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South Africa Mulls Land Reform Issues

A national conference is underway in South Africa to review the country's land redistribution programs and seek ways to speed up the process of land reform.

In opening the conference, Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka has urged white landowners to work with the government to speed up land reform, saying they should avoid abusing the system in place.

She said that the policy of willing-buyer, willing-seller currently in place needs to be re-evaluated. The government has complained in the past that too little land is voluntarily made available under this policy and also that some landowners have manipulated the system to inflate the value of their property. She said the state wants to be able to operate differently.

"In any industry the market, which is the one that is buying, is the one that influences significantly the transaction," she said. "We think that the state as a significant player, in that regard, needs to be able to engage with the people who are selling to it, and negotiate hard, much harder than we have ever done, in order to make sure that the product is affordable, and the product not just to us, but also is affordable to the people that we ultimately pass it on to."

Leaders of the agriculture sector, which is dominated by white farmers, have warned that changes in policy could cause severe disruptions in the agricultural industry. On the other side of the debate, organizations representing black aspirant landowners warn that failure to speed up reform is contributing to poverty and rising anger among the landless.

South Africa currently has a three-part approach to land reform, which is underpinned by legislation and legal institutions to administer it.

Under the first part is an urban housing program. The government has built or provided financial assistance for the construction of about five million new homes, mostly for the poor, in the past 11 years.

The second policy, called land restitution, deals with both urban and rural land that was taken away from black owners between 1913 and 1994. At the end of last month, about 62,000 of 79,000 claims lodged under this program have been settled, with claimants either having their land restored, new land granted to them, or by receiving financial compensation.

The third, and most complicated program, is land redistribution which entails government purchases of farming land from current owners and making it available for purchase by black farmers. It is this program, which seeks to change the demographics of agricultural land ownership from 13 percent black-owned and 87 percent white-owned to one-third black-owned by 2014.

Already, under this program, just over than three million hectares of land has been transferred to black owners, but that has taken 11 years and 23 million hectares must still change hands within the next nine years if the government's target is to be met.

The conference has drawn together representatives from government, political parties, landless communities, and other non-government organizations. It is to end Sunday.