Wave of invasions hit white farmers of South Africa

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The Independent Online

John Hunt and his wife Pat Dunn stare in anger at the squatter homes dotting the rolling fields of their sugar farm in KwaZulu-Natal. "We're being invaded, Zimbabwe-style," she said.

John Hunt and his wife Pat Dunn stare in anger at the squatter homes dotting the rolling fields of their sugar farm in KwaZulu-Natal. "We're being invaded, Zimbabwe-style," she said.

There are 5,000 squatters on 63 farms in Mangete, on the KwaZulu-Natal north coast, and their numbers are growing. Crime has escalated, crops are being destroyed, jobs and fields have been lost and farmers' lives are being threatened.

The Mangete farms are being claimed by the local chief, Khayalesha Mathaba, under South Africa's sluggish land-reform programme. But four years have passed since the claim was lodged, and local Zulus have become restless - moving on to farms, erecting huts and planting crops in fields that are not theirs.

Contradictory laws make it illegal to squat on disputed land, but almost impossible to evict anyone who does so. Farmers are paying a high price - in threats, theft, lost crops and legal fees.

In the past week, six farms in Mangete have been attacked. Last year more than 600,000 rand (£60,000) worth of sugar cane was destroyed by squatters, and this year the loss will be higher. The community has spent R300,000 on legal fees defending the claim on their land.

"Things are coming to a head because we just can't farm any more," said Ms Dunn, chairman of the Mangete Landowners' Association and leader of the vast mixed-race Dunn clan, who own most of the farms in the area. She is one of 3,500 descendants of a Scotsman who became a Zulu chief in the 1800s.

"We are being threatened all the time," Ms Dunn said. She was recently accosted in a field by a squatter who told her: "If you can't live peacefully among us, you can't live at all."

Her husband, a management specialist who worked as a British aid consultant in Swaziland before settling in South Africa, added: "We just want the government to act.We've spent years trying to resolve this dispute, getting nowhere."

The state's inactivity over the farm squatting is "tantamount to complicity, as in Zimbabwe", Ms Dunn said. "What makes us really mad is that this problem would never have arisen if the claim had been settled soon after it was lodged in 1996, and people offered alternative land, which is available."

Hundreds of South African farmers have been murdered in the past decade, a reflection of both high crime and anger felt by many black people towards farmers who they believe have exploited them and their land. Hundreds of thousands of blacks were dispossessed of land under apartheid.

A countrywide survey in March showed 54 per cent of black South Africans supporting land-grabs in Zimbabwe, and in recent months there have been threats of invasions in several provinces.

Fred Visser, president of the Natal Agricultural Union, rejects comparisons between farm occupancies in South Africa and Zimbabwe. "This problem has been coming for years," he said. "It is linked to poverty, joblessness and people who moved to cities seeking employment returning to the land to survive. Invasions are not orchestrated, as in Zimbabwe."

Such distinctions mean little to the Mangete farmers. On Friday last week, their land-claim trial was postponed yet again.

Chief Mathaba, who is head of the Macambini clan, claims the land belonged to their ancestors. Wilson Ndlovu, a spokesman for the chief, said: "We are simply going back to our fathers' land, which we were forced to vacate by coloureds who call us squatters." The clan, frustrated by delays, occupied land in anticipation of a favourable ruling, he added.

The farmers dispute the claim, among other reasons because Ms Dunn's Scottish ancestor, John Dunn, was given 10,000 acres in the 1800s when there was nobody there.

Dunn, a hunter and businessman, became a great friend of the Zulu king Cetshwayo, who made him the province's only white chief. In keeping with tradition, such status came with tracts of land, cattle and permission to marry many women.

Over the years, Dunn married 49 Zulu women and sired a total of 117 children, who have today spawned a clan some 3,500-strong, 500 of whom live at Mangete. When Dunn died in 1895 he left 10,000 acres to his children, parcelled into 100-acre plots. Sixty-seven children accepted plots in Mangete while others inherited in nearby Emoyeni. The remaining 2,500 acres were given to local Zulu families.

It took 84 years for Dunn's descendants to obtain title to the land, their efforts being thwarted by successive white administrations until 1979.

Last week the KwaZulu-Natal agriculture minister, Narend Singh, held talks with farmers and traditional leaders on farm occupations. He promised to try and speed up claims, and said state land would be made available. Central government also appears to be waking up to the problem. It has developed new land redistribution policies and is speeding up the currentprogramme which has resolved only a handful of the 65,000 land claims.

In the meantime, Ms Dunn and her husband feel increasingly isolated. She showed me a letter they received in 1998 from the Home Affairs Minister, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi. "As a descendant of King Cetshwayo who gave the land to John Dunn, I find it unacceptable that the descendants of Dunn should be robbed of their rightful inheritance," he wrote.

As with everybody else with whom they have dealt, they have not heard from him since.