South Africa Trying to Sort Land Inequalities; Land Ownership Reforms Are out to Boost South Africa's Economy. Special Correspondent Gershwin Wanneburg Investigates

Article excerpt

Byline: Gershwin Wanneburg

Unlike many his age, 26-year-old Zweli Mbhele does not want to leave his rural roots to seek his fortune in South Africa's booming cities.

Mbhele wants to farm - and his dream has just come true.

Through a government programme that aims to erase the country's land disparities, Mbhele and his family recently acquired 2,214 hectares (5,535 acres) of the vast stretches of savannah in KwaZulu-Natal province.

Mbhele, who bought the property with a grant from the Department of Land Affairs, is excited about his prospects.

"I'm passionate about farming ... I grew up on a farm so I thought: let me own one myself," he said outside the small town of Ladysmith, surrounded by undulating slopes, transformed into a sea of golden grass by the winter frost.

"I know farming is a lot of challenges and risk because you need to buy medicine to inoculate cattle against diseases and have to buy poisons for ticks. All that stuff costs a lot (but) I like to see my cattle grazing," he said, switching between English and his native Zulu.

Everyone agrees it is crucial for South Africa to address historical imbalances by entrusting more land to people like Mbhele. But some say farming may not be the ideal way to create wealth and say the results up to now do not look promising.

More than a decade after the end of apartheid, more than 90 percent of South Africa's commercial farmland is still owned by the white minority - a legacy of apartheid and colonial rule, which saw blacks kicked off their ancestral land.

So far the government has transferred roughly four percent of previously white-owned land to blacks - far off its goal of 30 percent by 2014.

Frustration with the slow progress has begun to build and activists have threatened to invade land if the process does not speed up.

The chaos that resulted in neighbouring Zimbabwe, where whites were often violently forced off their land, is a constant reminder of what can go wrong if the problem is left unchecked.

From President Thabo Mbeki to senior civil servants, there has been growing acknowledgment that the land question needs to be resolved faster - but officials say an orderly process will be followed, with legal expropriations only used as a last resort.

Studies suggest that in a country where the economic role of agriculture has steadily declined over the decades, and where more and more rural folk are flocking to cities, agriculture should not be seen as a panacea for poverty. …