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South Africans Go to Polls; Land Redistribution Key Issue

The results are expected to be a major victory for President Thabo Mbeki, but leave many important policy issues to be addressed.

The African National Congress, the country’s ruling party led by Mbeki, is expected to maintain its dominance of South African politics. The ANC won the 1994 and 1999 elections.

“The big day has come,” said Mbeki on Wednesday. “It is now time for the people to speak.” He is expected to be sworn in April 27.

Despite the uninterrupted reign of the ANC, a series of major issues face Mbeki as he enters a likely second term: some 5.3 million South Africans suffer from HIV/AIDS; the unemployment rate hovers at 40 percent; and there is increasing pressure to become more aggressive in its policy of redistributing farm land from wealthy white owners to poor blacks.

Hampered by years of anti-black apartheid rules, the ANC’s efforts to address the gulf between white and black farmers have increased in recent years. The party came to power in 1994 making promises of land redistribution but has since been accused of moving too slowly.

“The failure to make substantial headway against the large number of outstanding rural claims is a growing cause of concern, because this is where grievances are most likely to spill over into violence,” said a report written by representatives of several South African land organizations who met in Pretoria last year to assess the issue.

South Africa and its neighbor Namibia, a country also seeking to bridge the poverty gap by restoring land to the poor, are trying to avoid Zimbabwe’s fate. The Zimbabwean land reform program descended into violence and chaos when the government of President Robert Mugabe allowed war veterans awaiting land claims to forcibly seize land from white farmers. Only a few commercial farms remain in production in that country, leaving Zimbabweans reliant on foreign food aid.

In South Africa, the government has fallen far short of its promise to return 30 percent of the country’s agricultural land by 2015. In the past year, land officials say they have returned 214 farms to 6,769 beneficiaries, a rate experts say will mean a return of less than 5 percent of land by the government’s target date.

In Namibia, land officials recently announced an accelerated version of land reform. The government will pair its current willing-seller, willing-buyer program with land expropriation, the forced purchase of land from commercial farmers. Of the country’s 4,000 commercial farms, the government has purchased only 118 for resettlement, according to the United Nations.

On Friday, Namibian officials further angered white farmers, already uneasy about expropriation plans, by inviting former land advisers to Mugabe to aid in its land reform program.

“We just started implementing our land reform and in that regard we have a lot to learn from the Zimbabwean experience,” Namibia’s ambassador in Zimbabwe Ndali-Che Kamati, told Zimbabwe’s government-run paper The Herald.

In both countries, voters continue to watch how their governments deal with the land issue: whites who make up a majority of the economic upper class and the countries’ blacks who wield power as the largest voting constituency.

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