Turf battle in South Africa

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One of apartheid's most troubling legacies is set to rise to the top South Africa's political agenda. The country is facing an election within months. The ruling party's failure to deliver on promises to transfer land from white minority owners to blacks is generating frustration. Laura Lynch reports on the efforts to redress the imbalance and the tensions it's causing.

Lynch: As the sun goes down outside a small, simple church, voices rise up inside. The choir has gathered for its weekly practice. Religion runs deep in this village two hours northwest of Johannesburg. The elders, like Peter Sekgothe, remember when they lived over the hill, on the other side of the railroad tracks, at a mission run by German ministers.

Eventually, Sekgothe leads me there, to see the land they consider their own - the land where he grew up - the land he and the other black villagers are fighting to get back.

Sekgothe: "From here until there, it was only houses there. It was a school here, it was broken down there were houses here, they were all demolished."

Lynch: Sekgothe walks through the ruined remains of the place where he spent much of his childhood - IN the 1960's, the government shut the mission down and forced the black residents to leave.

They were relocated to a spot beside a busy highway.
Eventually, white farmers moved onto the acres where they once lived. The same bitter drama was repeated across the country - eventually, the white minority owned 87 % of the land.

When apartheid ended 15 years ago, South Africa vowed to put 30 percent of that back in black hands - and to do it legally, ensuring both economic and political stability. But only five percent has been redistributed so far, frustrating and slow, the process is also breeding friction and fear.

Farmer Gjerke DavelFarmer Gjerke Davel

Part of the land the black villagers claim here is now a huge carpet of green. Farmer Gjerke Davel's workers rev up an enormous lawn cutter. Davel's taken to growing grass on his acreage and selling the sod as lush instant lawns. Not the best use of rich farmland. But Davel says the blacks stole all the food crops he tried to grow.

Davel: "If i start farming with cabbage or something that is easy to take they come during the night and they take it, you won't sleep. The spinach is a little bit difficult to take - it's not that easy, but the instant lawn is the only thing i can farm with at this stage."

Lynch: Davel has owned the farm for 25 years. But he says the trouble started two years ago when he and the other white farmers here decided to fight the claim on their farmland. He says first he lost crops, now it's farm equipment and even his fencing.

Davel: "It seems to be they start intimidating us like this. i don't know what is going on and i'm close to them now�you can see there is only the railway line from here this land we've got here this field and then there's a road and a railway line and then the place. and that's where they are staying."

Lynch: They are the villagers claiming the land, and they are living within plain sight, and the distrust and tension continue to grow the longer the claim drags on. Michael Aliber is an American who studies land reform at the University of the Western Cape. He sees a lot of flaws in the system.

Aliber: "It's unclear what we are accomplishing. i mean we are accomplishing something of redressing past wrongs. but to put it a bit crassly can we afford it in the manner in whch we're presently doing it?"

Lynch: Aliber says South Africa isn't delivering arable land to poorer black South Africans who actually want to farm.

Aliber: "The communities getting their land back are elated to get their land back but there are very few among them who are interested in relocating to the land and even fewer who are interested in making use of the land agriculturally. Not to say none, but quite few."

Lynch: As the trucks roar past his house, the village elder Sekgothe insists his people want to move back - but not necessarily to farm. They need more room to house growing families he says.

Peter Sekgothe Peter Sekgothe

Sekgothe: "Do you feel sorry at all or do you feel any sympathy at all for the white farmers who are there now who say it's their land? sorry?"

Lynch: Sekgothe and a clutch of other community leaders smile and laugh. If Gerjke Davel is worried, Sekgothe doesn't have much sympathy.

Sekgothe: "I'm sure the chap is scared because he doesn't belong there. This is not his land that's why he's so worried he doesn't' sleep. When I grew up this was all open land - we used to walk there freely."

Lynch: Back on his farm, Gjerke Davel is standing his ground.

Davel: "So this land is your land? Definitely, the white people didn't steal it from anybody no-one took it."

Lynch: The battle for land here is just a snapshot of a policy in disarray. The government is promising it will reach its target of 30 % by 2014. But the land it's transferred so far is ending up going to relatively few people. Michael Aliber says something must change.

Aliber: "Has the government failed? Not yet, but if it doesn't navigate a better path in the near future in 5-10 years we would have to say it has failed. If it continues doling out large amounts of land to very small numbers of people even if it achieves 30 %, I think it's going to be regarded as an elitist swindle and a failure."

Lynch: In the churchyard, a parishioner unties a small white bell. It was saved and brought here from the old mission - a reminder of all that was lost. There has been talk of expropriating white farms to speed things up. But that scares some in the country who see shades of the violent takeovers that have scarred Zimbabwe. Land is a powerful symbol and stirs powerful emotions - the battle for it in South Africa is at its heart, a battle over the nation's past and its future.

For the World, I'm Laura Lynch, the village of Polonia, South Africa