In the late 1990s – still the early days of South Africa's democracy – Joseph Makhadi couldn't afford to continue his studies at a local technical college. He dropped out and lived, unemployed, in a humble dwelling along with 10 members of his extended family.
But in 2002, Makhadi and his family were among 700 households given title to a vast piece of rolling bush in South Africa's Limpopo Province, a result of the government's ambitious land reform programme.
Now, the 29-year-old manages the poultry farm owned and operated by the beneficiaries, known locally as the Manavhela community. This week, Makhadi toured the buildings that hold some 6,000 chickens and marvelled at how his future had opened up.
"After we got this land back, I began corresponding at the University of South Africa to get my degree in human resource management," he said. "I can afford to pay for that now."
More than a decade after the end of apartheid, land reform remains a vexed issue for many South Africans.
Under the ruling African National Congress (ANC), the government has compensated more than 870,000 people dispossessed by racially discriminatory laws and practices. The payout has totalled 1 million hectares of restored ancestral land and financial compensation of about US $404 million.
Yet South Africa's black majority still own only 16 percent the nation's agricultural land, and the government is scrambling to boost it to 30 percent by 2014.
In advance of upcoming local government elections, President Thabo Mbeki promised to prioritise the issue in his state of the union address earlier this month. "Land reform and land restitution are critical to the transformation of our society," he said.
Next month, South Africa will begin expropriating land owned by some white farmers, a move that's drawn quick comparisons to neighbouring Zimbabwe, where the seizure of white-owned forex-earning commercial farms for redistribution to subsistence farmers helped trigger the country's economic collapse.
"Some people are sensationalising this topic of land reform and are using very acrimonious language of 'land seizures', 'land grabs', and this is not the state of our approach," South Africa's Chief Land Claims Commissioner Tozi Gwanya told IRIN.
"We will continue to be committed to the market economy and we will continue to be committed to fairness and paying a fair price to those people we get land from for the purposes of land reform," Gwanya said.
Redressing a History of Race-Based Dispossession
Indigenous South Africans were systematically dispossessed of land ever since the first European settlers arrived at the Cape in 1652. In the centuries that followed, sweeping tracks of land were appropriated through the physical enclosure of property, military conquest, and legal wrangling.
|Poverty among land reform beneficiaries
Although the community of Clipstone in KwaZulu-Natal province has benefited from South Africa's land reform programme, they have not escaped poverty. Female-headed and larger households remain particularly vulnerable.
During the rush for gold and diamonds in the 19th-century, local governments used tax legislation to force many indigenous South Africans from land-based farming communities into the cash economy of the mines.
Race-based dispossession was formalised in 1913, when the colonial government limited indigenous land ownership in the Natives Land Act. In the coming years, whole communities were forcibly removed, sometimes repeatedly, to accommodate white property owners.
In 1994, the government passed the Restitution of Land Rights Act to restore property to communities dispossessed after 1913, mirroring other decolonialisation struggles worldwide. The act was seen by many South Africans, particularly by the landless and rural poor, as a breakthrough for the new democracy.
But rollout has been slow, delayed in part by a so-called "willing-seller, willing-buyer" policy, in which land owners and government negotiate over the fair price of contested property – a market-based model created to avoid expropriation. But in practice, many land owners have demanded greater compensation than the government has been willing to pay.
The deadline for filing restitution claims was in 1998, but some negotiations have gone on for years without resolution. In order to settle the 7,000 outstanding restitution claims by March 2008, the new policy sets a six-month time limit for negotiations.
The restitution budget has also jumped from about $32 million in 1999 to $423 million this year. Next year it jumps again to $545 million.
"We must put restitution to rest," Gwanya told IRIN. "Let's resolve all of these claims, and show certainty for investment and development of these properties."
From Landless to Land Owners
When the Manavhela community launched their claim on 2,611 hectares of ancestral land in 1996, the majority of it constituted the Ben Lavin Nature Reserve, named after the farmer from the Cape colonies who claimed the land in the 1930s.
Lavin's widow had donated the property as a game farm to the non-profit Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa (WESSA) in 1976.
Theirs was a relatively civil negotiation process. The community agreed to maintain the property under conservation principles, while WESSA agreed it would help in the transfer of the game farm, now renamed Manavhela Ben Lavin Nature Reserve.
"People will always compare how we're doing, especially because it was run by the white people before," said reserve manager Masala Ramovha. "Now that we are black, they are always going to compare if we're still doing great. We're waiting to prove them wrong, because we're working really hard to make it work."
