'Need to revisit plan to transfer land'

South Africa's target of transferring 30percent of farmland to black ownership by 2014 might be unattainable, but it will pursue its policy of seizing land from white farmers, a government official said on Friday.

The government set itself a target of handing 30percent of all agricultural land to the black majority by 2014, but it is only just approaching 4percent of that target and says it needs to accelerate the process.

To do so, authorities have gradually embarked on seizures to return land to blacks whose land was forcibly taken under previous governments. Officials have stuck by the 2014 target, as land activists grow increasingly impatient.

However, in what might be the first such acknowledgement by a senior official, Chief Land Claims Commissioner Thozi Gwanya said the goal might prove elusive.

"There are many challenges. It may not be attainable in the medium term, but we say [30percent of land] is a reasonable and practical target," he said.

"I think we were very optimistic when we set the [2014] target. The challenges relate to the acquiring of land, the negotiations, the high land prices, the resistance to land reform by some of the farmers.

"All of these things we assumed would not be contentious." Officials say whites who still dominate farming more than a decade after the end of apartheid have stalled the programme by demanding excessive prices.

White farmers say the step is too drastic and blame bureaucratic shortcomings for the slow progress.

Land seizures occur only as restitution - where those who were evicted from ancestral land under apartheid and British colonial rule have applied to have it returned, or receive cash as compensation for their loss.

Otherwise, the government hopes to achieve its 30percent goal by encouraging the black majority to apply for loans to buy farms.

Land restitution is a racially sensitive issue in South Africa, still haunted by the decline in agriculture in neighbouring Zimbabwe, where white commercial farmers were often violently evicted by President Robert Mugabe's government.

Pretoria has vowed that its own version of this programme will be orderly. Gwanya, who oversees restitution under the Department of Land Affairs, said his office would stick to its policy, but within legal limits.

"[Expropriation] is a programme of government, it's in the constitution, it's in the various land legislation, like the Restitution Act, but there's also an Expropriation Act in government," he said.

Gwanya said the government was processing the expropriation of an area including between 30 and 40 properties in the south eastern KwaZulu-Natal province. So far, it had authorised six notices for possible expropriation, he said.

But farmers say those willing to hand over their land are frustrated by bureaucratic inefficiency and fear that it will hinder investment in agriculture.

"Why does this process take so long? We have had negotiations going on in excess of 12 months and you can not farm under those circumstances," a farmer said at an agricultural conference in Pretoria on Friday. - Reuters