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Afrikaners trek into wilderness of Mozambique

For the past 18 months, South Africa's Afrikaner farmers have been trickling in small groups across the country's northern border, re-enacting the Great Trek of their 19th-century ancestors into the interior, to escape British rule.

They have travelled to remote rural outposts of Mozambique, Zambia and the Congo, some driven by racist pique following the overthrow of apartheid, others by despair at the violent social unrest which has accompanied South Africa's transition to democracy.

Yesterday the South African government took advantage of the dissatisfaction of these white farmers to unveil anagreement with Mozambique to settle them in Lichinga, in northern Mozambique.

The move is part of the new South Africa's attempts to strengthen the economies of its neighbours. It has already helped build a road to Mozambique and a highway to Namibia through Botswana, which is ironic, as the old apartheid regime spent much of its energies weakening its neighbours.

Through the settling of 24 farmers in Lichinga, alongside scores of others doing it for themselves elsewhere in northern Mozambique, the two countries hope to establish an agricultural infrastructure in Mozambique. After years of civil war, the country boasts plenty of fertile land but none of the skills or equipment needed to take advantage of it.

Post-apartheid South Africa expects to benefit from the region's economic improvements. And by strengthening its eastern neighbour, which is one of the world's poorest countries, it may also stem the flow of illegal immigrants who are exacerbating South Africa's own economic problems.

Mozambique hopes to benefit from the strengthening of its agricultural base, which was ravaged by war, and by the predicted creation of 28,000 jobs.

Despite its fertile soil it imports 281,000 tons of cereals a year. The World Food Programme is engaged in an emergency feeding project for 200,000 people in Mozambique.

For the white South African farmers, the trek provides an escape from the threat of land redistribution and enables them to hold on to the Afrikaner dream of rural independence. They are being offered land concessions for 50 years, renewable on the expiry date.

The only party poopers are Mozambique's peasants who complain that the land is being sold to white colonialists, which would be a strange conclusion to Mozambique's revolutionary struggle for independence from Portugal.

"Mozambique imports every kernel of wheat," said Piet Gous, the farmer and politician who organised the settlement. "There is no infrastructure there. You cannot get diesel, herbicides or pesticides. All these must be put in place."

While the risks for South African farmers were great, he said, many hoped for a better, more secure future. Lichinga's land was more fertile than that from which they previously made a living. "We will start slowly and expand next year. It will be a process of evolution, not a revolution," he said.