Struggle for land, a crucial new chapter

Government reassurances have failed to dispel the spectre of Zimbabwe-style land seizure that haunts farmers. By Patrick Laurence.

Over the past year, as Robert Mugabe's land seizure programme gathered momentum in Zimbabwe, South Africa's African National Congress-led government has issued a spate of reassuring statements. Similar dispossession of white farmers will not take place in South Africa, ANC notables, from President Thabo Mbeki downwards, have declared. The situation in South Africa is too dissimilar from Zimbabwe's for a replication of Mugabe's polices to occur in South Africa, they have insisted.

But juxtaposed with these comforting messages is a stream of unsettling letters to daily newspapers and contributions on radio phone-in programmes from black South Africans. They almost invariably express support for Mugabe's policies. Cognisance must be taken of them. The often palpably anxious exhortations of white South Africans for the government to either speed up its land reform policy, or to take tougher action to halt the murderous attacks on white-owned farms, should not be left out of the equation either.

Taken collectively, the written and spoken interventions by ordinary South Africans suggest that it would be prudent to view the assurances of government ministers with a degree of scepticism and not to dismiss warnings or premonitions that it could happen in South Africa further down the line.

Mbeki has pronounced categorically, however, that "the problem in South Africa is homelessness, not land". His statement, made in his state of the nation speech to Parliament in February, echoes a point made by the Minister of Housing, Sankie Mthembi-Mahanyele, after the invasion of unoccupied (but not unowned) land at Bredell, near Kempton Park, in July 2001.

Judging by her input during a debate on the Bredell affair organised by the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE), Mthembi-Mahanyele believes that comparisons with Zimbabwe are misleading. The Bredell invasion, like earlier illegal occupations of urban land by "squatters", has to be seen as part of the quest for homes, and land on which to build them, by the poor people who are squeezing into every nook and cranny of South Africa's urban areas.

She adds a corollary. The government is making progress towards its objective of relieving the housing shortage or, at the least, of reducing it to manageable proportions. She notes that the government "nearly" fulfilled its target of building one million housing units in its first five years in office, stating that in March 1999 nearly 746 000 housing units had "either been completed or were under construction". The process of providing housing has speeded up since then, she observes further.

In an exposition of government's land policy, published in The Star, Land Affairs Director-General Gillingwe Mayende adopts an even more positive posture. He declares, "We have a land reform programme to comprehensively address and eliminate the legacy of colonial and apartheid-inspired land dispossession (of indigenous blacks)". The implication is that South Africa's land reform policy is rapidly neutralising the kind of pressures that led to land seizures in Zimbabwe. "Any talk or threat of land invasion is completely out of line," he states, labelling those who think differently as "either ill-informed or downright mischievous".
Mayende observes that the land reform programme consists of three components: restitution to compensate those who were dispossessed of their land between 1913 and 1994; redistribution to rectify the historically deeper disparities arising from the "frontier wars" or the "wars of dispossession" during the colonial phase of South African history; and policies designed to underwrite security of tenure for labour tenants on farms and for people who live in the formerly designated "homelands".
He gives the Department of Land Affairs (DLA) a school-masterly tick for each component.

· Of the 68 878 restitution claims received by the cut-off date of 31 December 1998, 33 510 or 48,6 per cent, have been settled, thanks, in large measure, to a decision to speed up the process by empowering the Minister of Land Affairs to expedite undisputed claims administratively. Completion of the process is on schedule for the target date of 2004.
· After a slow start, redistribution is "on an upward curve" and the DLA is working to fulfil its target of redistributing 30 per cent of agricultural land by 2015.
· Similar progress is being recorded in securing the tenure rights of labour tenants and in the redistribution of state-owned agricultural land. The system of land holding and land administration in the former "homelands" and in development trust areas is in the process of being "democratised". Communities there will acquire "full ownership of the land" and will be able to administer it on their own or "in conjunction with their traditional leaders, if they so choose".

Dismissing the threat of Zimbabwe-style land invasions in South Africa, he states: "From the reports that we have received, the process of forcible land acquisition in Zimbabwe is led by the state. The government of our country is not going to lead a land-grabbing exercise".

Having noted these government assurances, it is appropriate to evaluate them critically and, in the process, to reflect the views of informed people with a direct interest in, and specialised knowledge of, land affairs who do not share the optimism evinced by government ministers and officials.

It may well be true that the most conspicuous and vocal demand is for land on which to build houses on, in or around South Africa's major conurbations. But there is little comfort in that. It has led to repeated invasions by homeless people of "empty" tracts of land. Ugly scenes have often followed, when the "red ants" - men in red overalls employed by security companies contracted to evict the squatters - have moved in to demolish illegally erected shacks.
As the CDE notes in its mimeograph on Bredell, there have been at least 50 similar invasions since 1994, ten of which occurred in the six months before Bredell was occupied by people in search of land on which to build their own homes.

