Sweet Justice for S. African Blacks As Many Reclaim Ancestral Lands

ADAM MOGANEDI was euphoric returning to Doornkop to reclaim his plot of land lost under apartheid 20 years ago - until he was reminded of white racism by a woman at the local police shooting range.

With his children and grandchildren, the sexagenarian and scores of other South African blacks proudly toured the site 120 miles east of Johannesburg where they had been removed by the previous white regime and are now allowed to resettle under a black-majority government.

But while leading the group to a luxurious police recreation center surrounded by coils of razor wire in the middle of their property - which they hope to buy and convert into a school - they were stopped by an irate white woman who swore at them and called in the mainly white police.

The group calmly left, as target shooting from the nearby range resounded through the veld and a police car screamed up the hill.

``They don't realize that things have changed,'' Mr. Moganedi said, sadly shaking his head. ``This is our land, and they can't stop us anymore.''

Doornkop is a test case of tolerance in the new South Africa, the first repossession since a historic land bill was approved Nov. 8 by a multi-racial Parliament formed after April elections.

The incident was illustrative of what is one of the most emotive issues in the new South Africa, which is struggling to redress old wrongs without upsetting the old order.

The Restitution of Land Rights Bill is one of the first steps by the African National Congress (ANC)-dominated government of President Nelson Mandela to overhaul four decades of apartheid-era inequalities and reverse the takeover of black land that began in 1913.

Since the 1960s, more than 3.5 million black families have been moved from their land and relocated to remote areas, many at gunpoint, after bulldozers razed their homes. This gave the white majority 87 percent of the land, versus 13 percent for the 5-to-1 black majority.

The new bill gives dispossessed blacks three years to lodge claims for restitution and empowers the Land Claims Court to rule on the return of land and compensation paid to them.

Doornkop is an unlikely arcadia at first sight, its original school, three churches, and homes reduced to rubble after police trucks rumbled in in June 1974. Authorities scattered the occupants to barren areas far away, in violation of the 1920 deed that gave the community ownership of the 2,122 acres.

Police then built the recreation center and shooting range on the land. Artillery shells and tear-gas canisters now litter the floors of what used to be the school, a roofless ruin where chalkboards were used as targets. The fields are empty of the peach orchards that once provided families' livelihood.

The 40 families who have returned since early December camp out in rusty, leaking shacks, their clothing still lying in jumbled heaps. Municipal trucks bring water. Mothers worry that their children will be harmed stepping on unexploded shells from the range while playing in the fields nearby.

But for the repossessed - proudly wearing T-shirts sporting the words ``This land is our land, at last unity'' - placing their meager belongings on their ancestors' land is sweet justice. They can pay respects to their dead in the nearby cemetery - a forbidden act under apartheid.

They now can leave squalid urban townships and till food on their own plots of land.

After the incident with the aggressive white woman, the slightly shaken crowd regrouped around a minibus to celebrate their return with champagne and dancing. ``We've finally come home,'' says Nehemiah Ramaube, a relative of the original chief, clinking a glass with a neighbor.

Most white residents in the area welcome their new neighbors and express shock at the behavior of the woman at the recreation center.

Derek Hanekom, the white land affairs minister, who is an ANC member and once was a farmer himself, says the state would help the black community buy the recreation center from the police.

``It was crazy in the first place to chuck these people off their land and then build a recreation center,'' he told the Monitor.

But many white farmers across the country, who before the elections threatened civil war in defense of a separate homeland, still need to be reassured that blacks will not take over their land. They are nervous about about a wave of recent land takeovers by thousands of black squatters, who are impatient for change.

Mr. Hanekom says the bill is aimed at preventing such invasions, but adds: ``There will be arguments and clashes anyway.''

Measures to redress old wrongs include removing legal obstacles to blacks gaining access to land and making finance available. The government is also examining reversing land transfers to tribal leaders and civil servants in now-defunct black homelands just before the elections.

Hanekom said his ministry had received about 3,000 claims involving tens of thousands of people. He predicted that about 5 percent of South African territory would be redistributed eventually. ``Justice will hopefully be done,'' he adds.

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