South Africa heading for political land grab, say farmers

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The Independent Online

Seated behind his office desk, Rhys Rolfe had the face of a frightened man.

The current devastating drought threatening to wipe out his vast plantations of maize is a huge worry for the South African farmer. But he did not hide the fact that new land expropriation laws planned by the South African government were an even bigger worry. He was starting to wonder whether his family has a future in farming.

The South African President, Thabo Mbeki, launched his recent re-election bid amid an outcry from the white farmers who fear he has ordered Zimbabwe-style land policies to bolster his chances of winning a second term.

The farmers said that they were outraged by amendments to the land restitution law, which come into force next month as Mr Mbeki's re-election campaign gathers momentum.

The amendments, which Mr Mbeki's government said are meant to expedite land reform and reverse the legacy of apartheid, will empower his Minister of Land Affairs to expropriate land without a court order and without the landowners' agreement. Critics have attacked the amendments as a carbon copy of Zimbabwe's Land Acquisition Act, which deprives farmers of legal recourse once their land has been confiscated.

Ian Grant, a farmer, said: "Once the role of the judiciary in adjudicating disputes is removed and politicians are given the power to expropriate land, then you are firmly on the Robert Mugabe route."

In interviews with The Independent in the fertile Free State Province, not a single farmer disagreed with the need for land reform to address the inequities of land ownership dating from the apartheid era. But they all vehemently opposed the new laws.

Mr Rolfe's wife, Norma, shared her husband's pessimism when we talked at their homestead tucked in the middle of their vast expanse of land. She said: "We thought we were caretakers of these resources for our children and other future generations. We no longer see it that way."

Mr Rolfe, 59, owns 6,000 hectares of land. His family has farmed at their Huntersflay Plantations since 1903. The land was legitimately bought by his ancestors, but he admitted it was not right for him to cling to his holdings amid the cries for redistribution.

"It's simply not right that a few white people own 80 per cent of the fertile land in a country with 40 million or so blacks," Mr Rolfe said. "There has to be transformation. It's a question of how.

"The government's idea of just letting a minister take land at the stroke of a pen is just not on," he added.

After the end of apartheid in 1994, the government pledged to transfer 30 per cent of white-owned land to blacks in five years' time. But 10 years later, only two per cent has been transferred. More than nine of every 10 hectares of commercial farmland remains in the hands of about 50,000 white farmers. Since 1991 more than 1,500 white farmers have been killed, although the government attributes this to crime.

Mr Rolfe is prepared to give up some of his land but he emphasised he will not "give anything for nothing".

Unlike the Mugabe regime, Mr Mbeki's government has promised to pay fair compensation for expropriated land. But Mr Rolfe believed that was highly unlikely. The power of the courts to adjudicate disputes and the rights of the farmer to negotiate the acquisition of his land were not guaranteed. He did not want to lose the right to negotiate the details of the amount of land and which land to give up.

He certainly did not think the government was serious about creating viable black farmers. He said it had not done much to prepare successful black farmers as evidenced by lack of training programmes.

"The idea of just dumping people on land without equipping them to do the job is crazy," he said. "Farming requires the necessary skills."

His neighbouring farmer, Chris Botha, 29, believed it was no coincidence that the new laws were being effected ahead of Mr Mbeki's bid for re-election. He did not believe the government arguments that the whole idea is to speed up land reform and restitution.

"It's all political," he said. "The whole idea unsettles me."

He too warned that the financial implications of transformation are vast and said the government had not made available the adequate resources. "Farming is a more complex business than owning a cafe," Mr Botha said.

Farmer Prosper Bailey described the new land law as "bizarre". He claimed that there was government land that had not yet been transferred to blacks. "This is all timed for the election," he said.

Mr Mbeki's government said that the critics who accuse South Africa of following the Robert Mugabe model are narrow minded. According to the Land Affairs Minister, Thoko Didiza, the new amendments are meant to avoid the violent land seizures that have rocked Zimbabwe.

Mr Mbeki's government has promised not to use the new expropriation law to settle scores or to order arbitrary confiscations. But the political opposition and the farmers were not convinced.

Andreas Botha, the spokesman for the official opposition on agriculture matters, said that by undermining the doctrine of separation of powers between the executive, the judiciary and parliament, Mr Mbeki has put South Africa "on a slippery slope".

Mr Mbeki has been in office since taking over from Nelson Mandela in 1999. Although he has managed the economy well, critics say he has been slow on improving social services.

In launching his re-election yesterday, he promised jobs and a better life for the millions of South Africans still mired in poverty a decade after apartheid ended.