South Africa announces first move to seize land from white farmer

South Africa has for the first time moved to seize land from a white commercial farmer, saying that negotiations to buy the property to hand over to black claimants were taking too long.

Commissioner Blessing Mphela on Thursday told a news conference at the Commission on the Restitution of Land Rights that the seizure was a last resort. South Africa must speed up land reform or face chaos, Mphela added.

Congress Mahlangu, a spokesman for Mphela, told The Associated Press it was the first time the commission had resorted to the expropriation process.

The commission was set up to restore land lost by black and mixed-race South Africans under apartheid. Previously, South Africa maintained a willing seller, willing buyer approach to land reform, but the government accuses some white farmers of asking too much and dragging out sales. Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka indicated in July the government was considering getting tougher.

Mphela, who is in charge of land restitution cases in North West Province, said the government would issue an expropriation order for a 500-hectare (1,235-acre) farm owned by Hannes Visser. The government has offered 1.75 million rands (about US$276,000; Ђ225,800) and Visser has asked for 3 million (about US$473,000; Ђ387,000).

Visser told the South African Press Association he would challenge the order.

"I do not recognize the claim on my land and cannot be forced to sell at the government's price," Visser told SAPA.

Mahlangu said Visser would receive the expropriation order within a week. Mphela said Visser would have a month after receiving the order to show cause to the minister of agriculture why his farm should not be seized. If the minister upholds the order, Visser can appeal in the courts.

Visser said he had made 3.5 million rands (about US$552,000; Ђ451,570) worth of improvements to the farm his father bought in 1968. He said the government offer was not enough to set up a business comparable to the farm. Mphela said the government offered to exempt areas with improvements but the compromise was rejected.

The deputy president said last July that the government wants all land restitution claims settled within the next three years. The government, she said, seeks to deliver 30 percent of the country's agricultural land to people disadvantaged by apartheid by 2014. If necessary, she said it would revise the current willing buyer, willing seller principle.

South African officials have repeatedly said they do not plan to emulate Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe's seizure of white-owned farms, which many say contributed to the collapse of that country's farm-based economy. But Mugabe's policies have made him hugely popular among black South Africans, while land reform here appears stalled.

When the democratic government came to power in 1994, some 87 percent of agricultural land was owned by whites, who account for 10 percent of the population. This has fallen to 80 percent, according to some estimates.

In the North West case, Commissioner Mphela said, the Visser farm was initially part of four plots owned by the Molamu family, which was forced to sell under the apartheid government's policies of systematically stripping blacks of land and moving them into townships and so-called homelands. Descendants of the first Molamu owners filed a claim seeking restitution.

"Two-thirds of the country, including most of the best quality land, remains in the hands of less than 60,000 people who unfortunately in this case are white farmers, while 14 million blacks or Africans eke out a precarious existence in the former homelands and urban informal settlements," Mphela said.

"In South Africa, where dispossession of African people was much more brutal and thorough than any other in the region, the fruits of liberation have yet to be tasted by the majority of the rural population," Mphela said, AP reported.

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