The long wait for land

2004-04-22 16:00
Lekkersing - For 80-years, Elias Links dreamed of returning to the grasslands where he herded sheep and goats as a boy.

When a landmark court case restored his Nama people's rights to the diamond-rich tracts snatched by former white rulers, it was already too late for the man everyone knew as Oupa (grandfather). Links died just weeks after the ruling at 93, without setting foot on his ancestral land.

A decade after apartheid's end, tens of thousands of blacks are still waiting for compensation or restoration of property seized under racist laws that claimed 80% of the land for whites, who make up just 10% of the 45 million people.

Links was one of the driving forces behind the Namas' campaign to reclaim the Richtersveld - 85 000ha of plains on the southern Atlantic coast, seized in 1923 after the discovery of diamonds.

Rights to the Richtersveld's mineral riches were awarded to Alexkor Ltd, a state-run mining company started in 1927 as a work program for poor whites.

The 4 000 Nama were moved more than 300km east into the desert interior. Cut off from their summer grazing fields, they had to give up their nomadic ways and settle into four towns tucked among rocky hills.

Chased away

"Oupa Links told the court how the government officials chased him away like he was one of the goats he was herding," said lawyer Henk Smith, who represented the Nama in their lengthy legal battle. "I believe that it was this heartfelt testimony that eventually lead to the ruling in their favour."

More than 3.5 million people lost their land through the laws of apartheid. Many were expelled to poor "bantustans" designated as black homelands.

After the election of the first black-led government in 1994, a Commission on the Restitution of Land Rights was formed to restore black ownership of the land. Claimants qualified if they were evicted because of their race after June 19, 1913, when the first race-based land laws were introduced, and had submitted claims by December 1, 1998.

The commission investigates each case and tries to reach a settlement with the land's current owners. When this cannot be done, the case goes to a land claims court, which decides on appropriate restitution - money, return of the land, or alternative property.

Already hundreds of people forced from the once-vibrant District Six have won the right to return to what is now a vacant strip of land at the foot of Table Mountain.

Some have accepted financial compensation. Plans are being drawn up to build flats for those opting to move back.

Elsewhere, the Makuleke tribe won back its land in Kruger National Park in 1998, then decided to lease it to investors building four game lodges.

The Mdluli clan plan to farm the rich agricultural land that was returned to them in December in the northern Mpumalanga province.

But the process has been painfully slow, with some cases lingering in court for six years.

Government makes pledge

Just 3% of the country's 100m ha of agricultural land have been redistributed since 1994.

The government has pledged to finalise all 68 878 claims by next year, but 26 322 of them are still pending.

The land commission says most white farmers oppose claims made on their land, or demand more money than it's worth.

Last week, President Thabo Mbeki approved legislation empowering the land affairs minister to seize properties at a government-decided rate if the owners refuse to settle terms.

White-dominated agricultural unions claim it's a precursor to the kind of land grabs that have caused turmoil in neighbouring Zimbabwe.

"The government is trying to take away our right to an unbiased hearing," complained Lourie Bosman, deputy chairperson of the umbrella AgriSA union. He called the bill a "farce" that would scare off foreign investors.

The Land Ministry says farmers have nothing to fear.

"The new legislation is not anything close to what happened in Zimbabwe," said spokesperson Nana Zenani. "It merely speeds up the redistribution process."

It took five years of legal wrangling for the Nama to recover their land and mineral rights in the Richtersveld. The mine argued that the land was originally confiscated by British colonialists, not the apartheid government.

The country's highest court settled the matter in October.

"I never thought this would happen in my lifetime," said 70-year-old Lena Joseph, adjusting a peach-coloured bonnet to shade her eyes at a goat auction in the town of Lekkersing. "Now at least our children's children will have a better life."

Negotiating a share

Despite the harsh environment of their current home - 50° heat and no running water - few want to move back to the cooler, greener coastal plain.

Instead, the Namas are negotiating with Alexkor for a share in the mine, compensation for past profits and a commitment to educate and train younger generations in the industry. There is still no agreement, and the community fears it could be forced to go to court again.

Since 1927, the mine has yielded about 11 million carats of diamonds worth an estimated $2.7bn.

"There is talk that we could become rich overnight and move away from here, but that is not what Grandpa Links had in mind," said Willem Cloete, 43, a lawmaker and one of Links' 19 grandchildren.

"We need to develop mining skills, tourism opportunities and infrastructure so there will always be opportunities for the children of the Richtersveld," he said, sitting in a flaking white wooden chair on his balcony, overlooking the scorched landscape.

Almost 40km away, Floors Strauss walked among the graves of his mother, father, brothers and sisters - all buried in the hard ground of Eksteenfontein, another Richtersveld town. His T-shirt says "Richtersveld - we deserve it."

"Life is hard here. It has always been hard," said Strauss, 45. "But we want to see development for jobs and education instead of taking the money and running."

The gardens here are sparse. A few sheep and goats are fenced in behind small grey cement houses. People while away the days in the shade of a porch and drink a cheap local brew sold in plastic bottles.

"Some people will drink themselves dead here if they have all that money," Strauss said.

Laying to rest

In the rising heat of the day, about 200 people gathered outside a modest grey brick house to lay Links to rest.

The women wore frontier-style bonnets, decorated with ruffled cloth flowers. Their quavering voices pierced the clear blue sky as they sang in their traditional tongue.

"We don't mind waiting. We have time," Cloete said, as six pallbearers carried Links' coffin to the town's only church.

"If my grandfather could wait this long, we will fight for as long as it takes."

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