South Africa reveals plan to seize white farmers' land

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The Independent Online

South Africa's 50,000 white farmers are threatened with forced land expropriation after a government land summit called for a "fast-track" programme of redistribution.

The weekend summit was convened by the government to review the slow pace of land reform in South Africa. Significantly, it rejected the market-based willing buyer/willing seller policy as the basis on which redistribution must proceed.

The South African government has set a target of voluntarily transferring 30 per cent of productive farmland from whites to previously disadvantaged blacks by 2014.

But President Thabo Mbeki's government is worried the target will not be met, at the very slow rate at which white farmers are offering land for sale. It also claims farmers are asking for unjustifiably high prices.

Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka told the summit the willing buyer/willing seller scheme, through which farmers voluntarily offer their properties to government at market prices, was a major drawback to land reform and said South Africa would embark on a "fast-track" programme to meet targets.

She was backed by Agriculture and Land Affairs Minister Angela Thoko Didiza who said the government should strongly intervene to ensure expeditious redistribution.

Details of the suggested "fast-track" are yet to be spelt out but the decision has been welcomed by campaigners for the landless poor. "We want this process to begin immediately," said Mangaliso Kubheka, national organiser for the Landless People's Movement. "We're waiting to see if the pledge will be implemented. The people have spoken. We need to see if the government will listen."

But white farmers and the mainly white official opposition Democratic Alliance are angry over the spectre of forced expropriations, which have echoes of President Robert Mugabe's land reforms.

They have dismissed the government's complaints as an "election strategy," ahead of local government elections later this year.

The farmers and the opposition have instead blamed the slow pace of land reform on "gross inefficiency" in the Agriculture and Land Affairs Ministry.

Prominent farmer Kraai Van Niekerk, a member of Agri SA, one of the biggest white agricultural unions, said he knew of many farmers who had approached the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Affairs with proposals to sell their properties for land reform but have not had an answer two or three years later.

"Each time they seek clarification, they are shuffled from one bureaucrat to another ... Changing the rules is not the answer. It's the government's method of operation that is the biggest drawback," he said.

Mr Van Niekerk warned that changing the rules would threaten South Africa's position as one of six countries in the world who are net exporters of food.

The Democratic Alliance spokesman on agriculture Maans Nel said the government should stop covering its mistakes by trying to play the "helpless victim".

If the government matched its commitment to land reform with the required budget and if it started implementing the legal measures at its disposal, the current situation would have looked dramatically different, he said. Ninety-nine per cent of blacks resettled were struggling because of lack of resources.

Mr Nel said there was enough evidence to prove that the incompetence of many officials in Ms Didiza's department was the cause of delays to land reform.

When apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela took over in 1994, 87 per cent of South Africa's agricultural land was owned by whites.

About 3.1 million hectares of land have been transferred to poor blacks, less than 2 per cent of available agricultural land.

Land reform is an emotive issue across southern Africa where the example of Zimbabwe looms large.

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