DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA — When the first European settlers landed on the tip of Africa in 1652, they saw a vast, unclaimed land. Never mind the Khoisan, Hottentots, or Xhosas. In European eyes, they didn't own the land in any "proper" sense.
Nearly 350 years after those first settlers, and 125 years after European nations carved up the continent at the Berlin Conference, much of Southern Africa's most fertile land remains in the hands of the descendents of those early white colonists.
African delegates to the World Conference Against Racism this week in Durban, South Africa, are calling on the US and European nations to apologize, and make restitution for colonial land grabs and the slave trade.
African delegates from developing nations want a clear acknowledgment that colonialism left a legacy of racism that is responsible for many of their problems, including landlessness. They also want promises for help in solving these problems, whether that help comes in the form of reparations or aid.
But the conference is foundering in the wake of the pullout Monday by the US and Israel in a dispute over defining Zionism as racism - which pro-Palestinian parties also cast as an issue of colonial domination. The US has also objected to the inclusion of slavery reparations on the agenda.
Here in Southern Africa, and in Zimbabwe in particular, the inequalities in the ownership of land are considered the root of current political upheaval.
This week Patrick Chinamasa, the Zimbabwean justice minister, made the most direct demand for reparations as a means of aiding with land reform. He said the objective for which 60,000 Zimbabweans had died during the country's independence war will not have been achieved until the land is equitably distributed.
In Zimbabwe, 70 percent of the land is owned by whites. Since early last year, white-owned farms in Zimbabwe have been invaded by armies of self-styled war veterans backed by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. Even as UN delegates meet in Durban, the situation there has deteriorated. In recent days, thousands of acres of white-owned farmland have been set ablaze and more than 5,000 farm workers and their families have been driven from their homes.
"Landlessness is not an accident," says Andile Mngxitama, land-rights coordinator for the South African National Land Committee. "It is the result of a comprehensive racist system. It was calculated to create an unsustainable level of comfort and wealth for a certain population."
In South Africa, landless blacks have increasingly resorted to illegal land occupations. About 70 percent of black South Africans live in rural areas, but blacks still own only 13 percent the country's land. In neighboring Namibia, where blacks were not allowed to own property until after the country received independence from South Africa in 1990, black farmers are threatening Zimbabwe-style land seizures if commercial farming land - 70 percent of which is held by whites - is not redistributed more quickly.
On the other side of the world, in Latin America, most land continues to be held in large estates that are remnants of early colonialism. Landless peasants in Brazil, where less than 2 percent of people own two-thirds of the arable land, have launched a highly coordinated land-seizure campaign that has become one of the main features in the country's political environment.
In Asia, huge tracts of land continue to be held in large plantations, although with the exception of the Philippines, little effort has been made there to redistribute property. In the Philippines, however, where 72 percent of rural families are landless and employment on large plantations is highly seasonable in nature, violent confrontations over land have become common.
"What has happened with the land invasions in Zimbabwe is not unlike what has happened in Brazil, in other countries in Latin America, and even in the Philippines," says Martin Adams, a researcher on land affairs who has worked with South African Department of Land and a number of international research institutions. "It's associated with these tremendous inequalities in the distribution of wealth."
The need for land reform itself is not controversial. Sections of the conference draft declaration calling for land reform passed with little controversy, and many nations, including most Southern African countries, have programs that seek to buy land and redistribute it to the landless. The question raised by Zimbabwe, and the increasing number of land occupations in South Africa, is by what means land may be redistributed.
International leaders, including UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, have condemned the violence in Zimbabwe, saying that land reform must occur within the framework of the rule of law. Next week, South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki and four other regional heads of state will travel to Harare for a two-day summit with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe aimed at resolving the crisis in that country. In South Africa, attempts to occupy land have been quickly crushed by the government, and Namibia's president has rejected a Zimbabwe-style grab of white farms despite pressure from within his own party.
Land activists, however, say government programs to buy land from farmers legitimize the original theft of land from blacks during colonialism and are moving too slowly to meet the demand for land.
"We're saying you've stolen the property, but we'll buy it back from you when you want to sell it and at what price," says Mr. Mngxitama. "Zimbabwe has been trying to do land reform this way for 20 years and has made little progress."
Some South African land groups say the land reform program has failed to deliver. When the country's new government took power in 1994, they promised to redistribute approximately 30 percent of the country's 122 million hectares in five years. Seven years later, only 3 percent of that land has been redistributed.
Mr. Adams, who is currently working with the Ugandan government on their land reform program, disagrees. He says land purchasing and redistribution programs can be successful and that in Zimbabwe, prior to 1990 when political motivation for land reform diminished, 3 million hectares out of a targeted 8.8 million had been successfully redistributed.
Nevertheless, most land experts admit that governmental land reform programs in Africa and elsewhere have had mixed success. Many countries like Uganda, which passed an ambitious land reform program in 1988, have found that the costs of such programs have exceeded even their most ambitious estimates.
But the cost of doing nothing may be more than countries can afford. "We've seen what has happened in Zimbabwe. Whatever the injustice of the disposition, for them to visit 100 years later the decedents of the dispossessors and demand the land back is quite a disaster," Martins says. "I think the South African situation is basically going the same direction."