- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 26, 2002

JOHANNESBURG South Africa, while pledging to avoid the violence and lawlessness over land reform in neighboring Zimbabwe, nevertheless is threatening to forcibly transfer white-owned farms to landless blacks.

The government says land reform must move more quickly if it is to meet its target of redistributing 30 percent of the country's commercial farmland most of which is owned by the country's white minority to blacks by 2015.

The land ministry, however, has reiterated promises that reform will take place within the law, unlike in Zimbabwe, where vigilante groups and government forces have seized nearly 3,000 white-owned farms without compensation.

"If the process of negotiations fails irrevocably, then we have the option of invoking the right of the state to expropriate land in the public interest," Gilingwe Mayende, director-general for land affairs, has told the South African Business Report.

"Property rights are protected by our constitution, but the constitution says these property rights must be balanced against the public interest and the nation's commitment to land reform."

In Zimbabwe, thousands of white farmers have been driven from their land, and millions of people face starvation as a drop in commercial agricultural production is compounded by a severe drought.

As in Zimbabwe, the vast majority of South Africa's most productive farmland is white-owned.

According to government estimates, 87 percent of commercial land is owned by whites and 13 percent by blacks. The country's largest farming union disputes those figures, saying about 60 percent of the country's farmland is commercial property owned by whites.

An estimated 3.5 million black South Africans were driven from their homes during the 46 years of apartheid, or racial separation.

Voluntary attempts to redistribute land since the end of apartheid have yielded poor results.

Little of the 4 percent to 6 percent of agricultural land placed on the market each year has been purchased by blacks. Also, fewer than half the claims for restitution have been settled, most of those in cash rather than a transfer of landownership.

The nation's largest farming union, Agri South Africa, which represents about 40,000 mainly white commercial farmers and about 30,000 smaller-scale black farmers, says the biggest problem is the scarcity of blacks willing to become commercial farmers.

"The whole feeder process of finding and training the right candidates is going to take time," said Jack Raath, chairman of Agri South Africa.

"If you just want to transfer land and not have any development, that's easy. But experience has shown that you have to have the right beneficiaries if you want to maintain competitiveness and profitability."

But critics of the South African program say the government must be more proactive about acquiring land. Without faster movement on land issues, they warn, farm invasions could begin.

"We think we need to revisit the fundamentals of land reform in this country, especially the willing-seller, willing-buyer ideology," said Zakes Hlatshweyo, chairman of the National Land Committee, a South African land lobby group.

"After eight years of democratic rule and social transformation, very little has happened insofar as the transfer of land is concerned," Mr. Hlatshweyo said.

Mr. Hlatshweyo's organization says that at the current pace of purchasing land for redistribution, it would take at least 215 years to meet the government's stated target of 30 percent black ownership.

Along with other groups operating under the banner of the Landless People's Movement, the lobbyists have threatened to begin invading unused public and private land if reform continues to drag.

To date, however, law-enforcement officials have dealt swiftly with illegal attempts to occupy land in South Africa.

Only once in the country's post-apartheid history has the government tried to force the sale of farmland. In that case, a farmer refused a government offer to purchase his property after a special commission ruled that the land had been taken illegally from black owners during apartheid.

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