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South Africa Land Reforms Still Contentious 20 Years Later

Emilia Khoza, evicted from her house when she was eight years old, at the Pretoria Land Claims office, Pretoria, South Africa. (Gillian Parker/VOA)
Emilia Khoza, evicted from her house when she was eight years old, at the Pretoria Land Claims office, Pretoria, South Africa. (Gillian Parker/VOA)

In 2014, 20 years after the end of apartheid, land issues remain as contentious in South Africa as they ever have. Activists argue that the pace of land reform is slow and biased, while legal experts are scratching their heads about how some proposed reforms would be implemented.  
 
Land reform is a prickly issue in South Africa. For some it conjures up images of land being stolen from black people under apartheid. For others, mainly whites, it incites fear of being evicted from their farms, echoing Zimbabwe's forceful approach.
 
Today, most of South Africa's most fertile land is still in the hands of a few thousand white commercial farmers. The government now wants to buy land from those owners and redistribute it to black people who were forced off it during white-minority rule.
 
The Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Bill became law on July 1. The law reopens a claims process that ended in 1998, and gives people who were forcibly moved from their land five years to lodge new claims. If claimants are successful, they are given the option of getting their land back or receiving financial compensation.
 
Nomfundo Gobodo, who is the country's chief land claims commissioner, says the law is necessary.

"You find that peoples' wounds have not yet healed," said Gobodo. "No, they still remember… the stories where people say they went to school and when they came back they didn't have a home. It is really about giving back people's dignity."
 
However, the process is fraught with problems. Some experts argue that there is a lack of capital to sustain farms under new ownership and that many black farmers who would win land claims do not have the skills to keep the farms commercially viable.
 
More than 5,000 claims have been lodged in the first month. The majority, Gobodo says, are opting to take cash payment over having their land back. But she warns that this short-term win won't break down inequality and poverty for future generations.
 
"I think that the people really feel that they need immediate benefits and so they usually want to opt for financial compensation. But what we are undertaking is to try and convince people that the better option long-term is the land," Gobodo said.
 
The government has made big promises. But less than 10 percent of white-owned land has been handed over since 1994. Out of the nearly 80,000 land claims submitted during the 1990s, 8,000 still have not been settled due to protracted legal battles.

Corruption could also taint the process as politically connected traditional authorities try to push through large land claims.  

The better off may reap the rewards of a scheme originally designed to reduce poverty and inequality says Ruth Hall, an associate professor at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies.
 
"[There are] many more challenges - the question of how to distribute the land? And the one of the most contentious issues is who should get it?" she said. "Here there are powerful lobbies in favor of black commercial farmers who would like to get access and would like to get state subsidies to do so."
 
Some politicians are calling for a more drastic approach - including taking land from white farmers without compensation.
 
The government is considering a proposal to transfer a 50 percent share of commercial farmland to workers in proportion to the amount of time they have worked on the land.
 
It would be an unprecedented move in land reform. Heated parliamentary discussions and outcry from farmers suggest a rocky road ahead.
 
Hall says there is huge disconnect between policy and the demands of rural people.
 
"Many of the farm workers organizations we've been working with have been saying, 'We didn't want to have equity in the commercial farms where we already have experienced oppression," she said. "We would much rather have land of our own.' And that is what we are asking government for, give us land of our own and also many people would like to remain in their jobs on farms, give us better living and working conditions, implement and enforce minimum wages.'"
 
Whichever way the debate turns, it is clear that South Africa's land issues are far from over.

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