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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 May 2006, 10:14 GMT 11:14 UK
Land battle divides South Africans
As South Africa's government takes tougher measures to restore land to black ownership, the BBC's Southern Africa correspondent Peter Biles visits a farm at the centre of the controversy.

Hannes Visser on his farm
Hannes Visser says the government should use nearby vacant land

Vast swathes of farmland dominate the landscape around Lichtenburg, 200km west of Johannesburg, in an area where agriculture is the backbone of the the economy.

The sky appears huge, and the long, straight roads are lined with maize fields and sunflowers.

Hannes Visser's father, Frans, bought the farm Leeuwspruit in 1968. Today, Hannes runs a meat processing plant on the 500-hectare farm.

Back in the 1940s, the original black owners of Leeuwspruit and adjacent farms - the sons of Abraham Molamu who had divided up the land earlier in the century - were forced to sell up and leave.

The land was purchased by the government and later owned by a succession of white farmers.

'Ultimatum'

Hannes Visser argues that the original owners left the Lichtenburg area in 1942, and that they received a fair price for the property at the time.

However, after the end of apartheid in 1994, Abraham Molamu's descendents made a claim to the property through the Land Claims Commission that had been set up to restore land rights to black South Africans.

Hannes Visser making sausages
It's going to be awkward to start again, but it'll be a challenge seeing whether I can rebuild what I've lost
Hannes Visser

Jerry Moropo, Mr Molamu's great-grandson, says his desire to reclaim the property on behalf of his family dates back to his childhood.

During school holidays in the 1960s, he would visit his grandfather, TJ Molamu, who had been evicted from his land and lived at Winterveld, near Pretoria.

"He would tell us how frustrated he was - I remembered this and thought it was really unjust, and thought, how can I redress this?"

After years of haggling about the value of his farm, Mr Visser, who had wanted 3m rand ($500,000), was presented with an expropriation order last year, offering him 1.75m rand.

He has reluctantly decided to sell the farm for 2m rand.

"It wasn't an agreement, it was an ultimatum," insists Mr Visser.

The South African government wants to speed up the process of land reform.

In the 12 years of the post-apartheid era, less than 4% of white-owned farmland has been transferred to black ownership - far below the government's target of 30% by 2014.

Restitution

Thousands of outstanding rural land claims remain to be settled by a March 2008 deadline.

"I do accept that more land has to be in the hands of black owners," Mr Visser says.

South African Agriculture and Land Affairs Minister Thoko Didiza (From www.info.gov.za)
There's a point at which the state will have to intervene, in the interests of those who have been dispossessed
Minister Thoko Didiza
"But why don't they buy land that's available in the market place?"

But Mr Moropo says it would have been difficult for his family to settle for compensation or an alternative piece of land, since Mr Visser's farm was only one part of a larger claim of which other parts had already been settled.

"It would have created a serious structural problem if we had had to leave that one farm and demarcate the land again," he explains.

South African Agriculture and Land Affairs Minister Thoko Didiza says the government wants to avoid the kind of confrontation that has been seen in neighbouring Zimbabwe.

"We would endeavour to negotiate, to try and find an amicable solution to the disputes between landowners and claimants, particularly with regard to price, but we also acknowledge that such negotiations can't take forever.

"There's a point at which the state will have to intervene, in the interests of those who have been dispossessed. Time has been wasted in the Visser case," the minister argues.

Sacrifice

Ms Didiza admits that a settlement of 2m rand is not enough for Mr Visser to replace his farm, but she points out that claimants like Abraham Molamu's family also lost their livelihood.

A worker on Hannes Visser's farm
The farm has been owned by a succession of white farmers

"That's the sacrifice that all South Africans have had to make because of the legacy of our past," she says.

AgriSA, the union that represents 70,000 South African farmers, says expropriation should only be used as a measure of last resort.

"We don't believe expropriation will necessarily speed anything up, or make the land available more cheaply," says Annelize Crosby, the union's spokeswoman.

"Also, it's important that our members should be compensated in a fair manner and based on the market value of the property because we don't believe they should be penalised and made to foot the bill for something that's in the national interest."

Like many commercial farmers, Mr Visser remains unsure about his future in a changing South Africa.

"At the age of 47, it's going to be awkward to start again, but it'll be a challenge seeing whether I can rebuild what I've lost here at Leeuwspruit."

Meanwhile, Mr Moropo talks of how he and his relatives - several hundred households in all - plan to use the land under the banner of a Communal Property Association, an entity created under the new land laws to allow large communities to profit collectively from newly-acquired property.

Government is helping with training and finance to develop the land.

"The family doesn't all want to move there - rather we want to develop more successful agriculture and benefit the country," he says.


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