South Africa has expropriated its first farm in a land-reform drive aimed at returning land taken from the African majority under apartheid, officials said on Tuesday.
This marks a new phase in the contentious issue in the country, which has faced growing pressure to erase the racially skewed land ownership created by colonial and apartheid laws that denied property rights to most Africans.
At the end of apartheid, most of South Africa’s farmland was still in the hands of a tiny white elite. But until now, the government has been slow to correct that balance, careful not to rattle investor nerves given the chaos that accompanied a similar process in neighbouring Zimbabwe.
The expropriation took effect on January 26, the Commission on Restitution of Land Rights said in a statement.
“The farm was expropriated for the purposes of restoring the property to the claimants as restitution of their land rights in terms of section two of the Restitution Act,” it said.
The farm in the Northern Cape province had belonged to the South African Evangelical Lutheran Church, which has been ordered to sell it for R35,5-million, the commission said. The land was claimed by a local group, including workers on the farm.
The African National Congress (ANC) government wants to see 30% of land that was in white hands at the demise of apartheid transferred to African ownership by 2015. It wants to achieve this 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, Africans 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, which has left the country unable to feed itself, South Africa has sought an orderly redistribution. But even supporters say the reform is failing, with just 4% of white-owned land transferred so far.
Most claims are in the northern province of Limpopo, where 70% of land is subject to some form of claim.
Dozens of farms have already been handed over to African communities; with mixed results. 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.