South Africa Gov't Outraged over Land Seizure

By Mark Klusener | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

Johannesburg ( - The South African government reacted quickly Thursday to assure foreign investors it will not allow a Zimbabwe-style land invasion to happen.

This follows an incident in which thousands of landless South Africans streamed onto a 14,400-acre property just outside of Johannesburg, setting up hundreds of small shacks on the local government-owned land.

Members of the Pan Africanist Congress, a left wing party, have tried to cash in on the land grab by charging the squatters R25 (about $3) for a plot measuring about 15 square feet.

"I want my own place, I don't care where it is as long as I get land," said 26-year-old Elias Tsewe, an unemployed squatter.

He and his three friends have already paid for their plot of land and have started building makeshift shelters out of iron sheets and wood.

"I lived in a small shack with six other people, we had no lights and running water, this is why I wanted to move. The government has promised us land and houses but it hasn't delivered, so it is time to take what is being offered here," he said.

The PAC move has sparked outrage from the African National Congress government. The PAC was the smaller of the two main exiled liberation movements during the anti-apartheid struggle.

"We have seen some political opportunists abuse the genuine concerns of some of the landless people," said Land Affairs Minister Thoko Didiza. "They are misleading people.

"People should not be taken for a ride by any individual or organization promising that they have got authority to undertake land reform when they actually don't."

Rule of law

The government has assured investors that they shouldn't fear a Zimbabwe-like land invasion in South Africa.

"We would never allow that," the minister said. "I have said time and again that no matter what the circumstances are, there is rule of law to be followed.

"This is the message the government wanted to send to everybody, including those thinking of further land invasions. "They must not even start. We'll hit back with the full authority of the law."

The government's reaction has been swift and effective. In the early hours of Thursday morning, police swooped in on the informal settlement and arrested over 100 spatters, but only three members of the PAC who were selling the plots were arrested.

"It is not fair that they arrest me, the government should do something to help the poor," said Robson Dube, a former technician.

"The president can spend [about $5 million] on a new plane, but he can't even make sure his people are housed properly," he said.

Although the local media has been very quick to compare the situation to the land grabs that have so badly destabilized neighboring Zimbabwe, analysts say there is a big difference.

"In Zimbabwe we see a government using the land issue to try and cling to power, where is here we see the government trying to swiftly stamp out these land grabs," said Ibrahim Fakir, a senior researcher at the Institute for Democratic South Africa.

He believes the South African government needs to speed up the process of land redistribution, to avoid a Zimbabwe-style situation.

"This should serve as a warning that the current process of giving land and housing to previously disadvantaged people is inadequate, and needs to seriously be addressed. It's taking too long and people are becoming impatient," he said.

The government is expected to gain a court interdict on Friday to have all the squatters removed from the land.

"I will go peacefully only if the government promises to give me land," said Dube. "Otherwise I will fight."