Ramovha looks after the park's lodges and luxury tents tucked into the bush at the foot of the Soutpansberg Mountains. The reserve is home to an array of wildlife – including giraffe, zebra, kudu, and more than 230 bird species.
Visitors can buy curios and camping supplies in the gift shop – and the profits, like those generated through lodging and daytime fees, are funnelled through the collective's Community Property Association (CPA). For the near future, the community has voted to reinvest earnings into the facility, but in coming years, some grants will be given to beneficiaries to cover children's school fees.
The game reserve remains busy after four years of community management. International visitors read about it in the Lonely Planet travel guide, and the community has begun marketing in local media to boost local tourism. Ramovha credited part of the ongoing success to the community's decision to retain the employees who had worked for the old owners – sometimes for decades.
"We just took them to work with us, because we wanted to learn skills from them," said Ramovha, a former language trainer who now studies environmental education at the University of Johannesburg.
The game reserve's success is mitigated by the fact that many beneficiaries still lack permanent employment, mirroring the economic standing of many of South Africa's previously disadvantaged communities.
|Masala Ramovha, who manages the nature reserve
According to the most recent government figures, 31.5 percent of black South Africans are unemployed and actively seeking work, while many more have given up looking. Though the nation needs more than land restitution to reduce poverty, it has created significant opportunities.
"Before I was working odd jobs, and I was suffering," said Mashudu Manavhela, 34, who has worked for the past year as the reserve's maintenance operator.
From the dusty road at the park's entrance, Manavhela said his income has been a blessing for his family. "Now we get enough money, so I can get any food I like," he said. "I've got good accommodation – three rooms and a shower. I can now afford a decent cell phone, and I might buy a second-hand car next year."
Not All Follow Their Forefathers
Approximately 80 percent of South Africa's restitution claims were urban, and most of these claimants have opted for financial compensation instead of land rights. Manavhela claimants elected land rights, but not all beneficiaries want to return to rural living.
"They couldn't pay me to return to the rural areas," said Lawrence Mathelemusa, 41, now a post office manager in Pretoria.
"My life has changed a lot since I was living there. My salary is much higher now, and I must be able to maintain my lifestyle and further my career," he said, adding the 400 km to Makhado prevents him from being more active in the CPA.
It's not uncommon for beneficiaries to remain in cities, according to Lucas Mufamadi, executive director of Nkuzi Development Association, an organisation that works with communities to lodge claims. While economic conditions are an important factor, he also cited the substandard education given to black South Africans under apartheid, which he said didn't promote the value of land ownership.
"People associate working on farms with a lot of pain, because they see a lot of people undergoing treacherous experiences on a daily basis while they work for commercial farmers," Mufamadi said. Farm owners had, historically, committed physical abuse, sexual assault, and economic swindling with impunity, he said.
"That's led to a situation where a lot of youth feel are no longer interested in farming," he noted. "What they don't realise is that if they become farm owners, they can actually dictate how people live on their land."
Mufamadi, whose own family was forcibly removed from their land in 1969 – the year he was born – considers the fact that black South Africans own only 16 percent of agricultural land "criminal".
"What will bring about change is when white people start to realise that land reform is actually crucial; that there is no future without black people," Mufamadi said. "We need to work together as partners and equals. If it doesn't change, then there is no future for us in South Africa."
Back at the Manavhela Poultry Farm, Makhadi recalled passing this very land when he was a child. His parents would point and say "this is ours" and explain how farmers evicted his family in the 1930s.
Today, as with the nature reserve, proceeds are managed collectively and reinvested. Often, Makhadi said, the farm uses the funds to employ additional beneficiaries for odd jobs – like cutting back bush or improving the infrastructure. Other beneficiaries have received government grants for agricultural training.
"We are able to change the life of other people in the community," Makhadi said. "It's a positive thing. We have done something."
Makhadi said the community could use more resources and support from government and commercial partners. The community’s business plan includes the development of its cash crop operation – three hectares of carrots, onions and tomatoes were planted in 2004 – as well as the cultivation of their macadamia nut trees and citrus orchard.
For days, Makhadi has used a hand-held machine to slowly clear back overgrowth on one plot of land, and wishes he could afford a tractor to use the land to the community's full advantage.
Still, he is happy with what has been accomplished in just four years. "I deserve to be here. This land is our forefather’s land," Makhadi said. "I am happy to be back, because this is where I belong."