Whites fear Mugabe-style evictions as South Africa seizes first farm

South Africa has seized its first farm - in the clearest indication yet that it is bowing to growing pressure to redistribute land to majority blacks.

Black pressure groups and trade unions have been threatening to begin invading farms unless the government moved quickly to redistribute land.

Among many of South Africa's 50,000-plus white commercial farmers, this first land expropriation by President Thabo Mbeki's government echoes Robert Mugabe's violent land seizures in neighbouring Zimbabwe where at least 4,000 farmers have been evicted from their land, leading to the collapse of that country's economy.

But among blacks dispossessed of their land in 300 years of apartheid, the move marks the beginning of a new era to correct skewed landownership patterns.

White farmers and white-dominated groups still control 90 per cent of prime farmland while blacks remain crowded in barren communal areas.

South African authorities have hitherto moved cautiously on land reform, fearing that any forced seizures will rattle investors afraid of a repeat of a Zimbabwe style situation.

Yet there is also growing recognition that equity in landownership within a reasonable time is unachievable without resort to some "strong arm" tactics to dispossess landowners who will not easily give up what they have already amassed.

The Commission on Restitution of Land Rights said in a statement yesterday that the first expropriation order of the gigantic 25,200-hectare farm owned by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of South Africa (ELCSA) in South Africa's Northern Cape Province came into effect on 26 January. The government will take full possession of the farm for resettlement next month. The government has paid £2.1m for the land although the ELCSAhad wanted more than £5m which it says is the true value of the land.

The fact that Mr Mbeki's government is paying compensation for the land has at least mollified analysts who deem it unfair to compare South Africa's land reform with Zimbabwe's. Maans Nel, spokesman of the main opposition Democratic Alliance said his party's position was that the state should only expropriate as a last resort where negotiations would fail. "There are a lot of other ways to get land... At least four million hectares are coming on the open market every year," said Mr Nel.

The South Africa government has recently hardened its stance on land reforms, accusing white farmers of frustrating negotiations by demanding high prices.

Land Affairs Minister Lulu Xingwana announced last year that she was setting a six-month deadline for price negotiations with farmers after which any targeted farms would be expropriated. Mrs Xingwana has recently been engaged in harsh verbal exchanges with the white farmers after accusing some of them of sexually abusing farm workers and treating them like slaves. The government's critics, however, say white recalcitrance is not the only reason for delays in reallocating land. Bureaucratic sluggishness in negotiations is also to blame .

The ELCSA's farm has been expropriated under a land restitution law that allows blacks evicted from their ancestral lands during apartheid to apply to have their rights restored or to ask for financial compensation.

The church's land was claimed by 471 local families, among them workers on the farm. But the Transvaal Agricultural Union, which represents most white farmers, is against expropriation. One member questioned the principle that land should be redistributed to blacks saying whites took large areas of unoccupied land when they first arrived at the Cape in 1652 to begin their colonisation.

"There were no dispossessions. Our ancestors found vast areas of unoccupied land and introduced modern agricultural methods. Now we are being asked to give back that land. Why?" he questioned.

Such seemingly racist perspectives are widespread among a clique of hardline Afrikaners who still refuse to accept the reality of being ruled by blacks.