SANNIESHOF, South Africa—First, Thomas Molamu's cows started turning up dead. Then explosives planted in towering blue gum trees damaged the butter factory and brick schoolhouse he'd built.
The mysterious acts of sabotage eventually worked, his descendants said. In 1944, Molamu sold his farm—1,100 acres of dusty, sun-baked prairie on the edge of the Kalahari Desert—to the South African government, joining 6 million blacks who were forced from their land during apartheid.
More than 60 years later, the country's black-led government is trying to return the land to Molamu's family by forcing its current owner, a white man named Hannes Visser, to sell. With negotiations over price stalled after four years, the government served Visser with a notice of expropriation this month.
It's the first time since apartheid ended in 1994 that South Africa has moved to expropriate a white-owned farm, and experts are watching to see if it can avoid the disaster that struck neighboring Zimbabwe. There, the once-sterling agriculture sector virtually collapsed after the government began confiscating thousands of white-owned farms without compensation in 2000.
As in Zimbabwe, South Africa's government is under pressure from a black majority impatient with the sluggish pace of land restitution. Blacks make up 80 percent of South Africa's population but own just 4 percent of the farmland, a figure the government has pledged to raise to 30 percent by 2014.
While Zimbabwe took extraordinary measures to deny white farmers' rights—more than 4,000 legal challenges to the seizures were summarily tossed out—South African officials say expropriation will be used only as a last resort. They stress that Visser and other landowners retain their right to appeal in court.
"If there is no agreement between the parties, we know where to go: the court of law. That is where the ultimate test lies," said Blessing Mphela, the land claims commissioner who's responsible for the Visser case. "This is not a case where we were simply stuck, got frustrated and resorted to illegal land grabs."
South Africa's predominantly industrial economy—more than 70 percent of the work force is in wage labor—also means the political pressures aren't as great. Land restitution is seen here primarily as a means of social justice, to compensate victims of the racist land policies of the past.
But Ben Cousins, the director of land and agrarian studies at the University of the Western Cape, said South Africa must resolve the land question to avoid the popular revolt that precipitated Zimbabwe's mess.
"If you have the combination of people on the ground whose life chances have not significantly improved ... and some grumblings of dissatisfaction that the state is beginning to be less responsible to its constituencies, that is a volatile cocktail that's not impossible to envision in South Africa," Cousins said.
Government officials acknowledge that the current approach to land restitution—negotiating with landowners to buy their land at a fair price, then transferring it to blacks—is too slow. Some also say it's emboldening landowners to inflate their prices.
At a summit in July, activists called on the government to "fast-track" land restitution and use expropriation when necessary.
"The biggest problem has been that farmers have been negotiating with the government in bad faith," said Lucas Mufamabi, an activist with the Alliance of Land and Agrarian Reform Movements.
The expropriation order "is a precedent-setting kind of case that we hope will encourage other farmers to negotiate in the true sense of the word," Mufamabi said.
Visser, a broad-shouldered, silver-haired man of 47, said he wasn't opposed to selling his farm or to the idea of land restitution. But he plans to appeal the expropriation because he thinks the government's offer on his property is too low.
His family bought the farm 160 miles west of Johannesburg in 1968, but the dry climate and swirling dust storms in the arid North West province were inhospitable to crops. Visser, who has a master's degree in animal husbandry, took over the farm in 1992 and started a meat-processing business.
"This farm was the reason I studied agriculture," he said. "It was always going to be mine."
He built a two-story house, which he shares with his wife and five teenage children, and a modest slaughterhouse. The government has offered $269,000, based on the recommendation of an independent appraiser, but Visser wants at least $462,000 as compensation for improvements he's made.
He also thinks, based on his family's research, that Thomas Molamu and his four brothers, who owned adjacent plots, sold their land for a fair price and were able to acquire new land.
A 1994 law allows for restitution if claimants didn't receive "just and equitable compensation" for their land. Visser said the Molamu family was trying to acquire more land at government expense.
"Land restitution must be done along certain guidelines to ensure that the rich don't become richer," Visser said.
Jeremiah Moropa, Thomas Molamu's grandson and the leader of the family's effort to regain the land, scoffed at Visser's suggestion.
When his grandfather owned the farm, it had thousands of lemon, guava and peach trees and a successful butter factory, Moropa said. After Molamu sold the farm, he lived on a small plot with just a few trees until he died in 1977.
"They ruined him," Moropa said.
When Moropa, now 50, was growing up in Soweto, the sprawling black township outside Johannesburg, he occasionally visited his grandfather at his new home. They'd sit under a tree and he'd hear stories about the old farm: the thick orchards, the confluence of rivers, the well-tended graveyard where family members were buried.
"He was proud of what the land was and he never wanted to part with that," Moropa said. "He died being worried if we were ever going to achieve that."
Moropa came of age at the height of the anti-apartheid movement, and he spent a year in and out of prison in 1985-86 for pro-labor activities. After apartheid was repealed and the land-restitution program announced, Moropa tracked down the extended Molamu clan—now numbering about 500, most living in townships—and prepared its claim.
The land claims commissioner for North West province said he'd earmarked other holdouts for expropriation soon, fueling speculation in the countryside over the identities of those farmers.
Lourie Bosman, the president of Agri South Africa, a union of mostly white commercial farmers, said such announcements were a ploy to frighten landowners.
"I think it's unacceptable that they whip up emotions around this whole issue by announcing they're going to expropriate farms," Bosman said.
But commissioner Mphela said the law allowed for expropriation when negotiations reached an impasse, and that Visser and other holdouts were trying to delay justice for blacks.
"It's an insult to the collective integrity of those who have been dispossessed," Mphela said. "The effect is you are not even remorseful about what happened in the country, what your black compatriots went through. You don't apologize.
"What message are they sending?"
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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