The resolution was to abandon the voluntary, marked-based approach and find a more effective alternative.
“There is a need to review the willing-buyer, willing-seller principle and come up with a state driven approach to land reform,” Land Affairs Minister Thoke Didiza told the Associated Press.
The agreement, made at a conference of government officials, white and black farmers, and land reform activists, has frightened the country’s white commercial farmers, who fear the alternative may be the seizure of their land on a massive scale.
But activists representing the Landless People’s Movement welcomed the action, Reuters reported.
“We want this process to begin immediately,” the Movement’s national organizer Mangaliso Kubheka said. “We’re waiting to see if the pledge will be implemented. The people have spoken. We need to see if the government will listen.”
The government has not said what it will do in place of the current program, but has appointed a committee to make recommendations. Government seizure, commonly referred to as expropriation, is a possible alternative and allowed under South Africa’s constitution.
During the conference, delegates also proposed imposing a land tax and a moratorium on foreigners buying land in South Africa, a practice some blame for high land prices, according to Reuters. Critics say such a move could discourage foreign investment in the country.
With the end of apartheid in 1994, the newly elected democratic government vowed to return 30 percent of the country’s farmland to black owners by 2014. At the time, some 87 percent of the agricultural land, stripped from blacks under apartheid rule, was owned by whites who make up only 10 percent of the population.
Through the current land reform program, which asks white farmers to voluntarily sell their farms to the government at market rates, seven percent of the land, about 7.6 million acres, has been returned to black farmers, according to government figures. Other estimates show only 3-5 percent of the land returned.
But, the slow rate of redistribution and complaints that white farmers are increasing costs by inflating the value of their land has raised fears of Zimbabwe-style land grabs.
In 2000, Zimbabwe’s war veterans began a campaign to forcefully take back farms. The conflict left many people dead. Subsequent government sanctioned seizures of white farms have been followed by food shortages and an ongoing economic crisis in the country. Many white farmers have fled Zimbabwe to other parts of Africa where government officials have invited them to help boost the commercial farming and food production industry.
White farmers have warned that forced land redistribution could lead to a similar economic crisis in South Africa. They have also complained that much of the land that already has been redistributed has fallen into less productive hands.
“These people who claim the land, do they use it or do they just leave it lying there?” Chris Jordaan, property rights manager for the Transvaal Agricultural Union South Africa told Reuters.
“We don’t say there must be no black commercial farmers,” Jordaan added. “But this land reform is a form of socialistic economic policy. It has not fed people elsewhere in Africa and it has not sustained commercial agriculture.”
Black landowners blame failures on a lack of support and an unwillingness by banks to lend them money. They say if the government refuses to speed up the process, landless people could become impatient and begin taking the land.
“The government of Zimbabwe found itself between two fires,” Motsepe Matlala, president of the National African Farmers Union, said. “They had the farmers and they had the traditional leaders and war veterans who wanted land. It is the poor and traditional leaders who said ‘enough is enough’ and that is something we cannot allow to happen in South Africa.”
Also at the land summit, Namibia’s Permanent Secretary for Land Frans Tseehama told delegates, willing-seller, willing-buyer had failed in his country. In 2004, Tseehama’s government scrapped the program and instituted land expropriation.
By the end of 2004, only 118 of Namibia’s 4000 farms had been purchased under the program, according to the United Nations.