Beside a shimmering river in the foothills of South Africa’s Drakensberg Mountains, a rudimentary settlement of timber, corrugated metal and homemade bricks is taking shape.
Zulu-speaking Amahlubi people are building houses on land that white settlers took from their ancestors decades ago. They are tilling the soft, black soil to grow potatoes and corn. A few cattle graze on the hillsides.
Konono Hadebe, 68, a descendant of a revered chief, moved back to this land in eastern South Africa about two years ago. “My wish now is for us to use the land, and cultivate it so we can sell some of the products and use some to be self-sufficient,” he said.
It is a sentiment that resonates across southern Africa. In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe’s government has sanctioned the seizure of large white-owned farms, sometimes by violence.
Critics charge that the policy has contributed to severe food shortages in one of Africa’s most fertile farming countries.
There is evidence that Mugabe’s associates and political backers are among the main beneficiaries. Many blacks who worked for the white farm owners actually have been booted off the land in the process. And those poor blacks who have received land often lack the seed, tools and financial backing to make a go of farming.
But in South Africa, Namibia and other countries, the change from white to black ownership of farms is still very much an exception. The hunger for land is so strong among landless blacks that Zimbabwe, despite its problems, is a model for them.
For some blacks, getting back land that was taken by European colonizers is a matter of justice long delayed. Many poor Africans also regard gaining a small parcel as the key to survival -- and perhaps prosperity. Equally important is a deep spiritual and cultural attachment. Owning the land instills pride and dignity.
“You need land in order to be recognized in Africa,” said Tshililo Manenzhe, a field worker for a group working to establish blacks’ land rights in northern South Africa. “Without land, you are nothing.”
Unemployment, drought, natural disasters, disease and government mismanagement are pressing in on desperate families in the region.
“People are beginning to ask, ‘If Zimbabwe can do it, why can’t we?’ ” said Andile Mngxitama, land rights coordinator for South Africa’s National Land Committee, a network of 10 organizations.
The debate is most impassioned in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia, where glaring disparities based on race remain. Although landownership was one of the main issues in the struggle for black majority rule, most of the farmland still is owned by white farmers, many of whom run large commercial operations on thousands of acres. Rural blacks, in contrast, often work on the white-owned farms, do odd jobs or tend small gardens.
In Zimbabwe, land seizures have been spearheaded by veterans of the 1970s liberation war against white rule in the country, then known as Rhodesia.
The government listed for takeover nearly 90% of the country’s 4,500 white-owned commercial farms, arguing that it is immoral for a small minority to own 70% of the country’s 27-million-plus acres of prime farmland.
Campaigning for reelection in March, Mugabe said it had been a mistake to leave land in the hands of whites after independence from Britain in 1980.
“We are wiser now,” he told supporters. “There’s been a lesson -- the lesson that we made a mistake, the lesson that we left them in control of our economy, especially in control of our land.”
South Africa and Namibia have taken much more cautious approaches.
When it emerged from the apartheid era in 1994, South Africa pledged to restore land or provide compensation to blacks who had been forced off it. The government said it would redistribute 30% of the land held by large commercial farmers, most of them white. And it wanted to give traditional communities title to former “homeland” areas that were designed exclusively for blacks by the apartheid government.
Although the process was supposed to be completed in five years, government figures indicate that progress has been very slow. President Thabo Mbeki now says that the government will try to clear up the restitution claims by 2005.
Meanwhile, South Africa has taken a hard stand against land invasions and moved swiftly to evict squatters.
The government “doesn’t want to be seen as a Zimbabwe,” Mngxitama said. Equally important, analysts say, is that any infringement of ownership rights is viewed as a potential deterrent to foreign investment.
In fact, in the age of globalization, South Africa and Zimbabwe appear to be following opposite theories of how best to pursue economic development.
Land reform activists contend that the governments of South Africa and some other countries are more interested in promoting large-scale farming and technological and industrial advancement than radical agrarian reform.
Mbeki has suggested that homelessness, rather than land, is the problem. But government opponents argue that the problems cannot be separated.
