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South Africa Set for First Expropriation of Farm Land


The South African government says it will expropriate a white-owned farm, following a failure to agree on a price. The move is seen as an indication the government plans to speed up its lagging land reform programs.

The Commission on the Restitution of Land Rights says the decision to expropriate a 500-hectare farm in North West Province was taken as a last resort. The commission said farmer Hannes Visser rejected an offer of $276,000 for the property, demanding nearly twice as much. Mr. Visser says he will contest the expropriation in court.

Professor Ben Cousins of the University of the Western Cape told VOA it is unlikely the government is planning wide-scale land expropriations, but that it may hope to use this case as leverage in negotiations with other land owners.

"I don't think we are talking about massive confiscations, expropriations taking place, but I think we are talking about the threat of expropriation, backed up by action in some instances, propelling much more hard-nosed negotiations with land owners, to speed up the acquisition of land," he said.

The Visser farm was the subject of a land claim by a black family forced to turn it over to the state in the 1960s. It was subsequently purchased by Mr. Visser's father. Restitution is one element of a three-pronged land reform policy.

Restitution claims can be made for both urban and rural land that was taken away from black owners between 1913 and 1994. At the end of June, about 62,000 of 79,000 claims lodged under this program had been settled. Either claimants' land was restored, new land was granted to them or they received financial compensation.

The most complicated element of the land reform is land redistribution, which seeks to change the demographics of arable land ownership to one-third black-owned by 2014. When apartheid ended in 1994, blacks owned just 13 percent of developed arable land. The redistribution entails government purchasing farm land from current owners and making it available for sale to black farmers.

Professor Cousins, who heads the university's Program for Land and Agrarian Studies, says it is particularly this latter element of government policy, which is severely lagging. He says just three percent of such land has been acquired by the government in the last decade, and that the government is as much to blame as reluctant farm owners.

"I don't think the main argument is actually about price," he said. "It is about government being a very inefficient purchaser in the land market. The procedures, the processes required, can be so slow, so cumbersome, so inefficient that sellers just take their land somewhere else."

Professor Cousins says, however, that following a land summit earlier this year when it was severely criticized by delegates, the government is working at improving its record by hiring sufficient staff and teaching them appropriate skills. But he says, if the government's target of redistributing 23 million hectares by 2014 is to be met, it will have to streamline its operations and cut back on bureaucracy.

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