Africa, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Human Rights, Poverty & SDGs

RIGHTS-SOUTH AFRICA: Back to the Land of Our Parents

Moyiga Nduru

RICHARDS BAY, South Africa, Jun 14 2007 (IPS) - ‘‘Today we are here to say never again shall our people lose their land rights because they are black,” said Lulama Xingwana, South Africa’s minister of agriculture and land affairs.

She was speaking at the handover of a section of land in the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park about one hour’s drive from the mining and industrial town of Richards Bay. Richards Bay is about eight hours by car from South Africa’s commercial hub of Johannesburg.

Nelson Masondo is one of the delighted recipients. His ancestral land, seized by the government 67 years ago, has been returned. He is now a property owner.

The 52-year-old Masondo was not even born in 1940 when his parents were evicted from land which was turned into a national park in what is today known as KwaZulu-Natal province. The province, the most populated in South Africa, runs along the Indian Ocean coast.

As Masondo talked outside a tent where the function to return the land was being held on June 8, the interview was almost drowned out by blissful ululation and boisterous Zulu battle cries. ‘‘They are now signing the transfer document,” said Masondo, smiling as noise thundered from the tent.

Several community leaders, representing 6,702 descendents of the people evicted, signed the document to transfer the 24,210 hectares of land. ‘‘Today our hopes have come true. We are excited,” Masondo said. ‘‘We have been campaigning since 1994 to get our land back.”

Outside the tent a dozen or so men, sporting animal skins and carrying knobkerries in a scene reminiscent of the film ‘‘Zulu” about the 1879 Anglo-Zulu wars, were celebrating the return of their land.

Continuing British colonial patterns, hundreds of thousands of black South Africans were uprooted and dumped in undeveloped areas or turned into tenant farm labourers when the whites-only government launched its campaign to seize land in 1913. The Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park, where Masondo’s family was evicted from, is a case in point.

‘‘The community was told to vacate the land under the pretext that the government wanted to rid the area of poisonous tsetse flies and buffalo ticks which were allegedly causing cattle disease. The community vacated the area with the understanding that they would return after three years when the situation was back to normal,” Xingwana said.

‘‘Instead the area was fenced off and converted into a game reserve. Through the action of the government of the day, the community lost their right to the land which they had occupied for generations,” she said.

Community leaders, together with the villagers, have agreed not to physically occupy the park and not to disturb the game, which include the big five: elephant, buffalo, leopard, rhino and lion.

‘‘Our aim is to make the park a sustainable business. We are planning to buy rare animals like white rhino and wild dogs to attract tourists,” Masondo said. The government has allocated about R63 million (about 9 million dollars) to develop the park to this end.

Xingwana offered a piece of advice: ‘‘The land that you are receiving today has good potential for eco-tourism development. You are close to the potential trans-frontier park between Swaziland, Mozambique and South Africa. There are great possibilities in terms of local economic development,” she said.

Unlike other parts, this land was not seized for commercial farming by white people. The democratic, black-dominated government inherited the land in the form of a game park.

‘‘It was politics,” grumbled an official from the department of land affairs when asked by IPS why it took more than a decade for the department of environmental affairs and tourism to return the land to the community.

Playing down the delay, the department of land affairs says it is making progress in settling outstanding land claims. By March 2007 it settled 93 percent of the land claims which had been lodged with the state-run Commission on the Restitution of Land Rights since December 1998.

‘‘Only 7 percent of land claims still remain nationwide,” Godfrey Mdluli, spokesperson for the department of land affairs, told IPS.

Xingwana warned that the government would expropriate land from white commercial farmers if they refused to sell their property within six months of negotiations.

‘‘Landowners who make the loudest noise that a number of the restitution claims are not valid must have a serious rethink and rather support our land programmes,” she said.

‘‘The spirit and purpose of our land legislation is to correct the skewed land ownership and to ensure restorative and redistributive justice and equitable redress for the victims of racial land dispossession,” according to Xingwana.

The department seeks to complete land restitution by 2008. If it does, the government hopes it will achieve the 30-percent target of land to be transferred to black people by 2014.

Chris Jordan, the manager of property rights at the Pretoria-based Transvaal Agricultural Union of South Africa (TAUSA) which represents white commercial farmers, told IPS by phone recently that he did not believe that 70 percent of land will remain in the hands of white farmers by 2014.

‘‘They will not stop at 30 percent. Our calculation is that whites will be left with closer to 50 percent of the land they currently own,” he said.

South Africa is trying to balance land distribution and avoid Zimbabwe-style land grabbing. ‘‘If we go the Zimbabwe way we may lose 15,000 farmers out of the total 46,000 commercial farmers by 2008 or 2010,” Jordan said. ‘‘The pressure on commercial farmers to hand over their land has become intensive.”

Some researchers and institutions say the government will not reach the 30 percent target by 2014. One of them, the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE), a Johannesburg-based think tank, said in a 2005 study that only 4.3 percent of white farmlands had been transferred to black hands between 1994 and 2004.

Refusing to accept defeat, Xingwana insists that they will meet the deadline. ‘‘We are going to disappoint our critics. We are not going to fail,” she said.

As researchers and policymakers argue, Masondo’s preoccupation is to get on with the job in the park.

‘‘We are going to run the property together with the park authorities. We do not have the experience. But we have got very good working relations with them,” he said.

The first conservation land transferred to evictees in terms of a land claim happened in the late 1990s when the Makulekes received a section of the Kruger National Park. They have since continued to manage the land and the game in accordance with environmental regulations.

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