Rainbow nation: South Africa's bitter harvest

Addressing the dispossession of indigenous people by white landowners has been on the agenda since the collapse of apartheid, but now the government is beginning to lose patience with the slow progress of negotiations. Bill Corcoran reports from Johannesburg
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The Independent Online

Phile Van Zyle, a South African farmer, could be forgiven for feeling paranoid about his future, following the government's recent announcement that it would begin expropriating white-owned farms this month.

The 48-year-old tomato farmer has been living in an uncertain world since 1999, when the first of nine land claims were lodged against him with South Africa's Land Claims Commission by people who said they were dispossessed of ancestral land - which is now in Mr Van Zyle's possession - under the apartheid regime.

If the land claims are upheld, Mr Van Zyle, whose family has farmed the area for eight generations, will either have to accept a compensation package and move elsewhere, or try to rent his former land from the new owners. Either way, the 2,000-hectare farm in Limpopo province that he and his ancestors have built up over nearly 140 years could be about to change for ever.

"Farmers in Limpopo tend to have a fatalistic approach to the issues of land redistribution and restitution due to their close proximity to Zimbabwe and the events that have unfolded there over the last few years," he said. "A lot of us know what happened during apartheid was nothing to be proud of. So when the government comes out and says they are going to begin expropriating land many get nervous."

Many white farmers are directly in the firing line of the government's latest attempts to bring an end to the restitution and land redistribution process - one of the most contentious issues of post-apartheid South Africa - because of how their land was acquired.

Indigenous South Africans have been systematically dispossessed of ancestral lands through military conquest and race-based land laws since 1652, when the first European settlers arrived at the Cape peninsula.

Dispossession was in effect furthered during the 19th century gold and diamond rushes, when cheap labour was acquired by forcing indigenous inhabitants from their farming communities into the cash economies of the mines. But race-based dispossession was not officially formalised until 1913, when the colonial government limited indigenous land ownership under the Natives Land Act.

In the 80 years that followed, whole communities were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands to accommodate white property owners, leaving the white minority in control of 87 per cent of the land.

When the ANC came to power in 1994, the redistribution of land to the dispossessed was earmarked as a priority, and promises were made to redistribute 30 per cent of agricultural land to black communities. But after international pressure, the new regime agreed it would not expropriate white-owned farms. Instead, the dispossessed would be allowed to buy land from farmers with financial assistance from the government.

Patience with the process ran out last month, however. The chief land claims commissioner, Tozi Gwanya, said the government would cease negotiating with white farmers in instances where the negotiations had continued for more than three years. The announcement came days after President Thabo Mbeki noted in his state of the union address that the government's "willing-buyer, willing-seller" principle - designed to ensure the redistribution and restitution process was equitable - would be reviewed due to the redistribution programme's slow progress.

During the past 12 years the Land Claims Commission has only managed to increase black ownership of land from 13 per cent to 16 per cent because most of the claims that have been settled involved smaller, urban plots.

The decision to change policy was taken, according to Mr Gwanya, because there were still more than 7,000 claims waiting to be processed by the Land Claims Court, which was established to adjudicate on the validity of claims and the level of compensation to be paid if a claim is deemed valid.

Mr Gwanya maintained that the delays were the fault of the farmers who expected too high a price for their land. Consequently, farmers whose land had been subject to valid land claims would now have to accept the level of compensation that the government deemed appropriate. "We have been negotiating with some white farmers for two or three years, especially in four provinces - Limpopo, Mpumalanga, North West and KwaZulu Natal - and this has to stop ... We cannot wait any longer," Mr Gwanya said.

Not surprisingly, his comments prompted a flurry of angry responses from agricultural groups who blamed the inability of the court to deal with the intricacies of each case for the slow roll-out of the programme.

According to the country's largest agricultural group, Agri-SA, the process is being slowed by arguments over the validity of ancestral land claims.

"In many cases there is a dispute over the validity of claims, which should first be decided in a court before proceeding with expropriation. It would be wrong to proceed with expropriation where there are justified questions regarding the validity of claims," stated Agri-SA.

In a bid to calm fears over expropriation, the director general of land affairs, Glen Thomas, said the government was "not going the Zim[babwe] route. They never had the restitution process or the legal or constitutional framework to work in, as we do."

Mr Van Zyle has been closely linked to the land redistribution programme because of the claims against him, and also because of his position as president of Agri-Limpopo, the largest agricultural group in the province. Of the claims remaining before the Land Claims Court, he says, "at least a couple of thousand" are located in Limpopo.

However, Mr Van Zyle believes the government's decision to review the "willing-buyer, willing-seller" approach to land reform, and begin the expropriation of white-owned farms, is more symptomatic of the issue's complexities and political gamesmanship than a solution to its problems. Greed, he says, is the main stumbling block to completing the nation's land redistribution and restitution process.

"What is happening with these land claims is that people are seeing a free for all. Black people who have nothing see a chance of getting some land while white farmers, who in many cases are bankrupt, see a chance of selling land at a high price. Often you get a farmer and claimant who agree there is a valid claim and want to settle, but another claimant comes along and says they too were dispossessed of the land in question. Claimants rarely have ownership deeds to prove their claim, so the court must take hearsay evidence into consideration and make a decision," he says.

In his own case, Mr Van Zyle insists he was dropped into a quagmire when his farming neighbour, who wanted to sell his land, invited members of the black community to come to his farm so he could show them where they could make a claim. "He [the neighbour] then told them they should make a claim against a section of my land and the whole thing snowballed."

Mr Van Zyle is adamant that none of the claims lodged against him are valid. He argues that the majority of the alleged dispossessions occurred before the Natives Land Act of 1913 and as such do not fall within the parameters of the programme.

The land claims that do relate to alleged dispossessions after 1913 are also spurious, he insists, because they are based on grazing rights that had been granted, and nothing more.

"My family started farming here in 1888 as small subsistence farmers and the Boers arrived in the 1850s. The blacks arrived 50 years previously - we were all settlers. The only real indigenous people were the bushmen and both blacks and the whites killed them off. We have as much right to land as anyone else," he said.

Mr Van Zyle maintains that, if the government stays the course with the current legislation, it will bring a solution to the problem of land rights in South Africa that could be acceptable to everyone and avoid future problems over disputed decisions.

Consequently, he hopes the government's latest threat of a policy change was more about acquiring votes in yesterday's local elections than a move to expropriate land.

The ANC, despite having triumphed in every election since Nelson Mandela led it to victory in 1994, has seen its latest campaign blighted by discontent at lack of basic services, unemployment, and corruption. Tackling the thorny issue of land reform may have been seen within the ANC as a timely way of showing its traditional supporters it is still fighting their corner.

"The government has come under a lot of pressure at local level." Mr Van Zyle said.

"It is trying to ensure votes by giving the impression it is going to take a stand against the uncooperative farmers."

The road to restitution

South Africa's Land Claims Commission was established in 1994. By the time the deadline to lodge claims arrived in 1998, a total of 68,000 claims had been referred to the Land Claims Court for adjudication. By last March 59, 345 claims had been settled.

About 80 per cent of the settled claims related to urban areas and the majority of claimants sought financial compensation rather than the return of land. The remaining 20 per cent of settlements involved rural areas. A typical rural claim involves 300 to 4,000 households and relates to plots of land between 300 and 15,000 hectares in size.

The government has compensated more than 870,000 people dispossessed by racially discriminatory laws and practices. The payout has totalled one million hectares of restored ancestral land and financial compensation of about £231m.