One of the most spectacular of the recent invasions concerns the plight of Braam Duvenage, whose farm in the Benoni municipal area near Daveyton on the East Rand has been occupied by an estimated 6 000 families or 40 000 people. His recent appeals for help to the police have so far failed. Prison officials have reportedly told him the police cannot arrest the squatters because the local prison is already overcrowded. A court injunction by the Witwatersrand High Court ordering the squatters to vacate his farm has not helped either. The Sheriff of the Court has informed him that he will have to pay the R1,8-million that it will cost her to appoint a private contractor to carry out the court order.

A desperate Duvenage applied to the Pretoria High Court for an order to compel the President, the Minister of Agriculture and Land Affairs, the Minister of Housing, the Minister of Safety and Security, and the National Police Commissioner to comply with their respective responsibilities in terms of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa Act. These include protection of the sanctity of private ownership of land and upholding the Rule of Law by ensuring that the original order of court is effectively enforced. All government institutions cited in the application - which was served before the Court at the end of October - have opposed Duvenage's application. They contend that the matter amounts to an ordinary civil action between private litigants (Duvenage and the squatters) in which government has no duty to interfere.

Agri SA, the most important voice of commercial farmers, intervened in the proceedings as a "friend of the court" and on behalf of its 65 000 members supported Duvenage's cause. It regards his case as one of vital importance to the future of organised agriculture.

In his judgement, delivered as Focus was going to press, Justice William de Villiers, chastises the government for neglecting to protect Duvenage's property rights and accuses it of failing to uphold the "democratic political order" and the constitution that underpins it. He has given the government until February 28, 2003, to present a comprehensive plan to the court on how its proposes to fulfil its duty to protect Duvenage's property rights, as well as those of indigent, landless South Africans to shelter from the elements.

His judgement reinforces scepticism about the efficacy of government land reform and its effectiveness as a bulwark against land invasions. It provides a useful legal precedent however, that commercial farmers can use to protect their property from invasion, provided they act swiftly and decisively. If they do not take action within six months of an invasion, the invaders acquire legal rights that make it difficult to dislodge them.

Unless vastly more money is spent on the provision of urban housing, invasions comparable to those suffered by Duvenage and the landowners at Bredell are likely to continue inexorably for the foreseeable future. They are symptoms of a deeper crisis: the poverty of the rural areas and the desperate plight of the majority of people who live in them. As Thembela Kepe and Ben Cousins, of the Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at the University of the Western Cape, note: "Over 70 per cent of the country's poorest people reside in rural areas and over 70 per cent of all rural people are poor". Many rural families experience "food insecurity at household level" and under-nutrition is "widespread", they add.

The reflections of a long-gone squatter leader provide a historical perspective to the problem. "The government is beaten. (It cannot) stop the people from squatting. The government is like a man who has a cornfield that is invaded by birds. He chases the birds from one part of the field and they alight in another part of the field. We squatters are the birds". The speaker is Oriel Monogoaha, a squatter leader in Pimville more than 50 years ago. His words are as apposite today under the ANC government as they were in the last years of the United Party government of JC Smuts.

Director-General Mayende is understandably proud of the accelerated process of restitution. But the total number of claims, under 69 000, is small when compared with the 3,5 million people estimated by the Surplus People's Project to have been displaced during the forced removals of the apartheid era. It conjures up a vista of disgruntled victims of dispossession who for one reason or another (illiteracy, isolation or deficiencies in the DLA's dissemination of information) did not know about the restitution programme.

The Chief Land Claims Commissioner, Wallace Mgoqi, offers an explanation: in the rural areas each claim represents not one person but an average of 297 people and, consequently, 4 million people, claimants and their dependents, stand to benefit. Even if that is so, problems remain. Most of the claimants, nearly 60 per cent according to Edward Lahiff, of PLAAS, have been compensated financially for the loss of their land. That raises the possibility that the compensation offers a temporary respite only against destitution, particularly as, according Mgoqi's figures, the money has to be shared between so many people.

There are likely to be budgetary problems, too, according to Kepe and Cousins. They state in their policy brief on land reform and rural development that a six-fold increase in the restitution budget will be required to realise Mbeki's hope of completing the restitution process by December 2004. Whether the necessary funds are made available will serve as a litmus test of the depth of government's commitment to restitution and, indirectly, of the reliability of its verbal assurances that Zimbabwe-style invasions will not be part of South Africa's future.

The government has long since abandoned its brave (or reckless) Reconstruction and Development Programme target of redistributing 30 per cent of South Africa's agricultural land between 1994 and 1999. For that reason Kepe and Cousins describe the progress in the redistribution of land as "very slow indeed". The goal posts have been shifted. The deadline is now 2015. Kepe and Cousins foresee further problems, however. To meet the revised timeline target, the DLA will have to transfer 1,72 million hectares of land per year, seven times more than the largest amount it has transferred in any one year so far. Average annual expenditure on land acquistion will, moreover, have to be three times as much as the amount the DLA budgeted for land acquisition in the financial year 2003-2004.

