LAND on which to grow crops and graze cattle and sheep is a critical resource over which peoples and nations still fight. In the new South Africa control over land is central to President Nelson Mandela's plan of reconstruction and development, but there will be no easy victories without careful planning and monetary backing from Washington.
``Unless we settle the land question, we do not have a country,'' Cyril Ramaphosa said recently. He is the secretary-general of the African National Congress (ANC) and a potential heir to Mr. Mandela. If we handle the land question badly, he argued, ``we tear South Africa to pieces. If we manage it well, we create the foundations of a truly united country.''
Few could have expressed South Africa's land dilemma so exactly. Despite a great deal of talk and bluster since 1980, neighboring Zimbabwe is still fumbling its land issue; very little land has been transferred from white to black hands. The number of landless people has grown enormously and, much as Zimbabwe's government has promised to return unproductive white-owned land to blacks, the landless still wait.
Under apartheid about 3.5 million Africans were removed from their ancestral farm lands and forcibly shifted to less arable, poorly watered, more crowded sections of the so-called homelands. Earlier, in 1913, the Native Lands Act deprived Africans of existing freehold rights and moved millions into reserves (later homelands) out of the way of whites. Even after the passage of a second version of that act in 1936, the entire black population of South Africa was still to be limited to control over no more than 13 percent of the total landmass of the country.
By the time South Africa achieved majority rule in April 1994, about half its entire black population, roughly 16 million people, were attempting to scratch a living from overcrowded, overgrazed acreage in the homelands. Long before April, white farmers, possibly fewer than 100,000 including their families, controlled the bulk of what once were African commons. About 80 percent of all farmland in South Africa is in white ownership. One of the deep roots of black poverty in South Africa is the shortage of land, especially land that is well-watered and fertile.
No African grievance is more entrenched. Yet the new South African bill of rights, a product of extensive negotiations between the outgoing white rulers and the incoming leaders of the ANC, enshrines private property. Expropriation of land by the state is explicitly permitted, but only after the payment of ``fair and equitable'' compensation.
As the government of Zimbabwe found, compensation payments could easily deplete the national treasury. Ousting white farmers could also deprive South Africa, still growing only slowly, of surplus food and foreign-exchange earnings. Moreover, efficient white farmers now employ African labor.
There is official anxiety that blacks will have neither the expertise nor the capital to maintain the productivity of returned land. Yet the ANC's Reconstruction and Development Program, which the new Mandela government now endorses, specifies that 30 percent of all the country's agricultural land should be redistributed from whites to blacks within five years.
If progress is too slow, if Africans are not resettled with all deliberate speed, Mandela fears wholesale squatting, preemptive land occupations, and other outbreaks of rural anarchy that would unsettle his government. Already, Mandela has had to set the post-apartheid police on striking urban laborers and black miners.
There have been a few examples of peaceful land transfer. Along the south coast of the eastern Cape region of Ciskei, a group of prosperous white dairy farmers have returned their land to the Mfengu villagers who were forcibly removed from it two decades ago. However, the Mfengu do not yet intend to farm the land. They lack the experience and capital. So they have leased their land back to the current white farmers. The white farmers are now tenants, paying a large percentage of their profits to the Mfengu.
Mandela's continuing dilemma is that even with United States and World Bank funds, South Africa may not be able to afford to compensate white farmers. And a destabilized farming sector could frighten foreign investors and undercut South Africa's reconstruction program.
US and World Bank advice may need to be cautionary. More deals like those made by the Mfengu would be useful, even if they remain rare. Outside backing should be offered, too, to support those African groups who do manage to reclaim their ancestral or recent lands.
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