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South Africa's land reform starts with expropriations

afrol News, 13 February - Slowly but surely, South Africa seems to be threading along the footsteps of Namibia, where controlled expropriations of lands held by whites are to set stage for a smoother land reform than the more known example in Zimbabwe. The South African government is under pressure to correct land ownership imbalances caused by apartheid, and its slow progress has been seen as a major treason by many landless black ANC voters.

With the expropriation of its first farm in its reform drive, South African officials said the move aims to return land to the country's black majority - which had suffered from historic injustices by the expansion of Europeans during the last centuries.

A sale of a farm in the Northern Cape has got an official backing, which indicates that the government wants to take a new approach. Over the years, the South African government has been criticised for being too slow to give back lands to blacks - given the fact that it is now 12 years since the apartheid era ended.

The white minority still owns more than 90 percent of cultivated land in South Africa. But the government has been left in a quagmire as to how to move with the land reform agenda, fearing it might create a situation similar to that of Zimbabwe where white-owned farmers had left the country after their lands were seized and returned to landless blacks - or almost equally bad, giving the impression to Western partners that South Africa is following the path of Zimbabwe.

The Pretoria government is also scared by the fact that much the expropriated lands in Zimbabwe now lay idle, as blacks lack the capital, farming tools and know-how to produce at industrial levels for a country that was previously serving as the food basket of Southern Africa.

The government of Robert Mugabe is still paying the price of its action. It forced potential investors from taking interest in the country resulting to the weakening of the economy, creating shortage of food, among other problems.

The much less known example of Namibia - a country occupied by the apartheid regime for 75 years - now is serving South African bureaucrats as an example of how to transfer lands and wealth from the white minority to the black majority without creating economic chaos and negative market reactions.

In Namibia, the government first obliged land owners to sell out lands not in productive use to authorities for redistribution. After that, land owners were obliged to sell greater areas on a voluntary basis for market prices, until more stubborn owners had to be expropriated - although being paid well. Most important, the reform has held a low paste, avoiding a sudden exodus of white land owners, their capital and skills.

Following this example, the South African government and the ruling ANC party said they were now ready to use laws that allowed land sales so as to speed up the land reform process.

In a statement, the South African Commission on Restitution of Land Rights, said the first such process took effect on 26 January. After an ownership claim was filed by 471 local families, the land commission said it had ordered the South African Evangelical Lutheran Church to sell its land to them for 35.5 million rand.

Despite the slow paste of reform, the question now being asked by many people is whether South Africa is following the footsteps of Zimbabwe or enforcing the promises embedded in the post-apartheid constitution. Analysts however hold that Pretoria is now only applying black empowering tools it has used in other sectors also when it comes to land ownership, and that reform is well controlled.

South Africa has enacted laws geared towards empowering the black community to either own back their ancestral lands or ask for financial compensation. It is also their right to seek loans from the government to purchase land.

According to official sources, the expropriation of lands from the evangelical Church had been nothing extraordinary, although it was a first time ever event. Commission officials claimed that several such cases had already been settled and that they were adamant in their quest to bridge the land inequalities, which was an offshoot of apartheid.

Last year, South Africa's Agriculture and Land Affairs Minister, Lulu Xingwana, faulted white farmers for inflating the land prices and gave a six months deadline for price negotiations to take place. This, according to her, would follow expropriation process. The move therefore was not totally unexpected.

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