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South Africa's land grab

October 01, 2005|Alexandra Fuller

WE HAVE BEEN a source for human slaves. Our countries were turned into the patrimony of colonial powers. We have been victim to our own African predators," said South African President Thabo Mbeki in his moving inaugural speech in 1999. Mbeki's orations have left no doubt that he knows how to turn an inspirational phrase, but does the man know how to pilot his country?

As of this week, when South Africa proposed for the first time the uncompensated expropriation of land held by white farmers for black resettlement, Mbeki looks set to sail the same course as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe (also a fine orator but a lousy leader) in handling the probably impossible task of compensating his people for his country's cruel history. But he should be careful: Complete economic and social chaos precipitated by fast-track land reforms could be the result.

Slow-track reform was working reasonably well in Zimbabwe. By 1997, 17 years after independence, the government had resettled 71,000 families on almost 3.5 million hectares of land. But beginning in 2000 the government, under increasing political pressure to provide a livelihood for its supporters, openly encouraged the party faithful to occupy commercial farms. The white farmers were not compensated. The process was chaotic and violent. Today, 4,000 of Zimbabwe's 4,500 commercial farms have been reallocated -- but the economy is in free fall, inflation runs at about 250% a year and there are chronic food and fuel shortages. Human rights have all but evaporated.

Rather than follow Mugabe's lead, South Africa would do better to implement a slow-track redistribution of land from white farmers to trained, indigenous farmers and to follow a sustainable economic strategy that includes the diversification of industry. The transfers should be fair, compensated and conducted under the rule of law.

At the moment, that's not the way things are headed. South Africa and Zimbabwe boast the highest literacy levels in Africa, but unemployment has soared in both countries since independence (it's over 40% in South Africa today and 70% to 80% in Zimbabwe), creating a volatile crisis of expectation.

The leaders of these countries apparently see the fast-track, wholesale redistribution of land from whites to blacks as a way to compensate for soaring inflation and unemployment rates precipitated by their disastrous foreign and domestic policies (such as the $3 million a month Mugabe spent sending Zimbabwean troops to the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2000, mostly to shore up his own diamond interests. Or Mbeki's ridiculous refusal to acknowledge that HIV causes AIDS, which cost millions of lives and untold damage to productivity).

They insist that the redistribution of land is a matter of fairness and historic justice. But in fact, in Mugabe's case, it had more to do with his fear of losing power; most recently (and most tellingly) 6,000 members of Zimbabwe's armed forces have been given land. And this change of policy in South Africa -- until now, land redistribution was on a "willing seller, willing buyer" basis -- can be directly linked to Mbeki's fear of losing popularity in this, an election year.

But Mbeki's plan to confiscate and resettle land will not bring him the popularity he craves. I am not saying that the eventual movement of land from the hands of whites (who own all but 4% of the farms) to blacks is not critical to peace and prosperity. But giving highly productive land to non-farmers without adequate training, technical support and financial backing is not only irresponsible, it's cruel.

I am the daughter of a central African farmer. I know how quickly the land and sun can swallow you out there. Of about 4,500 confiscated farms in Zimbabwe, only a couple hundred are now fully functioning. And the harvest of food staples has dropped about 90% since 2000. An estimated 2.9 million Zimbabweans need food assistance.

A 2001 survey of black South Africans found that 85% of respondents agreed with the statement: "Most land in South Africa was taken unfairly by white settlers, and they therefore have no right to the land today." Sixty-eight percent agreed with the statement: "Land must be returned to blacks in South Africa, no matter what the consequences are for the current owners and for political stability in the country."

But I have to wonder if four years of increased desperation in Zimbabwe, surging land-related violence there -- including the deaths of dozens of white farmers and scores of black laborers -- and the influx of as many as 3 million Zimbabwean refugees into their own country has altered their opinion.

ALEXANDRA FULLER is the author of "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight" (Random House, 2003) and "Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier" (Penguin, 2005).

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