Thu, Feb 01, 2007 - Page 9 News List

White farmers confronted by black land hunger in South Africa

The murder of a farm manager reflects the failings of a complex land reform plan that seeks an orderly redistribution of land, unlike in neighboring Zimbabwe

By Chris McGreal  /  THE GUARDIAN , SIBHONSWENI, SOUTH AFRICA

Those who saw Ken Eva bludgeoned to death generally agree that the white farm manager sealed his fate with the first few words of his ultimatum to hundreds of black villagers living on the New Venture fruit farm.

Eva began by accusing the eSibhonsweni villagers, deep in KwaZulu-Natal Province, of occupying other people's land because they were living on property to which the farm's white owners hold the title deeds.

"There was uproar after the first sentence when he called them land invaders," said the Reverend Bhekithemba Buthelezi, who attended as a mediator.

The manager demanded that the villagers pay substantial fees to graze livestock and plant crops on soil they say their families have used for generations. Some are even buried there.

"Failing this you leave me no option but to destroy these crops myself," Eva allegedly told the crowd.

He also threatened to seize their cattle and goats.

The villagers saw the ultimatum as an ill-disguised attempt to drive them from their homes. As Eva strode towards his vehicle, brushing off appeals from community leaders to discuss the issue, he was surrounded by angry men. The manager drew his gun and fired a warning shot. No one will say who struck the first blow but within minutes Eva had died under a barrage of clubs and sticks.

"The wording of his demands was provocative," Buthelezi said. "There were a lot of ugly words from them and him. They shouldn't have killed him, but I'm not surprised that they did."

On the face of it, the confrontation between the white owners and black villagers living on the fringes of the property was a dispute as old as South Africa itself. But the tussle over who has the right to live on and farm some of the country's most fertile soil has taken on an added tension as the South African government presses ahead with land reforms intended to right past wrongs.

At the demise of apartheid in 1994, 80 percent of South Africa's farmland was in white hands. The African National Congress (ANC) government wants to see 30 percent of that land transferred to black ownership by 2015 through the return of property to individuals and communities whose land was confiscated under racial laws, and by buying farms from white owners willing to sell. For the first time, black people also have rights to the land they are living on even if they do not own it.

With one eye on the chaotic and violent land transfers in Zimbabwe, South Africa has sought an orderly redistribution. But even supporters say the reform is failing, with just 4 percent of white-owned land transferred so far.

"The land reform program is in deep trouble," said Ben Cousins, director of the land scheme at the University of the Western Cape.

"Progress is limited and slow and there are questions about commercial farming and whether it's suitable for these communities. But we have to get it right, because it's very clear that land is very important at the symbolic level. A lot of South Africans responded very positively to what happened in Zimbabwe because they saw it as a historic injustice being righted."

Most claims are in Limpopo Province, where 70 percent of land is subject to some form of claim.

Dozens of farms have already been handed over to black communities. While some have proved relatively successful, others are in the hands of communities with little experience of intensive farming and businesses quickly ran into trouble.

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