South Africa farmers

Ed Meyer and four other white farmers in Middelburg, South Africa, are fighting to keep land that a black gardener says his ancestors occupied first. The government is trying to right past injustices without wrecking the economy. (Scott Kraft / Los Angeles Times)

Like so many corporate executives, Ed Meyer dreamed of retiring to the countryside. And so, seven years ago, he and his wife, Sally, left Cape Town to settle on the 3,500-acre ranch that had been in Ed's family since 1916.

It's not hard to see what fueled the dream. Their Cape Dutch-style farmhouse, all curved gables and whitewashed walls, is perched on rust-colored savanna, dusted with the scent of 50 species of blooming aloe. The view from their lawn is an oil painting of gentle hills, puffy clouds and long shadows.

"This is such a beautiful, tranquil valley," Ed says, digging into a lunch of kudu pie, hot from Sally's oven. The kudu was a gift; the antelope "was encroaching on our neighbor's fruit trees."

But their peaceful retirement was interrupted a little over a year ago when Andries Mahlungu, a gardener in nearby Marble Hall, said the farm belonged to him. In a formal claim with the government, he contended that his ancestors were there first.

Now the white couple and the black man are locked in a battle over the farm -- and, in a sense, over the past and future of South Africa.

The legal pillars of white minority rule came tumbling down with South Africa's first democratic elections almost 15 years ago, and the oldest of those laws was the Natives Land Act, which had severely restricted black land ownership since 1913.

The challenge that the new black-majority government faced was how to restore land to blacks, in a legal and orderly way, without creating a panic that would drive whites off productive farms and destroy the country's economy -- a scenario that was soon to strangle neighboring Zimbabwe.

The solution the government came up with was to create a Commission on Restitution of Land Rights to adjudicate land claims and, when valid, compensate the current owners. So far, the commission has settled about 75,000 of 80,000 claims, returning hundreds of thousands of acres to blacks and paying white farmers market rates that have totaled more than $2 billion.

With the deadline for filing claims now past, the government has pledged to settle the 5,000 outstanding claims in the next two years. But the commission is running short of money, and many of the remaining claims, like Mahlungu's against the Meyers' property, are being hotly contested.

All across post-colonial Africa, governments have struggled to correct past injustices, with mixed results. In Zimbabwe, violent land seizures have driven away white farmers and sent the economy into a tailspin of mind-boggling inflation and catastrophic food shortages.

The South African government vowed to carefully investigate land claims and provide fair compensation to white farmers. Many of the country's 40,000 white farmers willingly sold their property.

Even so, the effect on the country's agricultural economy has not been overwhelmingly positive. Whereas the global trend is toward larger, more commercially successful farms, South Africa is breaking many of its large farms into smaller, less economically efficient pieces to meet the claims of new black farmers.

Partly as a result, South Africa in the last year has gone from a net exporter of food to a net importer. And, in another worrying trend, some of the whites who sold their farms have been recruited by other African countries, where their skills are much in demand. Now once-impoverished countries such as Mozambique are becoming more self-sufficient -- and taking a share of South Africa's export market.

Piet Kemp is the regional manager for the Transvaal Agricultural Union, which represents mostly white farmers in the province that includes the Meyer farm. He is skeptical of many of the land claims.

"You have a family that has farmed for 150 years and then you have a guy who worked on the farm for 12 or 15 years suddenly making a claim," he says. "It's not right. But in the end, many farmers don't want to fight, so they sell."

In some cases, whites have sold their farms without a fight because a neighboring property was divided into small pieces for multiple black owners; Kemp says the whites felt it would be too difficult to run their farm "next to a squatter camp." In other cases, farmers have agreed to sell but the government has been slow to finalize the purchase.

"Much of the farming has come to a complete stop," Kemp says. "In the end, we'll be the same as Zimbabwe."

Molefe Pulane, a spokeswoman for the national land claims office, acknowledges that the process is slow, hobbled in part by a corruption scandal at the Land Bank, which provides money for the purchases. "It's not going well," she says. "There are some problems, and we're addressing them."

But the land rights commission maintains that the country's redistribution of land is playing an important role in alleviating poverty and allowing the black majority, who outnumber whites 8 to 1, to fully participate in the country's economy.