Land Ownership Disparity Persists in South Africa

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Since the end of South Africa's apartheid regime, whites still own more than 80 percent of commercial agricultural land. South African President Thabo Mbeki has endorsed the expropriation of white-owned farms as part of his country's land reform program.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In South Africa, President Thabo Mbeki has endorsed the expropriation of white-owned farms as part of his country's land reform program. After decades of racially discriminatory policies by the apartheid government, a small white minority owns most of South Africa's farmland. Pledges by the government to move some of the property into black hands by this year failed miserably. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.

JASON BEAUBIEN reporting:

Hassan Fisser's(ph) farm is in the semi-arid northwest province of South Africa, before you get to the Kalahari desert. It's an area of huge, dusty pastures dotted with a few cattle. Dry flaxen cornfields stretch towards the horizon. Last month, the South African government issued an expropriation order against Fisser's farm. It's the first time the government has said it will seize a white-owned farm as part of an effort to redistribute land to blacks. The South African Land Commission has offered to buy Fisser's 1,200-acre property for 1.75 million rand, or almost $300,000. Fisser is demanding almost twice that amount.

Mr. HASSAN FISSER (White Farmer): Basically, for 1.75 million, there is no way that I can continue with my present operations, and there's no way that I can actually re-enter agriculture.

BEAUBIEN: Fisser also disputes the claim against his farm. He has title deeds showing a black farmer sold the property to the South African government in 1942. Under apartheid and even before that, blacks were often moved out of certain areas into blacks-only townships and homelands. When white minority rule ended in 1994, most of the country's farms were owned by whites. The ANC government pledged to transfer 30 percent of commercial farmland to blacks during its first decade in power. Very little land, however, has been returned and the target date for redistribution has been pushed back another 10 years. Jerry Maropa(ph), who's leading the claim against Fisser's farm, says land reform in South Africa is going too slowly. He points out that he first laid claim to Fisser's property in 1998.

Mr. JERRY MAROPA (Laid Claim to Fisser's Property): We have negotiated, but we cannot negotiate forever.

BEAUBIEN: Maropa says Abraham Melamo(ph), his grandfather, was driven from Fisser's farm during World War II.

Mr. MAROPA: It was not sold. It was not sold. They were forced to move out. My grandfather did not sign even a single document to say he was compensated.

BEAUBIEN: Fisser is fighting the expropriation order in court and remains on his property. South Africa's land reform program, until the Fisser case, operated under a willing-buyer, willing-seller principle. If the farmer was willing to sell, the government would buy the land and give it to blacks. But it's been a slow, clumsy process. Despite its flaws, Maropa says land restitution is extremely important to blacks in southern Africa.

Mr. MAROPA: There's a lot of anger, embedded anger within African people for being moved out of their lands.

BEAUBIEN: There have been calls by some South African politicians for the seizure of all white-owned farmlands. In the year 2000, the chaotic land reform program began in neighboring Zimbabwe. Almost all of Zimbabwe's white-owned farms were seized. Zimbabwe has suffered serious food shortages ever since. Billy Arette(ph), the head of the Commercial Farmers Union in South Africa's northwest province, says one of the biggest problems with the land reform programs in southern Africa is that farms are being divided among too many claimants. For instance, more than 500 people are laying claim to Fisser's 1,200 acres. Arette says there's no way Fisser's property can sustain that many people.

Mr. BILLY ARETTE (Commercial Farmers Union): It is just fools of poverty that people are tempting when you put such a large number of people on such a small piece of land.

BEAUBIEN: Some people who had gotten commercial farms through South Africa's Land Reform process are still waiting for the official title to the property. Without the title, they're unable to borrow money for seeds, fertilizers and other materials they need to run a commercially viable farm. Arette also says the new owners at times know nothing about agriculture.

Mr. ARETTE: If we keep on with this, we will see that sustainable food production will be jeopardized to a great extent, which we cannot afford. We cannot afford that now.

BEAUBIEN: The South African government is pushing forward with land reform. Officials say they plan to increase the pace at which agricultural land taken by colonialists and the apartheid regime is returned to blacks. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Lichtenburg, South Africa.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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