Bredell Farm is little more than a barren plot with a few power lines, but to thousands of poor South Africans, this dusty field about 30 miles north of Johannesburg looks like home.
An estimated 10,000 people have flocked here over the past week, hoping to claim a piece of the nearly 8,000 acres the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), one of South Africa's opposition parties, put on sale last week for a mere $3 a plot. In a few days, hundreds of shacks, made from pieces of wood, sheet metal and even tattered plastic bags, sprang up.
But the land wasn't the PAC's to sell. The plots belong to two farmers, the national government, and two public utilities. Pretoria is calling the squatters camp an illegal land invasion.
The ensuing conflict is the latest chapter in one of South Africa's most painful post-apartheid dilemmas: land distribution.
A neighbor's violent example
For many, Bredell Farm and a growing number of similar situations around the country, are raising the frightening specter of South Africa's northern neighbor, Zimbabwe, where armed land invasions of large commercial farms have plunged the country into economic disaster.
With turmoil in the countryside, Zimbabwe now faces a severe food shortage. Meanwhile, the remainder of the white-owned farms there are now targeted for redistribution.
Seeking to reassure foreign investors that land grabs will not be tolerated, the South African government has reacted swiftly to the situation at Bredell Farm, arresting more than 200 squatters for trespassing and seeking court permission to evict those who have put up shacks there.
Today the Pretoria High Court is expected to decide whether the government has the right to evict the squatters and whether the squatters, if evicted, have a claim to another piece of government land elsewhere.
The government response, which has turned the small piece of land into a minor militarized zone, complete with riot squads and armored vehicles, has many charging that the current government is treating citizens little better than its apartheid-era predecessors.
Elvis Mothwa was among those rounded up by police last Thursday. Just before 7 a.m., police came knocking on the door of the fragile metal shack he had built for his wife and four children the day before and took him away with no explanation.
Hours later, he was dumped at a rural crossroads without being charged and told to return to the township where he had lived previously.
"How can we be trespassing?"Mr. Mothwa asks in confusion and anger.
"They said, 'Do you need a place to stay?' We said, 'yes.' They said, 'Give us 25 rand,' and they gave us a place receipt and told us to bring our materials the next day and they would show us where to build."
Like many of the squatters, Mothwa has been waiting for more than six years for a house from the government.
"Everything that the government is doing, they are doing for themselves," says Mothwa, who voted for the currently ruling African National Congress party in the last election but says that if the PAC will give him land, he will gladly throw his lot with them.
"The government is afraid that the PAC will take the lead and give the people land," Mothwa says.
ANC spokesman Smuts Ngonyama has said his party "condemns in the strongest possible terms, the illegal, corrupt and parasitic practice by the PAC members in exploiting the plight of homeless people...by selling them land they do not own."
For their part, the PAC says the money collected from squatters was a voluntary contribution to help install water, sanitation and electricity on the land and fight legal attempts at eviction.
The PAC says the government is moving too slowly on land redistribution and that the seizure of public lands by the people is a justified response to inequities in land ownership.
So far, only 12,000 of more than 62,000 claims for restitution of land seized during the apartheid era have been finalized.
Programs to build homes for South Africa's estimated 2 million to 3 million homeless have done little to put a roof over their heads.
Referring to Bredell Farm, PAC secretary general Thami ka Plaatjie says: "This is the land of the African people, being held in trust for us by the government. How can they accuse us of invading land which belongs to us?"
In a statement that has been harshly criticized by government leaders, other opposition parties, and even other members of his own political organization, Mr. Plaatjie warned that if the government doesn't move more quickly on land redistribution, the people would claim their right through any means.
"What is happening in Zimbabwe can become a Sunday picnic to what will happen here," he warns.
In recent incidents, last month, 19 people were arrested for occupying a farm in the Eastern Cape, and another opposition party, the United Democratic Movement, has accused the PAC of running another land invasion in the Eastern Cape.
The South African government has said it will take whatever steps necessary to preserve the rule of law and prevent a Zimbabwe-style land grab.
Land Affairs Minister Thoko Didiza, recalling the words of President Thabo Mbeki, says that "when he was asked whether what we saw in Zimbabwe would also happen in this country, he clearly said 'no.' We would never allow that.
"I have said time and again that no matter what the circumstances are, there is rule of law to be followed."
Running out of patience
But whether those who have claimed land at Bredell will leave peacefully remains to be seen.
"I just want a place of my own,"says Elias Tsesane. "If it's a different place or here, I don't care. But I won't leave without my land."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor