1994 Act, have seen over 67,000 land claims lodged before the December 1998 cut-off date for such claims.

Even though there has been a rapid increase in the settlement of claims since 1999 due to the decentralisation of the process, only 12,000 of the 67,000 claims have been settled. Over 90% of these are urban claims, largely settled through financial compensation. Thus the inequalities persist with growing frustration.

Poverty - a legacy of the apartheid state

In effect, the snail pace of legality and its complexities have undermined an orderly process. It is a case of justice delayed. And the pressure of poverty cannot wait for these fine processes to run their course.

Also of concern is the attitude of some whites and white landowners. Racism - especially its mutant variety, residual racism - still persists. There is a widespread belief that blacks are incapable of achieving anything, and thus giving them any resource is like casting pearl before swine.

There is an insecurity complex that sees a black/white scenario as a zero sum game in which black gains mean white loss. In this game, transformation, affirmative action and restitution are swear words.

This negative attitude makes white landowners frustrate the process, artificially inflating the price of land, and there have been instances where they have sold off land on which claims have been lodged.

Evictions of farm labour tenants also continue unabated, irrespective of the law coupled with the abuse of farm workers. Conversely, the killing of white farmers has been on the rise.

There have also been instances of corrupt black officials in the civil service acquiring large tracts of land without any intention of farming them. Meanwhile the landless poor continue to suffer.

The domino effect of Zimbabwe is not lost on Southern African watchers either, especially in countries with settler communities. The issue is now economic independence. And thus the nervousness worldwide about Zimbabwe. Because where will it end? Namibia? Australia? New Zealand? USA? Canada?

A recent article by James L. Gibson (a distinguished visiting research scholar from Washington University) for South Africa's Institute of Justice and Reconciliation, published in the Cape Times underscores the point. The sad part is that White South Africa is living in Cloud Cuckooland.

In a survey carried out by the Institute among 3,700 respondents, only 28% of whites thought land re-distribution was very important. 57% of blacks thought so, unsurprisingly ranking unemployment (89%), and poverty (86%) as the most pressing issues.

To the statement: "Most land in South Africa was taken unfairly by white settlers, and they therefore have no right to the land today", an astonishing 85% of black respondents agreed with the statement. Only 8% of whites agreed.

Coloured South Africans are less certain about the land rights of whites, with 53% agreeing with the statement (but with another 29% claiming uncertainty). Those of Asian origin are not similarly conflicted - 71% agreed with the proposition. Thus, a majority of every group other than whites viewed white land claims as illegitimate.

Gibson also discovered that black South Africans were not, however, entirely intransigent on the land issue. Though nearly all agreed that whites have no right to the land they seized, about one-third of blacks nonetheless accepted the practical necessity of allowing current landowners the continuing right to keep their property.

Still, two-thirds of blacks (68%) agreed that "land must be returned to blacks in South Africa, no matter what the consequences are for the current owners and for political stability in the country".

This Zimbabwe-style proposition elicited virtually unanimous disagreement from whites (91% disagreed), but only a slight majority among Coloured people (51%) disagreed, and a slightly larger majority of Asians (63%) rejected the statement.

This rejection of pragmatism on the land issue among such a large majority of black South Africans, Gibson concluded, should give pause to those who view land as the cause celebre of only a few radical Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) supporters and a ragtag band of urban lumpen proletariat.

According to Gibson, blacks are willing to pay any price for a more equitable distribution of land. And time is on their side. The good news is that white landowners are beginning to see reason, thanks to Zimbabwe.

Jack Reath, the head of the AGRI-SA farmers union (with 70,000 members) said on 15 September that commercial farmers would work with the government to ensure agricultural land was transferred to black farmers "as long as land redistribution was sustainable and made economic sense" - a tinge of the arrogance that has become the undoing of white landowners in Zimbabwe.

Reath was reacting to the government's target of transferring 26 million hectares - one third of all agricultural land now held by white farmers - to landless blacks by 2015. Reath, however, conceded that "while the government has the right idea" about land reform, its targets were "attainable but not very likely".

Reath and his members' own history of massive allocation of land for next to nothing and massive government support backed by cheap black labour made possible by oppressive apartheid laws, made his statement a bit difficult to swallow by blacks.

For example, he talked about land being given to people with "genuine interest" in farming, and not necessarily the homeless. Afrikaners or Boers (which means farmers in English) were traditionally farmers. But so were the black Africans, with a centuries-old history of cultivation and pastoral farming, which, sadly, was destroyed deliberately by the Boers and their apartheid regime.

In any case, what has been destroyed can always be rebuilt. South Africa has been a lot more about the allocation of opportunity, by fair or foul means, and not by merit. And now should be the time for merit.

Steve Shone, general manager of Grain South Africa (10,000 members), who also doubles as an affiliate of AGRI-SA, has added his voice: "Land is simply a resource. Only when it is linked to other resources, finance, skills development and inputs, does it become productive," he said recently.

To its credit, Shone's Grain South Africa has voluntarily started a skills development programme for 9,000 black farmers to access inputs and markets.

It is a survival game that must not depend on only the desire to survive. There must be a heart component. And whether deeds will keep step with words waits to be seen.

Gilingwe Mayende, director general of the Department of Land Affairs, was reported recently to have expressed "great delight" at the new-found enthusiasm of white landowners to co-operate with his department.

"As you can imagine," Mayende reportedly said "events from across the borders probably played a role". Who says Zimbabwe is bad after all?

Mayende fends off criticism of the government's policies thus: "To say our land acquisition is based on a willing-seller, willing-buyer principle is actually a fallacy. It is based on a proactive land acquisition strategy which starts with a negotiated process and can culminate with expropriation."

The intertwined history of Zimbabwe and South Africa will again ensure that South Africa will owe, not only a political debt of gratitude to Zimbabwe which suffered 14 years of slow land reform only so South Africa would be free, but an economic one as well. While Zimbabwe will undoubtedly pay the price for the sake of its children's children, South Africa may well avoid the sacrifice.

The only enemy of South Africa's cautious approach to land reform is time.

Related on the Internet

South Africa Dept of Land affairs

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