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South African Commission Holds Hearings on Farm Evictions, Workers Rights

South Africa's Human Rights Commission has launched hearings into labor relations and land rights on the country's farms. The hearings follow a threat by a government minister to seize the land of farmers who abuse their workers. Correspondent Scott Bobb reports from Johannesburg.

South Africa's Human Rights Commission has summoned representatives of farm workers, farm owners, the government and legal groups for three days of hearings on social turmoil in the agricultural sector.

Chairman Jody Kollapen says the Commission wanted to follow up on the recommendations of a major study four years ago.

"It was evident that the farming sector was still beset with a whole host of problems, problems with regard to evictions, with regard to the safety of farmers, with regard to simply the material conditions under which farm workers lived," he said.

Many of South Africa's 60,000 farmers and their nearly one million workers are under considerable stress as they try to adapt to global competition and new laws mandating better wages and living conditions for the workers.

Activists say these pressures have led to a rise in evictions of workers from farms on which they have lived for generations. There are no official figures, but activists say eight million people have been evicted in the past 20 years.

Agriculture and Land Affairs Minister Lulu Xingwana last week told parliament the government was prepared to seize the land of farmers who illegally evict workers.

"The law of the land allows us to expropriate, especially in cases where the law is not followed," she said.

Farmers' organizations quickly protested. The president of Agri-S.A., Lourie Bosman, admitted that a small minority of farmers are guilty of abuses, but said not a single illegal eviction had been reported to his group this year.

"This creates huge uncertainty," he said. "How can people be threatened with expropriation if they have worked in the laws of this country?"

Farmers complain that the government has done little to address attacks against them. They say 1,800 farm owners have been murdered in the past 16 years.

South Africa's white minority owns an estimated 80 percent of the country's land, down from 87 percent at the end of apartheid 13 years ago.

But the government is under pressure to deliver on a pledge to bring 30 percent of the country's land under black ownership in seven years.

The government prefers to buy land to redistribute to landless blacks and says it will not seize white-owned farms.

But some groups advocate land invasions, such as occurred in neighboring Zimbabwe, to press for more rapid change. Some farmers have received such threats.

Kollapen of the Human Rights commission says the biggest obstacle is implementing the existing laws.

"By and large the problem is not so much one of policy and legal frameworks, but the inability to convert those policies and legal frameworks to good practice," he said.

He says farm workers often do not know how to contest an eviction order and cannot afford to defend themselves if the court is in a town hundreds of kilometers away.

Government officials told the Human Rights Commission they are studying the creation of a call center with advisors and an agency to provide lawyers for farm workers. Farmers' groups say they are educating their members on the new labor laws.

But Kollapen says the process will be slow, and some activists say it is too slow to fulfill the expectations of some members of the community.