In a country grappling with so many different challenges, land reform in South Africa has recently emerged as a dominant and potentially explosive issue – the focus of furious political contestation and increasingly inflammatory rhetoric.
“Africa is for black people. Period. We need our land back and we’re going to take it by force,” said a woman amongst an angry crowd trying to occupy a field on the north-eastern edge of Johannesburg.
She is wearing a red beret indicating her support for the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a small, radical party which advocates the nationalisation of all land in South Africa.
The field was empty, overgrown, unused, and far too much of a temptation.
“This is my boundary,” said 50-year-old Christina Mashaba, striding through the long grass and pointing to a stick she had pushed into the ground, some 15 yards (13m) away.
“It’s going to be my home… if the government will let me have the ground,” she said, looking up, across the sunlit valley.
A little further down the gentle slope, an electrician called Ishmael Motswali was examining an area already littered with homemade flags and markers.
“I came to check if I can get a piece of land, and to see if it is legal,” he said.
“I’m renting a place at the moment. In my beautiful country, after 20 years of democracy, you can understand the frustration. I just want a piece of land where I can put my family.”
A few hundred metres further up the hill, at the entrance to the field, beside a brand-new housing estate, a large and increasingly angry crowd from the nearby township of Alexandra was confronted by a group of South African policemen, who were trying to seal the area, insisting that the land is private, and that “land-grabbers” would be dealt with harshly.
“Democracy?” scoffed a community leader called Mafasi Kubai, after listening to the pleas of a police captain.
“How can we participate when some are super rich and others are poor. Whites should be empathetic… but they are exploiting us.”
‘No longer about willing buyer, willing seller’
Across South Africa, such scenes and confrontations are becoming more common, as frustration with the slow pace of land reform grows.
And with it, frequently, is a growing bitterness about the enduring economic power of the country’s white minority.
Vast amounts of time and money have already been spent trying to address the issue of the land dispossession that occurred under racial apartheid, but the governing African National Congress (ANC) has little to show for it.
A generation after the advent of democracy, black people still own a small fraction of farmland nationwide. The exact statistics are often contested, but its estimated that just 10% of commercial farmland has been redistributed through land reform programmes.
The country’s new President Cyril Ramaphosa – who describes the land dispossession of the black majority during the apartheid era as South Africa’s “original sin” – has promised to accelerate land reform, with an early focus on unused urban land.
But his party, the ANC – responding to pressure from groups like the EFF – is also actively considering the introduction of legislation to allow for the expropriation of land without compensation, a measure assumed by some to be targeting white-owned farm land.
“Legally expropriating, not land-grabbing,” stressed the Land Reform Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, in an interview.
“We should take the land… using legal processes. But quick, and not being told, ‘Go there, don’t go there.’
“It should no longer be about willing buyer, willing seller only. It should be about the willingness to share the land. And it should happen now.”
Such statements, and the continuing policy uncertainty around the issue, have prompted some white farmers and pressure groups to make comparisons with Zimbabwe’s chaotic, and economically disastrous land reform process.
“We saw exactly the same comments in Zimbabwe. Nowhere in the world has it ever worked,” said Ian Cameron, of Afriforum, an Afrikaans rights lobby group.
But the government has firmly rejected such comparisons, and many farmers, and experts, are also inclined to be optimistic.
“This could be a turning point for South Africa. I think politically this is a moment of enormous opportunity,” said Prof Ruth Hall, a leading expert on land reform, and prominent critic of the government’s recent handling of the issue.
“For 20 years the state had a mandate for land reform and failed to do so. [President Jacob] Zuma rolled back the land reform programme. Almost no land was transferred in recent years. Now business and government are coming together. There’s actually quite a lot of goodwill.”
Prof Hall argues that land expropriation – with or without compensation – is already an option under the existing constitution, and that those pushing a constitutional amendment are doing so for political reasons.
A simpler solution, and a more likely path for South Africa, she argues, is for test cases to come before the courts.
Meanwhile, on her family’s thriving cattle farm south of Johannesburg, 26-year-old Lerato Senakhomo is betting on a positive outcome.
She has already received government support, and the loan of 515 hectares (1,273 acres).
“We are getting there. I don’t see us having another Zimbabwe. As a people we just need a little bit of a push, some finance… I don’t think we’ll fail. We must just take it slow,” she said.
But therein lies the challenge for South Africa.
‘We are humans’
“Taking it slow” is no longer an appealing thought for many poor communities, frustrated by the lack of progress, and increasingly spurred to direct action by firebrand politicians.
On a recent afternoon, on the eastern outskirts of the capital, Pretoria, hundreds of residents of an informal settlement, built a year earlier on government-owned land, surveyed the wreckage of their homes.
Two women sat, tearful and exhausted, beside a pile of salvaged belongings, while a group of men began loading tin sheets – formerly walls and roofs – on to a battered pickup truck.
The informal settlement, near Mamelodi township, had been destroyed by bulldozers sent in by the local council.
No provisions had been made for those rendered homeless.
A group of uniformed children, returning from school, stood, bewildered, beside their former homes.
“It’s our bloody land,” roared Bongani Motswale, hoarse with screaming, as he paced up and down the dirt track in front of his plot.
He was incandescent with rage, having rushed home from work to discover that his home and possessions had been destroyed.
“We have stayed here more than one year. You can’t just come and break everything without telling anyone, without notice, just break our houses and things and say, ‘We must move.’
“We are humans. We are humans. This is our country. This is our land. We are staying here. Let them come and kill us.”
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