Land reform must happen faster

South Africa is looking at tougher measures to speed up land reform - which could include challenging prices that white farmers are demanding to cede their property - as part of the drive to address injustices from the apartheid era, a top official said.

Tozi Gwanya, the chief land claims commissioner, said in an interview that black ownership of land had increased from 13 percent at the end of apartheid in 1994 to 16 percent, still short of targets set by President Thabo Mbeki's government.

"We are not happy with the pace and we are reviewing the willing buyer-willing seller policy," he said, acknowledging that the programme had fallen way short of the target of redistributing 30 percent of land to blacks by 2014.

The willing buyer-willing seller principle has been at the core of South Africa's post-apartheid land drive, guaranteeing that land will be acquired by the state at fair prices and given to landless blacks.

"We are thinking of setting a ceiling on land prices depending on the region and the land and to establish our own valuers as those used by white farmers are in cahoots with them," said Gwanya.

"Also the white farmers think they can demand any price simply because they are dealing with the government and not an individual," said Gwanya who took up the post of chief lands commissioner in June 2003.

But Gwanya was quick to underscore that South Africa would not tread the path of neighbouring Zimbabwe, where forcible seizures of white-owned farms have ruined the once-model economy and left agriculture in tatters.

"There is no chance of Zimbabwe happening here," he said. "There is clear legislation. I tell people: You have a choice. You can opt for a militant policy and ruin your economy and make all the people suffer again, or you can chose for slow and steady reforms."

Gwanya said the reforms were also snagged by the lack of farming expertise among blacks as "Africans in South Africa were de-skilled for 50 years under apartheid because the white farmers feared competition and we have to transfer skills anew".

There are three strands in South Africa's land reforms policy launched in 1996 which seeks to reverse an infamous 1913 act that stripped black cash tenants and sharecroppers of their domain and reserved only 10 percent of the land for them.

During the apartheid era, blacks could not own land except in the so-called African homelands where they had been shunted to.

The first strand is the restitution of land to blacks who were forcibly evicted from their ancestral domains, the redistribution of farmland, and the handing out of title deeds to people who have been living for generations in an area but with no documents to prove it.

Gwanya estimates that "six million Africans fell victim to the apartheid government's policy to remove the black spots" and push them away to homelands but added that less than 10 percent had filed claims by the December 31, 1998 deadline for restitution.

"Some were sceptical, others did not want to file a claim thinking it was their 'own' government now whom they did not want to pressure and some - especially those in far-flung areas - did not know of the scheme we had launched."

As far as formally recognising people living on land for generations but with no title deeds, the government in February extended the deadline by two years to 2007 due to "problems in mapping the land which are in remote areas and sometimes due to rival claims which are hard to establish," Gwanya said.

But 58 000 of those claims out of a total of 79 000 have been settled, he added.

Land is an emotive issue in South Africa, which is shedding the last vestiges of the legacy of apartheid.

In February, the government's announcement that it was mulling new laws compelling property buyers to disclose their race, gender and nationality to monitor the land reform process, sparked criticism from the opposition that it was racist and retrogressive.

Article by: Abhik Kumar Chanda -