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Wednesday, 11 July, 2001, 12:51 GMT 13:51 UK
South Africa's rumbling land issue
squatters waiting eviction
Unused land is tempting for those living in overcrowded conditions
By Carolyn Dempster in Johannnesburg

The slow pace of land reform and a critical housing shortage in South Africa lies behind the mounting frustration which has led to a series of illegal land occupations over the past seven years.

The most recent, public and politicised land invasion has been by 5,000 squatters at Kempton Park outside Johannesburg who now face imminent eviction.

President Mbeki
Mbeki's tough stance on squatters has its risks
When the African National Congress came to power in 1994, the new government placed land reform at the top of its political agenda and launched an ambitious programme of land restitution, redistribution and security of tenure for farm tenants.

The restitution programme aimed to right the wrongs of the apartheid era dating back to the 1913 Land Act, when whites were allotted 87% of South Africa's land, and black people were squeezed into the remaining 13%.

Woefully slow

Since the programme was started, 12,000 claims out of a total of 68,000 have been settled.

Even though the process has been revised and fast-tracked, it is still woefully slow.

The redistribution process has delivered less than 2% of formerly white-owned land to black people.

Legislation which protects black tenants on white-owned farms is still regularly flouted by farmers who evict their black employees at will.


Each case has to be fought, on merit, in court. Often poor farm labourers don't have the resources or the means to legal representation.

President Mbeki's government can shout itself hoarse on the claim that what has happened in Zimbabwe cannot happen here because we have a land reform programme, but this will continue to sound like hot air

Land Committee Director Zakes Hlatshwayo
The National Land Committee, an umbrella organisation which represents nine non governmental organisations working in the area of land rights in South Africa has been warning the government for the past two years that they will have to rethink their approach to land reform, or else reap the consequences


NLC director Zakes Hlatshwayo comments: "President Thabo Mbeki's government can shout itself hoarse on the claim that what has happened in Zimbabwe cannot happen here because we have a land reform programme, but this will continue to sound like hot air as long as the land reform programme continues to fail."

The Land Committee has proposed that South Africa emulate Brazil's innovative "use-it-or-lose-it" policy regarding land.

In the space of 12 years, the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement, a civil society organisation, succeeded in distributing 21 million hectares of previously unproductive private land to more than 300,000 landless peasants in an orderly fashion.


Poverty and the rise in unemployment has added a new pressure to the demand for land and housing in South Africa.

squatters in Kempton
PAC are using the Kempton Park squatters as a test case
Poor people cannot afford even the lowest rentals. They prefer to erect a shack on a desolate piece of wasteland if it costs them nothing and they can call it home.

A recent independent survey of households in Soweto found that in nearly 40% of cases, a pensioner was the main breadwinner. And three quarters of the households surveyed had erected a shack in the backyard, mainly to generate more income.

Squatters in Kempton Park said they moved there for a variety of reasons, but overcrowding in their former accommodation was a common theme.


While the government has succeeded in speeding up its delivery of low-cost housing, the process has been fraught with corruption and mismanagement.

Those of the homeless lucky enough to secure a government grant to buy or build a house often find they cannot afford to pay for the services.

Hundreds of thousands more people have been waiting patiently for the past seven years, their names inching up government housing waiting lists. And their patience is starting to run out.

'One family, one plot'

In this climate, the tiny Pan Africanist Congress party, with only three members of parliament, has seized on the hunger for land and housing and politicised the issue around the slogan "one family, one plot".

The PAC hoped to win the support of the courts, using Kempton Park as a test case, to force the government to find alternative land, and accommodation for the thousands of squatters. They failed.

But in relentlessly applying the law, and evicting homeless squatters, the government risks being compared with the apartheid regime which inflicted untold misery on millions of people through its policy of forced removals.

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See also:

05 Jul 01 | Africa
SA police arrest squatters
18 May 00 | Africa
'No land crisis in SA' - Mbeki
13 Feb 01 | Africa
SA police and squatters clash
04 Oct 00 | Africa
South Africa squatters win battle
10 Jan 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: South Africa
21 Mar 01 | Africa
SA farmer wins land reprieve
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