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Critics: Namibia Land Reform Plan a Land Grab

The government of Namibia recently settled a two-year legal battle to acquire a large farm owned by descendants of German colonialists, part of a massive government effort to return to the black Namibians land seized by German and Dutch settlers over the past century. But critics say that the country's land reform policies, like nearby Zimbabwe's, look better on paper than in practice.

The road from Windhoek to Ongombo-West runs past more than 100 kilometers of rolling, desolate scrubland, fenced off mostly into cattle farms. A long dirt road leads to the 4,000-hectare farm of Hilde Wiese and her son, Andreas. Hilde's grandfather, a German army soldier, bought it from the German government in 1903.

For centuries, the land had belonged to black Namibians, mainly the region's ethnic Hereros, most of whom were driven from the region or slaughtered by the German army in the early years of colonization.

Hilde, 69, and Andreas, 34, have a deep connection to this seemingly inhospitable sprawl of land where they raise cattle and grow a rare type of lilly for export to Europe. Like most white Namibian farmers, they can afford housekeepers and farm workers.

But they have what the vast majority of black Namibians do not have: land. That's something Namibia's government is trying to correct.

Last year, Namibia's government announced an ambitious campaign to acquire land to settle about 240,000 landless black Namibians. In addition to government-backed affirmation action loans, the land ministry has earmarked about $170 million, less than $20 per hectare, to buy about nine million hectares of white-owned farms and ranches by 2010.

Not surprisingly, few white farmers were willing to sell their land for a price they perceived was far below fair market value.

The government initiated a strategy of expropriating white-owned farms, in essence threatening to confiscate farms if their owners refused to sell at prices set by government assessors. Namibia's land ministry has sent out expropriation notices to at least 17 other white Namibian farmers, who each owned thousands of hectares of arable land. Most are reported to have had a history of labor disputes with their mostly black Namibian farm workers.

The letter delivered to Hilde and Andreas was signed by Namibia's former lands minister, Hifikepunye Pohamba, who is now the country's president. After a two-year battle with the lands ministry, they reluctantly agreed to sell their farm for less Hilde Wiese. "My grandfather is also buried here. My family is buried here, my mother, my father, my uncle. Everybody's grave we have to leave behind. But that's how it goes. We can't do anything about it."

Andreas says he feels betrayed, mostly by his farm workers, whom he says staged a labor dispute to embolden the government to expropriate his farm. Now he keeps a loaded rifle in the dining room, a symbol of the fear and anxiety he feels toward the very workers he grew up with and played soccer with as a boy.

"If you grew up with these people, speaking their language, you know them precisely how they are," he said. "After hours you play your soccer together with them, and you enjoy the work-related relationship. And suddenly you're losing your home - not only your home, but all of it. You have to leave your family behind which are buried here. You grew up here on the farm, you know for what you worked here. You're losing your future as well. It's a harsh thing. Only because you're a white person, you're getting pushed into a corner and are forced to sell your property because of a labor dispute."

Still, it's difficult for many Namibians to muster sympathy for people like Hilde and Andreas, and the 4,000 other white ranchers who own most of the country's farmable land.

Ruled by South Africa until 1990, most black and mixed-race Namibians lived under a system of apartheid nearly as oppressive as South Africa's. In 1991, white Namibians representing only about 5 percent of the country's population of two million people owned 95 percent of the farms. Black Namibians owned less than three percent of them.

Today, nearly 80 percent of Namibia's farmable land still belongs to white farmers, while black farmers own nearly 16 percent of it.

In Namibia, as in much of Africa, where the vast majority of the population are farmers, land is an emotional and politically significant issue, says Chrispin Matongela, spokesman for Namibia's land ministry. He says the government realizes the need for picking up the pace of land redistribution, but it also wants to avoid the social and economic upheaval witnessed during Zimbabwe's land reform process.

"When it comes to the land question, let's not address it like you will address other sectors," he said. "This is quite an emotional thing. People in the communal areas they are overpopulated. The area is overgrazed. That's the reality. Those who don't have land, in the future they may become impatient. Once they become impatient, then who is going to lose? They have got nothing to lose, so you will lose more."

This week, the Wieses are loading their belongings onto trucks. They are the first of dozens, possibly hundreds, of white Namibian families who, in the next five years or more, will pack up and vacate farms handed down to them by their grandparents and great-grandparents.