“Homes are not built in the sky or in the air, but on the land,” said Motsoko Pheko, deputy president of the Pan Africanist Congress, a South African opposition group. “Land is a source of food, housing, employment and a means to acquire education, agricultural products and all kinds of raw materials a human uses. Liberation without land is not liberation.”
South Africa has seen a surge in land invasions recently, with disenchanted citizens simply moving onto unoccupied land.
The Munzhedzi people of Limpopo province in the north did not wait for the government to settle their claim for property that had been taken from them in 1963. They started building makeshift homes there in 1999.
“We jumped before the drum was even beaten,” recalled community leader Bethuel Malaka, 51. In this case, the government let them be, and in three years they had been awarded about 3,000 acres of prime land. Electricity and running water remain scarce, if not nonexistent, but leaders are optimistic.
Individual farmers started by planting corn, cabbage and carrots in small plots, but the Munzhedzis hope to start pig and poultry farms as well as a communal orchard.
“We can sustain a livelihood here,” Malaka said. “Getting the land back will make people self-sufficient.”
The Amahlubi of KwaZulu-Natal province, whose holdings are a three-hour drive from the Indian Ocean port of Durban, bought 12,000 acres of their land back with a government grant, enough for 532 households. Each beneficiary received a plot on which to build a house and plant a garden. In addition, each received a share of communal land.
However, in many cases, people lack the resources to make full use of the land.
“If you look at the cases of restoration, where people have been returned to their land, there’s not a lot of good news,” said Ashley Westaway, director of the Border Rural Committee, a South African land rights group.
Training in land management, improved tools and technology, and consistent support with seed and fertilizer are all crucial, according to proponents of land reform.
Namibia does not acknowledge ancestral claims, but it tries to match willing sellers and buyers. However, the government does not have much money to help potential buyers.
The sluggish pace of reform has led to threats of a rural revolt by labor and farm unions. For many, the slow pace has also made an icon of Zimbabwe’s Mugabe.
“There is no other hero in sub-Saharan Africa than Robert Mugabe, especially among young people, who cannot believe that their forefathers were so pushed and allowed others to take over their land,” said Risto Kapenda, president of the National Union of Namibian Workers.
“Mugabe is the only president who stood up for his rights and said, ‘Enough is enough, we are taking back our land.’ ”
Namibian President Sam Nujoma has warned white farmers that landless blacks are getting impatient.
Wolfgang Werner, a senior researcher at the Namibian Economic Policy Research Unit based in the capital, Windhoek, argues that the land in his country is too marginal for many people to live off it. According to government officials, only about 12% of the land is suitable for farming.
“We have to move away from the idea of, ‘We have no job, so let’s get a bit of land,’ ” said Werner, who was government land director from 1990 to 1995. “This is not the way to poverty alleviation.”
According to statistics from the Namibia Agricultural Union last year, white farmers own 4,456 commercial farms out of a total of 5,273. Many of the whites own more than one farm, according to black farming union officials.
In contrast, most blacks live in state-owned communal areas, where, critics say, the land is overcrowded and sometimes less fertile.
Critics such as Ripanda Meroro, a local farm union official, charge that the white farmers still dominate the economy and, therefore, call the shots politically.
“It’s as though Namibia is reserved for the white minority and for game,” Meroro said. “They are the two animals enjoying access to the land. Black people are kept out of it.”
The president of the powerful white-dominated Namibia Agricultural Union, Jan de Wet, said the land must produce goods for the market rather than for simple self-sufficiency. Rushing ahead with radical reforms like those in Zimbabwe would threaten Namibia’s stability, De Wet said.
Despite their importance, political power and economic prosperity often are secondary considerations for African communities. What matters most deeply is the people’s spiritual and cultural connection to the soil.
Hadebe, the Amahlubi settler, recalled the humiliation he felt when he was forced to ask white farm owners for permission to visit the graves of his forefathers.
“Now there are no boundaries, no restrictions,” he said. “We can visit when we want. Whenever there is anything you want to do, you have to ask the ancestors for help.”