BREDELL, South Africa — Hundreds of tin and wooden shacks belonging to impoverished squatters who had settled on a dusty, wind-swept patch of land near here were torn down Thursday, in compliance with a court order authorizing the government to evict the illegal tenants.
Emergency crews and almost 300 police officers equipped with water cannons stood by as workers in helmets and red uniforms used crowbars to dismantle the rudimentary structures.
Many angry squatters, who complained of having nowhere else to go, had hurriedly packed their meager belongings before the demolition team's arrival. "We don't have any choice, because we don't want to fight," said Matthews Shelembe, whose house took about two days to build and just three hours to tear down. "Fighting does not bring us anything."
The government is seeking to stave off the kind of violent land battles between blacks and whites that have plagued neighboring Zimbabwe. But opposition leaders insist that Thursday's evictions will only feed the anger among the poor over the slow pace of instituting land reform and providing adequate housing.
Analysts said the ruling African National Congress, or ANC, risks alienating parts of its own constituency, having touted land reform as a priority after winning power in 1994 from the former white minority regime in the country's first all-race election.
Although some squatters in this previously unused field about 20 miles northeast of Johannesburg settled here several years ago, a large part of the Bredell camp sprang up during the last two weeks. Thousands of families were lured by a $3-per-plot offer organized by the Pan-Africanist Congress, or PAC, a small, radical opposition party that has long championed the rights of the poor and landless.
By Thursday, the number of squatters had dwindled to a few hundred and the vast majority were absent as their shacks were being ripped down. It was unclear what had become of the money the PAC collected, which was supposed to cover infrastructure and administration for the site.
The government had derided the settlers as trespassers. On Tuesday, it won a court order to have them removed. The vast tract of land is owned by the national government, a state utility and a private company. A railway line, power line and underground gasoline pipeline also cross the property.
Many of the squatters said they had been on the government waiting list for housing for as many as six years and were no longer confident that the ANC will end decades of housing shortages and grinding poverty.
Under successive white governments, about 80% of South Africa was designated for white occupation. The black majority was confined to the remaining land, which typically was the least developed. From 1960 to 1983, about 3.5 million blacks were forcibly displaced under the apartheid system to make way for whites.
Mindful of the economic disaster caused by the violent seizure of white-owned farms in Zimbabwe, and fearful of the negative publicity the Bredell occupations might have among potential foreign investors, government officials appealed for patience and warned that land grabs of any kind would not be allowed.
"When foreign investors see a decisive government acting in the way we are acting, it sends a message that the government won't tolerate such acts from whomever," said Land Affairs Minister Thoko Msane-Didiza.
Last month, the ANC announced that since coming to power it had built 1.1 million low-cost houses, providing more than 5 million people with shelter, water and sanitation. But government statistics show that about 7.5 million South Africans--about one in six--still lack proper housing.
Since 1995, the South African government has settled more than 12,000 claims seeking restitution for lands seized during apartheid, with more than 50,000 claims outstanding.
"The government land reform program is slow, housing construction is slow, but it's better than it was," said Meshack Khosa, executive director for democracy and governance at the Pretoria-based Human Sciences Research Council, a private think tank. "Before 1994, the national priority was not focused on meeting the needs of the majority."
But PAC officials warned that as long as the government's land restitution process remained deficient, landless people would continue to invade government and private property, and the issue would escalate.
"The African people will find land for themselves," party Secretary-General Thami ka Plaatjie said this week. The land invasions that have plagued Zimbabwe, where 900 white-owned farms have been seized with the government's blessing, could "become a Sunday picnic compared to what will happen here." Seven Zimbabwean farmers have been killed in disputes over land, and the nation's overall agricultural production is expected to fall by 30% this season.