Assuming, however, that the government allocates enough money to realise its 2015 target and that the DLA musters the necessary capacity for the vast administrative task ahead, there is no guarantee that it will excise the explosive potential building up in the rural areas. A survey commissioned by the DLA refers to continuing levels of poverty among the beneficiaries, ongoing expressions of dissatisfaction and persisting under-utilisation of land. The survey reports, "Many projects do not yet show any signs of economic potential". The findings challenge the euphoria of success that Mayende exudes.

Mayende, however, has a point when he notes that the Mugabe government initiated Zimbabwe's land seizures from above and that there is no evidence that the present South African government plans to do so. But that does not mean that a future ANC government will not adopt a more populist land programme if the ANC's appeal as a liberation movement begins to fade. No movement, however popular, can assume that its power base will not be eroded by time. Rising food prices, growing unemployment and emergence of popular protest movements, of which the Landless People's Movement may be a forerunner, are potentially corrosive forces even now.

The South African government's failure to unequivocally condemn Mugabe's land seizure policy is hardly reassuring. Neither is the imprimatur of approval that the ANC gave Mugabe's use of violence and chicanery to ensure victory in the Zimbabwean presidential election in March.

Another factor has to be considered in any reflection on whether the South African government might adopt a similar policy trajectory to that taken by its Zimbabwean counterpart. The origins of the state-sanctioned seizure of land from white farmers in Zimbabwe lie in two developments: street protests in Harare by war veterans against their lot and Mugabe's capitulation to their demands for gratuities and pensions and deflection of their anger onto white landowners. It is an open secret that many Umkhonto we Sizwe guerrillas in post-apartheid South Africa are disgruntled. The arrest of nearly 100 angry former combatants planning to present their grievances to parliament is but one sign of the ire fomenting in their ranks. If their numbers grow and their inclination for more direct action expands proportionately, a future South African government may similarly make absentee or foreign or white landowners scapegoats for its own failures.

As it is, farmers already find themselves under attack on an almost daily basis. After declining in 2001 - when there were 389 attacks on farms and smallholdings, resulting in the killing of 62 people - the tempo of these attacks is on the increase again. Official figures leaked to the Afrikaans newspaper Rapport show that between January and July 2002 there were 690 attacks and 80 killings. They appear to foreshadow a return to the high level of attacks and murders in 2000 and 1999 (905 attacks and 144 murders in 2000 and 813 attacks and 144 murders in 1999).

The orthodox view, backed by empirical research, is that the assailants are most frequently common law criminals and their motive is usually robbery and, concomitantly, that there is no orchestrated political conspiracy to drive white farmers off the land. But two qualifying riders need to be added to that explanation.

The first is that, whatever the motives of the attackers, the apparently incessant assault on the property and lives of farming folk makes it difficult for farmers to remain on the land. They experience the attacks, viscerally if not cerebrally, as an attempt to drive them off their farms. The second is that South Africa still has a politically charged atmosphere and that it is impossible to totally exclude political motivation even where the assailant's motive is prima facie criminal.

Speeches by politicians that portray white farmers as alien usurpers and colonial robbers offer a justification to the assailants for the attacks, even when they are carried out for criminal motives. A speech made by the former ANC parliamentary chief whip, Tony Yengeni, illustrates the point: "Everything whites own, they stole from the blacks," is a not so subtle justification for "robbing the robbers". Costa Gazi, of the Pan Africanist Congress, minces no words in attributing farm attacks to deep-rooted political causes. He identifies them as "massive hunger for land among rural farm workers", "massive poverty in the homelands", and the slow - "very slow" - redistribution of land.

More recently the Landless People's Movement has distributed pamphlets that proclaim: "Landlessness = racism. Give us our land now". The unmistakable implication is that black landlessness is the product of white theft. Though now officially disapproved of by the ANC, the slogans "Kill the Boer, kill the farmer" and "One settler, one bullet" still echo in the minds of many South Africans. They have entered the collective psyche of the citizenry, particularly those who are black and poor and who might be tempted to adopt - or be driven to - crime as a survival strategy.

While the reassurances of ANC leaders are welcome, they do not offer an absolute guarantee against a repetition in South Africa of events in Zimbabwe. There are too many variables in the deeply rooted and highly charged land question for categorical assertions of any kind. The sense of dispossession - for which there is some historical justification - runs deep in the black community. David Maughan Brown highlights the depth of feeling about lost land with an apt quote in his illuminating book on the Mau-Mau rebellion in Kenya, Land, Freedom and Fiction. "When someone steals your land, one can never forget. It is a bitter presence". Whether that bitterness can be contained in South Africa will depend on how the land reform programme progresses in the next few years.

Anyone appraising the efficacy of land reform in South Africa should heed the counsel of the African nationalist leader, Amilcar Cabral, "Claim no easy victories," he advised.