The South African government, faced with a frustratingly slow process of land restitution to blacks forced off their properties during the apartheid era, can now legally seize land for redistribution. Tom Nevin assesses the implications.
The prospect of forcible land seizure in South Africa has moved a step closer with the government now legally able to appropriate private property to appease at least some of the thousands of land claims still outstanding since the nation's democratic elections a decade ago.
The new government had set itself a deadline of 2005, but as South Africa enters its tenth year of freedom from apartheid that is a distant, seemingly unachievable goal. An amendment to the Land Restitution Act of 1994, which will allow for land expropriation, was passed in parliament and signed into law by President Mbeki last month.
The administration's exasperation at the slow pace of land restitution was voiced by the chief land claims commissioner, Tozi Gwanya: "If landowners would co-operate there would be no need to go to expropriation action," he says, "but you can't negotiate forever."
Gwanya refers to "some farmers" who are delaying the process of land reform by refusing to cooperate in the sale of their land for restitution, but insists that the new power of expropriation will not be used "willy-nilly". It will be applied in a very few cases, he says. "If we were to use expropriation, it would be for about 5% of the remaining claims. Our view is that we would use appropriation as a last resort when negotiations are not yielding results."
As things stand today, the land claims commission has spent R2.7bn on restitution, settled around 45,000 claims and transferred nearly a million hectares of land to claimants. Some 27,000 claims have yet to be resolved.
The new law immediately set the mainly white members of the farmers' union, Agri-SA, on a collision course with the government.
"It's absolutely ridiculous," stormed the union's vice-president, Lourie Bosman. "In very few cases it has happened that people are slowing down the process."
Insisting that the process sends a wrong signal to overseas property investors, Bosman pointed to the chaotic results of similar acts by President Robert Mugabe's government in Zimbabwe.
"This is very difficult to understand," he says. "We have a good working relationship with the government, the agricultural sector plan is in place--coming up...