Land Nationalization in Zimbabwe Unnerves Some in South Africa

By Stephen Mbogo | July 7, 2008 | 8:15pm EDT

Johannesburg, South Africa ( - Zimbabwe's government has announced its intention to nationalize all remaining private-owned land, unnerving some people in neighboring South Africa as President Robert Mugabe pushes ahead with his controversial "land reform" program.

Land Minister John Nkomo said the new policy was abolishing land title deeds, replacing them with 25- and 99-year government land leases for wildlife and commercial land respectively.

Nkomo said the government did not believe that land should be used "for speculative reasons" and that was why it was better to have 99-year leases.

In the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, land expert Sam Moyo said the announcement had put to rest any hope that white farmers whose land has been confiscated in recent years would receive compensation.

Moyo also said the announcement was "not as dramatic as it sounds." It had long formed part of the government's comprehensive land reform program, and had to take place at one time or another.

The program, designed to ensure fairer distribution of land between the white minority and black majority, began in 1997 and accelerated in 2001, just before disputed presidential elections.

Commercial white farmers' lands were taken by the government -- at times by force -- and handed to black peasants and Mugabe's political allies.

The program saw food production drop to historically low levels and ignite a socio-political crisis that has seen a near collapse of the Zimbabwean economy.

Many whites in South Africa are concerned similar actions may occur here.

Dr. Kraai van Niekerk, an opposition lawmaker and former Minister of Agriculture, warned this week against nationalizing land in South Africa.

Speaking in parliament, to jeers from lawmakers for the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party, van Niekerk said land reform in South Africa should not only involve transformation of ownership but also consider issues like sustainability and the productive capacity of the land.

Seventy-six percent of the population of Africa's military and economic powerhouse is black, while whites account for around 13 per cent. The remainder are of Asian extract or mixed-race "coloreds."

Ten years after the election which brought majority-rule democracy to South Africa, official statistics say 87 per cent of land is owned by around 40,000 white farmers.

President Thabo Mbeki's government has adopted a policy of "willing buyer-willing seller," but the approach has been criticised by some politicians as being ineffective in ensuring reasonable redistribution of land.

Under that policy, only four percent of the black population has been resettled.

Mugabe's policies have drawn condemnation from around the world, but South Africa -- the country with the biggest potential influence -- has been criticized for refraining from criticizing Zimbabwe, instead adopting an approach of "quiet diplomacy."

David Monyae, a teacher at Johannesburg's Witwatersrand University, said one of the reasons Mbeki has taken this stance is that any interference in Zimbabwe would open him to domestic criticism that he is ignoring the land problem in his own country.

"This could ignite violent land demands by the South African landless community."

Another factor influencing South Africa's foreign policy towards Zimbabwe, Monyae said, was a reluctance to interfere because of the destructive role played by the former apartheid regime which intervened in the affairs of the region's emerging democracies.

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