- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 27, 2005

JOHANNESBURG — A national land summit opened here yesterday with calls to South Africa’s mainly white land- owners to help government fast-track its plan to redistribute nearly a third of agricultural land to blacks by 2014.

“We want to make sure the sellers work with us instead of, in some cases, seeking to exploit us,” Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said in an address at the opening of the five-day gathering in Johannesburg.

“In the second decade of democracy, we are about to fast-track land reform,” she told about 1,000 delegates, including land-rights activists and representatives of farmers unions gathered at a conference center.

Mrs. Mlambo-Ngcuka took aim at the willing buyer-willing seller principle that has been at the center of South Africa’s land-reform policy, ensuring that white farmers are fairly compensated for land that is targeted under the program.

“The pace of redistribution has been negatively influenced by the willing buyer-willing seller principle,” she said, adding: “We would like to revisit that.”

White farmers have been criticized for setting prices for land that they say is in line with market realities, but which the government complains are too high.

“We want to ensure that markets cannot be the leaders in the process, because markets are not known to have mechanisms to distribute land in a manner that addresses the plight of the poor,” said Mrs. Mlambo-Ngcuka.

The proposal drew a cool response from farmers and landowners.

Hans van der Merwe, chief executive of Agri South Africa, representing 40,000 commercial and 30,000 small-scale farmers, said there was no alternative but to compensate landowners on the basis of a negotiated market-based price.

“The reality is that most farmers would rather continue farming,” Mr. van der Merwe told Agence France-Presse.

“We cannot correct past injustices by creating new problems.”

He argued that agriculture represents just 4 percent of the economy and that addressing rural poverty hinged on growth in the overall economy, not just land redistribution.

Speeding up land reform is a complex proposition for President Thabo Mbeki’s government because the example of neighboring Zimbabwe — where about 4,000 white-owned farms were seized in land invasions — looms large over all of southern Africa.

White farmers own 80 percent of arable land in South Africa, and the government’s goal is to ensure that 30 percent of those farms are in the hands of black farmers by 2014, 20 years after the end of apartheid.

But thus far, only 4 percent of land has been acquired by the government and sold to about 700,000 blacks, according to official estimates.

Acknowledging that some progress had been made on land reform over the past 10 years, Agriculture and Land Affairs Minister Thoko Didiza asserted, “There is a need to come up with a new path for redistribution.”

More than 1.2 million South Africans have benefited from land reform through restitution or redistribution since the end of apartheid in 1994, as more than 7.5 million acres wereplaced in black hands, said Mr. Didiza.

The government initiated land reform after the end of apartheid, seeking to reverse the injustice of the infamous 1913 Native Land Act, which pushed blacks off arable land.

Mr. Didiza said South Africa’s first democratic government “inherited one of the worst racially skewed land distributions in the world,” and that “undoing this legacy is, therefore, a fundamental priority for the nation.”

Mrs. Mlambo-Ngcuka stressed that recommendations coming out of the five days of talks would be key in charting the way forward for South Africa on land reform.

“This has got to be a groundbreaking summit,” she said.

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