Learning from Zimbabwe's bitter lessons

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As in Zimbabwe, where anarchic land invasions are now under way, in South Africa there is dire inequality between whites and blacks in rural areas.

Six years after South Africa's first multiracial elections, the best farmland remains firmly in white hands.

South Africa shares much the same history of land dispossession as Zimbabwe. In South Africa, both British colonial regimes and the former apartheid government legislated black farmers off the choicest land and into overcrowded 'homelands' (reservations).

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The dilemma for the new South Africa is to loosen white farmers' hold on farmland, water rights, and the crucial rural cooperatives that market produce, without damaging this vital economic and employment sector as has happened in Zimbabwe.

Thus far, land reform in South Africa has been painless for white farmers. Constitutional provisions regarding property protect both the current owner and ensure restitution or compensation for those dispossessed of land under apartheid.

The government emphasizes a 'willing buyer, willing seller' approach to acquiring, with government funds, land for the dispossessed. Many claimants, however, prefer cash compensation.

Unfortunately, that cautious negotiated approach, coupled with administrative inefficiency, means that in six years only 10 percent of the 67,500 land claims have been settled.

But things are improving. Only 41 claims were settled between the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994, and the appointment of Wallace Mgoqi as chief land claims commissioner in March 1999. In the subsequent 18 months, however, the number of claims settled has zoomed to 6,523, benefiting 76,000 individuals.

Mr. Mgoqi, whose family lost its home under the apartheid Group Areas Act, says he expects to more than triple the number of beneficiaries by March 2001 and to double the nearly 663,000 acres turned over to claimants this year.

"I don't think we're at risk of ending up like Zimbabwe," says Mgoqi. "We've only been at it six years, whereas Zimbabwe allowed the issue to fester for two decades without any real progress. South Africans can point to communities that have received land and be confident the legal process works, particularly now that it's accelerating."

Mgoqi warned, however, that he needs a bigger budget, so that claimants can be given the means to develop their lands in sustainable ways. "Failing that, the land reform will not yield long-term improvement in the welfare of these communities," says land-rights campaigner David Mason.

South Africa is applying lessons from Zimbabwe and from its own early failures in land reform. When Zimbabwe became independent in 1980, the landless were given vast stretches of farmland, both state-owned and land acquired from white farmers. But the state provided the peasants with little else. They tended to lack the education, experience, credit, and access to technology and water necessary to develop the land. With population nearly doubling between 1970 and 1990, often the Zimbabwe peasants had no choice but to overwork their new land. Much of it is now a treeless, windswept dust bowl, and the settlers are again in need of new farms. There are reports that those encouraged by the Zimbabwe government to invade white-owned farms this year have been provided with nothing but hoes to develop it.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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