Whose land is it anyway?

August 31, 2001

Tension is mounting over land reform in South Africa. Can the government avoid a Zimbabwe scenario? Karen MacGregor reports.

Pat Dunn's life has been a nightmare since she returned from political exile in 1996 to run an ancestral sugar cane farm in Mangete on South Africa's east coast. Some 1,000 poor families have squatted in the area, many of them on farms belonging to the Dunn clan - the mixed-race descendants of an 1800s white Zulu inkosi (chief) who had 48 wives. Worse, farmers have received regular death threats and suffered arson, theft and assault, costing them millions of pounds.

"Things have come to a head because we cannot farm anymore. We have had huge problems," says Dunn, who was robbed at gunpoint in her home in April. She is the leader of the Mangete Landowners' Association and of the 3,500-strong Dunn clan, who own most of the 60 farms. She has described state inactivity over invasions as "tantamount to the complicity seen in Zimbabwe". But that was before the government stepped in to negotiate with the farmers and "invaders" and to stop them speaking to the press.

The army has since been deployed to protect the farmers and the courts are taking the strain. In the Land Claims Court, one-third of the squatters are pursuing historical rights to Mangete, from which 180 families were evicted in 1976. Others have no links to the land. Farmers are also using the courts to seek protection of 6,300 acres ceded to inkosi John Dunn by King Cetswayo.

Mary de Haas, an anthropology lecturer at the University of Natal and a member of a government committee investigating farm attacks, places the blame for Mangete on local inkosi Khayelihle Mathaba, who she describes as a "warlord" with links to the apartheid police and ambitions to expand his power base. She believes the area's problems have been exacerbated by political party conflict and "failure to act on the part of the police, provincial government and Land Claims Court".

There is little doubt that recent state action was prompted by the farmers' looming court case and by media attention. Land occupations are grabbing headlines after a spate of high-profile cases in South Africa and because of the damage wreaked by state-sponsored invasions by "war veterans" of 1,400 white farms in Zimbabwe.

"Land invasions will never happen here," South African president Thabo Mbeki has stressed, arguing that such comparisons are based on Afro-pessimism and ignorance that conflates "Johannesburg with Harare with Nairobi".

It is true that Zimbabwe's politically orchestrated invasions of white farms have little in common with squatting in South Africa, where actions are primarily motivated by homelessness among the 3.5 million black people dispossessed under apartheid and their frustration at the lack of action on land claims. In fact, mass illegal squatting on state and private land has been happening in South Africa since the late 1980s, when the pillars of apartheid began to crumble and African people confined by law to pockets of infertile rural land began to flood into cities or spread onto unoccupied land. In cities, people who had been squashed into far-flung townships began to occupy vacant plots, creating vast shantytowns overnight.

But land reform is under question across Africa, according to Ben Cousins, director of the University of the Western Cape's programme for land and agrarian studies. Common themes include problems with post-independence reform aimed at distributing settler land among the dispossessed, and tensions between traditional African land systems and increasingly modern economies.

Post-independence reform has been particularly slow in Zimbabwe and Namibia, but it is an issue in Swaziland, Lesotho, Botswana, Mozambique, Zambia and South Africa, where the Land Acts of 1913 and 1936 pushed 75 per cent of the population onto 13 per cent of the land, leaving the rest for whites.

One lesson from Zimbabwe is that slow redistribution of land is a political time-bomb. President Robert Mugabe tapped into frustrations stemming from his government's reform failures for political gain. In South Africa, land grabs are being exploited by minority groups to build voter support. Another lesson concerns the symbolism of land in Africa and its links to race.

In line with world trends, African governments have been democratising with new policies emphasising decentralisation and greater local government powers. "In Africa, this immediately raises questions about the role of traditional authorities," Cousins says.

The feudal system of chieftainship is not democratic, and traditional communal structures sit uneasily with the workings of individual rights-based commercial economies.

Vast swaths of South Africa are still demarcated along traditional lines. Cousins believes that compromise is the answer. Some communities have developed land markets hedged in with communal conditions. Outsiders can "rent" communal land but must get neighbour approval and agree to communal conditions, such as grazing rights.

But even bigger areas of South Africa are made up of state or private land, areas in which property rights are protected by the constitution and laws. Before evictions can take place, the government has to provide alternative housing for squatters, while landowners must obtain court orders and pay for the legal process.

Mbeki argues that, unlike Zimbabwe, South Africa respects property rights and the rule of law, has structured land claims, redistribution and restitution programmes and a government that does not support occupations. His problems are the sluggish pace of land reform, state incapacity to enforce laws, a spate of high-profile land grabs, an apparent increase in "organised" invasions and dangerous racial tensions.

In South Africa, the 5.5 million whites and Indians, who comprise 13 per cent of the country's 43 million people, watched the Zimbabwe land invasions in horror, terrified that the same fate awaited them. A survey last year showed that 54 per cent of black South Africans - 78 per cent of the population - supported land grabs in Zimbabwe.

The National Land Committee, a non-governmental land-rights organisation, says land grabs are "morally justifiable" as a way of speeding reform. The government has dramatically increased the pace of land reform in response to popular impatience with a claims process that, in the five years to 1999, resolved just 41 of nearly 69,000 cases before the Land Claims Commission.

The general lack of suitable land is also a problem. It is estimated that just 5 per cent of the 64 million acres of state land are suitable and available for land reform. Also, expropriation of private land has been difficult. The government can expropriate land when it is deemed in the public interest, but must pay the market price, which it can seldom afford.

It has been argued that South Africa's land laws favour squatters, allowing the poor to invade land, build a home and claim occupancy, thereby avoiding eviction. Many owners cannot afford the high costs of obtaining evictions. But Jeff Budlender, head of the Legal Resources Centre in Johannesburg, does not agree. He believes the problem is the government's failure to deliver land reform and provide housing.

"It is a waste of time, energy and money, it causes human suffering and it is unconstitutional to evict people when they have nowhere to go. It is like shooing birds: they just land somewhere else."

In April, the Pan Africanist Congress embarked on a country-wide campaign to occupy land, but has since backed down under intense political pressure. But Cousins believes high-profile invasions with the goal of embarrassing the government or expanding political influence are likely to continue. "Such cases are comparable with Zimbabwe in their political motivation, but it is highly unlikely that the South African government will behave like its northern neighbour."

Indeed, the government has reacted decisively against recent land invasions. But solutions are difficult to find. Cousins believes that the government should be a more active agent of land redistribution, making intelligent use of the market to acquire land to meet demand; target high-quality land in areas of demand; and introduce policies that focus on complementary forms of delivering rural livelihoods rather than solely on land issues. He also argues for an urgent need to resolve tensions between communal and individual rights.

"Land reform is inherently complex and necessarily slow. But popular discontent is bound to break out if real progress cannot be demonstrated. It is clear that the current programme is hardly moving. Holy cows, get ready to be sacrificed."

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