Mfengu Land Settlement Sets Precedent in South Africa

Article excerpt

IN a landmark settlement to right the wrongs of the apartheid era, a South African community in eastern Cape that was dispossessed of its ancestral land at gunpoint 17 years ago has won back their land from 19 white farmers.

The out-of-court settlement, which follows three years of negotiations between the 4,000-strong Mfengu community and the farmers, was sealed at a signing ceremony March 26 on Mooiwei farm, a dairy previously owned by white farmer Gerdie Landman in southeastern Cape.

The settlement is the first to involve privately owned land, and sets an important precedent. About 70 claims by dispossessed rural communities remain outstanding, and tens of thousands of individuals were forcibly removed from urban areas under the Group Areas Act, the notorious 1956 statute enforcing residential segregation. The law was abolished in 1990.

"This settlement represents a major victory for the Mfengu community after years of struggle," says Geoff Budlender, director of the Legal Resources Center (LRC), a group that has played a major role in rolling back apartheid laws. "It is the first time that a black community has regained the land from which it was forcibly removed and where that land was in private hands."

During four decades of apartheid, some 3.5 million black South Africans were evicted from their homes or dispossessed of land under an experiment in social engineering that sought to relegate blacks to independent but impoverished tribal homelands. The evictions left whites in control of 87 percent of the land.

The Mfengu community was forcibly removed from their land by a government decree in 1977, and banished to a barren site in the Ciskei homeland. Efforts at restitution gained new momentum with the intervention of Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The Nobel Peace laureate led a Mfengu delegation to Pretoria in 1991 for talks with President Frederik de Klerk.

NOW, after winning the long battle for their 20,000 acres, they face major practical problems regarding the reoccupation of the land and maintaining its productivity.

"You are coming back to your land," Thobile Makamba, chairman of the Tsitsikama Exile Association, told members of the community at the ceremony. "You are still poor, but you have your dignity and your humanity back. …