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16.2.04

Land Reform In South Africa

Red Tape Stalls S. Africa Land Transfers

Soon, many hope, the wrongs of this history [of whites stealing land from blacks in South Africa] will come to an end. But in sharp contrast to neighboring Zimbabwe, where the government more than three years ago unleashed paramilitary forces to seize white-owned farms, many white farmers here are driving the process. They want to sell.

... Few blacks have the money to buy the land, or start a farming operation, leaving them dependent on the government to make the deals as well as offer them grants to pay for seed and fertilizer. And in many cases, desirable parcels of land are caught up in complex legal cases under the postapartheid land redistribution procedure.

... Elias Ramalatso, 39, said a group of residents in town filed a claim nearly seven years ago for three large farms in the area. Ramalatso, who has never farmed and who last worked as a cashier, acknowledged that one of the main reasons for the delay in getting the land is that a second black group also has laid claim to it. "The whole situation is very confusing," he said. "Still, we're unhappy that the government is taking so long to settle this. We are ready to farm, to try to earn a better living."


One big question the article leaves hanging for me is why the white farmers are so eager to sell. The article seems to suggest that the main motivation is a desire for racial justice, which supports the contrast set up with the violent conflict in Zimbabwe (though as I understand it, many of Zimbabwe's whites had been prepared to sell their land under a plan backed by the British, but that option was foreclosed by Robert Mugabe, who preferred violent seizure). Yet given the contentious racial politics of South Africa, that seems like a weak explanation -- though it may provide a convenient and not entirely untrue rhetorical cover for whites who wish to sell for other reasons.

I would speculate that a major factor is a resignation to the process of land redistribution, combined with a fear that things could turn violent. Lacking the backing of an apartheid government, white farmers may see their days as aristocrats numbered and want to get out while the getting's good. Another factor may be the general economic precariousness of much farming (it would be interesting to see whether the desire to sell was stronger among whites with less land). This has been a major impetus to the Oneida Nation's success in buying back large portions of the land it claims in its pending court case. The Oneidas, of course, have two advantages that the South African blacks lack -- lots of money and undisputed title to be the original inhabitants of the land in question (thus eliminating intra-Indian conflict). The situation differs somewhat, however, as the Oneidas are interested mostly in holding legal title and generally allow the farmers to continue to farm their land. In contrast, the South African whites would be getting out of farming since the point of the land transfer, in addition to the justice question, is to give poor blacks the resources to make a living.

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