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A Hunger for Land of Ancestors

For black Africans, regaining territory lost to whites brings hope of self-sufficiency and reinforces cultural and spiritual ties to the soil.

January 17, 2003|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

WHITE MOUNTAIN, South Africa — Beside a shimmering river in the foothills of South Africa's Drakensberg Mountains, a rudimentary settlement of timber, corrugated metal and homemade bricks is taking shape.

Zulu-speaking Amahlubi people are building houses on land that white settlers took from their ancestors decades ago. They are tilling the soft, black soil to grow potatoes and corn. A few cattle graze on the hillsides.

Konono Hadebe, 68, a descendant of a revered chief, moved back to this land in eastern South Africa about two years ago. "My wish now is for us to use the land, and cultivate it so we can sell some of the products and use some to be self-sufficient," he said.

It is a sentiment that resonates across southern Africa. In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe's government has sanctioned the seizure of large white-owned farms, sometimes by violence.

Critics charge that the policy has contributed to severe food shortages in one of Africa's most fertile farming countries.

There is evidence that Mugabe's associates and political backers are among the main beneficiaries. Many blacks who worked for the white farm owners actually have been booted off the land in the process. And those poor blacks who have received land often lack the seed, tools and financial backing to make a go of farming.

But in South Africa, Namibia and other countries, the change from white to black ownership of farms is still very much an exception. The hunger for land is so strong among landless blacks that Zimbabwe, despite its problems, is a model for them.

For some blacks, getting back land that was taken by European colonizers is a matter of justice long delayed. Many poor Africans also regard gaining a small parcel as the key to survival -- and perhaps prosperity. Equally important is a deep spiritual and cultural attachment. Owning the land instills pride and dignity.

"You need land in order to be recognized in Africa," said Tshililo Manenzhe, a field worker for a group working to establish blacks' land rights in northern South Africa. "Without land, you are nothing."

Unemployment, drought, natural disasters, disease and government mismanagement are pressing in on desperate families in the region.

"People are beginning to ask, 'If Zimbabwe can do it, why can't we?' " said Andile Mngxitama, land rights coordinator for South Africa's National Land Committee, a network of 10 organizations.

The debate is most impassioned in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia, where glaring disparities based on race remain. Although landownership was one of the main issues in the struggle for black majority rule, most of the farmland still is owned by white farmers, many of whom run large commercial operations on thousands of acres. Rural blacks, in contrast, often work on the white-owned farms, do odd jobs or tend small gardens.

In Zimbabwe, land seizures have been spearheaded by veterans of the 1970s liberation war against white rule in the country, then known as Rhodesia.

The government listed for takeover nearly 90% of the country's 4,500 white-owned commercial farms, arguing that it is immoral for a small minority to own 70% of the country's 27-million-plus acres of prime farmland.

Campaigning for reelection in March, Mugabe said it had been a mistake to leave land in the hands of whites after independence from Britain in 1980.

"We are wiser now," he told supporters. "There's been a lesson -- the lesson that we made a mistake, the lesson that we left them in control of our economy, especially in control of our land."

South Africa and Namibia have taken much more cautious approaches.

When it emerged from the apartheid era in 1994, South Africa pledged to restore land or provide compensation to blacks who had been forced off it. The government said it would redistribute 30% of the land held by large commercial farmers, most of them white. And it wanted to give traditional communities title to former "homeland" areas that were designed exclusively for blacks by the apartheid government.

Although the process was supposed to be completed in five years, government figures indicate that progress has been very slow. President Thabo Mbeki now says that the government will try to clear up the restitution claims by 2005.

Meanwhile, South Africa has taken a hard stand against land invasions and moved swiftly to evict squatters.

The government "doesn't want to be seen as a Zimbabwe," Mngxitama said. Equally important, analysts say, is that any infringement of ownership rights is viewed as a potential deterrent to foreign investment.

In fact, in the age of globalization, South Africa and Zimbabwe appear to be following opposite theories of how best to pursue economic development.

Land reform activists contend that the governments of South Africa and some other countries are more interested in promoting large-scale farming and technological and industrial advancement than radical agrarian reform.

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