S. African Land Reforms Set Off Political Storm

ANC welcomes an end to discrimination but insists on reparations

THE most sweeping racial reforms in the country's history have sparked the stormiest political row since President Frederik de Klerk set South Africa on a new political course a year ago. The reforms, outlined in a government white paper on land reform published Tuesday, will wipe out discrimination in land ownership and residential living.

The proposed changes, which Mr. De Klerk described as a ``turning-point in the history of South Africa,'' will end an era of social engineering which has resulted in some 3.5-million forced removals nationwide. But the government has ruled out reparations for hundreds of thousands of black South Africans dispossessed of their land in the name of apartheid.

Christoffel Van Der Merwe, Minister for Black Education and Development Aid said Tuesday that efforts to return land to their original owners would ``open up a quagmire.'' He said the government acknowledged the wrongs of the past but wanted its policy to be forward-looking.

``It is good to deracialize the acquisition of land, but you have to address the legacy of the past,'' says Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, co-director of the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa. ``One can only hope the government's hard line position is part of a negotiating process. If not, the government is in big trouble.''

Under the 1913 and 1936 Land Acts, which are to be repealed along with the Group Areas Act, 87 percent of South Africa was reserved for white occupation and only 13 percent for blacks.

The government package includes five far-reaching bills that will abolish race as a factor in land rights, convert land tenure to full ownership for millions of blacks, ease the creation of informal housing and promote the development and agricultural needs of rural communities.

THE package was welcomed by the white business community and the liberal Democratic Party. But it was rejected by the right-wing Conservative Party which warned the government it was ``playing with fire'' by conceding most of the African National Congress's land proposals before negotiations had begun.

Anti-apartheid and human rights groups criticized the government for rejecting the principle of restoring land to the dispossessed, which was the central proposal of an ANC Land Commission report published two weeks ago.

The ANC document recommended establishment of ``land claims courts'' to settle disputes, taking into account inheritance, forced removals, historical claims, and title deeds. It was seen in business and diplomatic circles as a moderate position that could create the framework for a demand-led redistribution of land. The ANC Commission warned that unless the government conceded reparation ``we can expect an outburst of uncontrollable political anger.''

The ANC reacted with astonishment to the white paper, saying: ``The effect of the white paper is to codify the present state of dispossession under the cover of free market principles.''

Aninka Claassens, of Witwatersrand's Center for Applied Legal Studies, said the government's rejection of reparation was ``not only disappointing but shocking. The choice is whether to acknowledge the past and develop terms which address it, or to pretend that the past can be wished away.'' He said it would force the dispossessed to resort to measures that would bring them into conflict with the law.

Except for the sharp difference over reparation, the government and ANC proposals on land have much in common. The land issue, along with education, is seen as one of the most crucial elements in negotiations for a nonracial and democratic constitution.

Hernus Kriel, Minister of Planning said the government's proposals were ``negotiable,'' but that Pretoria was confident it could persuade other negotiating parties of their correctness.

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