S. Africa's Landless Still Get the Boot

Law says it's illegal to kick tenant farmers off land, but evictions by whites continue.

Blacks may have been elected in 1994 to govern South Africa, but when it comes to land, as in other aspects of the economy, power still resides with whites.

The landless Phiri family in the Cape Province's winelands is a case in point. The only sign of the "new" South Africa in their lives is the calendar on their cardboard wall advertising the post-apartheid Constitution and Bill of Rights, neither of which has helped them in their plight.

Last July, Listen Phiri and his wife, Dinah, were evicted from the farm of P.J. Benade, where they had worked for 18 years. The eviction was carried out despite - or perhaps because of - legislation meant to guarantee 6 million tenant workers the right to housing on farms they have worked for a decade or more.

The Phiris' tale is just one example of the general failure of the Mandela government's four-pronged land-reform legislation. On a rainy July 4, 1997, the local sheriff arrived at the Phiris' home and carted out the family's household belongings. The goods were loaded in two trucks and dumped outside the farm gate "which was barred behind us," Mr. Phiri says. "We just stood there in the rain, crying. We had nowhere to go."

Adding insult to injury, the owner, Mr. Benade, billed them $400 for the cost of their eviction.

Benade has refused comment; Phiri speculates that he and his wife were evicted in advance of the Extension of Security of Tenure Act (ESTA), passed in November but retroactive to February 1997. ESTA gives elderly and disabled tenant farm workers the right to live in their farmhouses until they die, although they do not gain title to the land.

The nonprofit group Lawyers for Human Rights hopes to use the Phiris' experience to test the retroactive provisions of ESTA. But knowing they are not wanted, the Phiris say they will never return to the Benade estate.

A home of their own

They will soon move into a single-room cement brick house built with a $3,000 government housing subsidy. "I'm just happy that President [Nelson] Mandela has given us a place here where the white man cannot tell us anything anymore," Dinah Phiri says.

ESTA is one of four tentative steps the Mandela government has taken in the minefield of land reform, the others being restitution for land stolen under apartheid, distribution of government land to the landless, and a loosening of traditional chiefs' hold on tribal lands.

Conciliation and mediation are the bywords of the government's approach to land reform. The policy is conservative, designed to keep white investors happy. The new Constitution seriously limits the government's powers of expropriation.

Even though the new land-reform laws are weak, they have been attacked by the South African Agricultural Union, a mainly white farmers' lobby group. Farm union members tend to ignore or scoff at ESTA's provisions in particular. "We hear about eight to 10 evictions per month in the winelands region alone, and that's only the cases we hear about," says Denzel van Zyl, an advocate with Lawyers for Human Rights. "I'm sure there are many more."

ESTA mandates that no eviction can be enforced without a court order, but that hasn't proved much of an impediment. Like most landowners, most magistrates are "white, middle-class, conservative males," says Mr. van Zyl. "Social links ... render it unthinkable that a magistrate would act against his friends on behalf of a farm worker."

Paying for stolen land

A thornier question is that of restitution for land taken under the apartheid Afrikaner government and the turn-of-the-century British colonial government. An estimated 3.5 million to 7 million blacks were cheated of their land between 1913 and 1989.

The government says the land must be regained for blacks through an amicable "willing buyer, willing seller" arrangement. "The current owner did not expropriate the land, the old government did, so the current owner cannot be penalized for the expropriation," says Franz Zottl, spokesman for the beleaguered Land Claims Commission. To date, the two-year-old commission has resolved seven out of 23,000 claims on its books.

The government is supposed to partially fund the repurchase of stolen land, or similar land if the owner is unwilling to sell. But in reality it lacks the money to do so. "The government needs more constitutional leeway to expropriate," says opposition member of Parliament Patricia de Lille.

50,000 families to get farms

More promising are prospects of transferring ownership of state land to the landless. Roughly 45 percent of South African territory is public land. Last year, Agriculture Minister Derek Hanekom pledged that in 1998 he would turn over half a million acres to 50,000 black farm families. Also, churches are believed to own 7 percent of South Africa and have been asked to turn much of it over to the landless poor.

The biggest challenge facing the new government is the question of tribal lands. Agriculture remains at a subsistence level because communal property cannot be used as collateral for bank loans. Use of land is determined by tribal chiefs, many of whom were in collusion with the apartheid government. Their power over land has been to the detriment of women, who grow most of the food consumed in homes.

The ruling African National Congress wants to avoid a collision with chiefs over land. Such a battle would play into the hands of the Zulu traditionalist Inkatha Freedom Party just before 1999 elections. Mr. Hanekom says he is happy to let chiefs continue divvying up land, as long as they operate democratically and enjoy communal support. He says he will introduce legislation this year to clarify the status of people living on tribal lands. But how he will defuse this potentially explosive issue remains to be seen.

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