'Good response' to land-reform initiative

A decision to seize white-owned land if negotiations linger or end in deadlock is paying off with more and more farmers accepting the price offered by the state, a top land official said on Wednesday.

“These farmers have become more supportive because we are cracking the whip,” chief land claims commissioner Tozi Gwanya said in an interview.

He said a decision to issue expropriation notices to farmers if negotiations on the price or title deeds exceeded six months had helped speed up the land-reform programme aimed at handing over nearly a third of white-owned land to new black farmers by 2014 to redress the injustices of apartheid.

“They are coming round to the table and there has been a very good response in Mpumalanga, where 70 farms in the Tevubu area were identified for expropriation.

“Of them, 40 farmers agreed to our price at the last minute.”

Gwanya said that similarly 90 farmers in Limpopo had done an 11th hour about-turn out of 200 faced with expropriation notices.

And in KwaZulu-Natal “there were 80 cases in which we were about to send the letter of expropriation when all of them came to discuss the price again”.

“As we speak, independent assessors are on the ground there and evaluating the new price as the last assessed price is about two years old—as long as the negotiations,” he said.

Gwanya had in February told Agence France-Presse that a six-month deadline would be imposed on new land claims cases or if talks dragged on, resulting in an impasse.

He said South Africa’s new Minister of Agriculture and Land Affairs Lulu Xingwana was fed up with the slow pace of the land reforms.

“The minister has given us instructions that once we have agreed on the valuation made by an independent valuer and offer it to the land owner, we must not take more than six months to conclude the deal,” he said.

“If we cannot reach agreement in six months, we must initiate the expropriation process” which could take up to another six months, he said, adding that there were 6 969 rural land claims that had to be settled before a December 2008 deadline.

Gwanya said the minister was “under pressure from the claimants, under pressure from Parliament and President Thabo Mbeki in particular” to clear up all the pending cases by 2008.

South Africa is keen to finalise its lands claims and to assure foreign investors it will not follow the same path as its neighbour Zimbabwe, which was plunged into crisis when white farms were seized and given to landless blacks.

Black ownership of land has increased from 13% at the end of apartheid in 1994 to about 16%, but falls well short of targets set by President Thabo Mbeki’s government.

The government says white farmers often inflate the prices of farmland, a charge denied by them.

“We never asked to be paid more than a reasonable commercial price for our properties,” Hans van der Merwe added, executive director of farming organisation AgriSA, said.

Chris Jordaan, manager of property rights at the Transvaal Agricultural Union, warned of a disastrous fallout, saying 12 000 of the country’s estimated 43 000 commercial farmers would forsake agriculture after the land-reform programme was fully in place.

“How are we going to keep farmers on their land and produce food for the country with these continuous remarks against them?” Jordaan said.

South Africa in October started the first of its land-expropriation moves, targeting farmer Hannes Visser’s 500ha cattle and crop farm, which was bought by his father in 1968.

Although he initially contested the action, the two sides came to an agreement in April after the state increased its initial offer of R1,75-million to R2-million.—Sapa-AFP

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