South Africa sets deadline in land transfer scheme

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Sunday, August 13, 2006

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The South African government has set a six-month deadline for some white farmers to agree on sale prices for their farms. The government will be requiring them to sell the farms as part of its land redistribution programme.

Agriculture and Land Affairs Minister Lulu Xingwana said that if no agreement in reached in 6 months, the government could expropriate farmlands. Stating that negotiations have been too slow, in some cases taking many years, Xingwana said that some farm owners were seeking "unrealistic prices". Land owners claim they are not offered market value for their property.

The government has identified about 350 farms for which, if no deal is reached, the government will force a mandatory sale at current market prices identified by the government.

Officials said that expropriation is only a measure of last-resort and that farmers can appeal the decision in court.

The land reform programme aims to hand back land or give financial compensation to black South Africans who were forcibly removed from their ancestral homes and lands under apartheid rule. The programme was a key promise made by the African National Congress (ANC) as it came to power in 1994 and remains an emotive and politically charged issue.

Currently, about 4% of South Africa's farm land is owned by blacks, who number 42 million out of the nation's 47 million population. President Thabo Mbeki's government has set a target of transferring 30% of land to blacks by 2014. About 89% of the nearly 80,000 claims have been settled so far, and the government has spent some R2.5bn ($368m) purchasing farms from white owners. The National Land Claims Commission is entrusted with carrying out the transfers.

The reform programme had so far followed a "willing-buyer willing-seller" principle. The process had to contend with land owners challenging the validity of some claims, negotiating sale prices with current owners, and settling competing claims over the same piece of land—sometimes by tracing family trees of claimants when other documents supporting the claim did not exist.

Xingwana called on established farmers to form partnerships with new landowners and to transfer skills to new farmers, to ensure productive use of transferred lands. One criticism of the programme is that some of the transferred farms have fallen in production due to the inexperience and lack of capital among the new owners.

The government has rejected comparisons of the programme with that initiated in Zimbabwe under President Robert Mugabe.

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