Community sent from pillar to post

For more than a decade, Molefi Selibo has been sent from pillar to post by the authorities in a futile quest to own a plot of land for his family.

For more than a decade, Molefi Selibo has been sent from pillar to post by the authorities in a futile quest to own a plot of land for his family.

"Land to us is a very key issue. There is hunger for land in South Africa," says Selibo as he looks out across the rolling green hills of Muldersdrift which he still one day hopes to transform into a thriving village.

"It is very frustrating. It is more than 10 years.

"People become disillusioned, they start questioning whether this thing is progressing," says Selibo as he surveys the stretch of land that lies idle.

His frustration is indicative of a wider sense of disillusionment about the pace of land reform in post-apartheid South Africa.

Thirteen years after the end of white rule, the World Bank warns that the issue of land ownership, which has already proved toxic in Zimbabwe, is "a time bomb" that could blow up if it is not defused soon.

The land at Muldersdrift, about 30km west of Johannesburg, is the third property the Thembalethu community has tried to buy and develop in a ten-year battle with stubborn white landowners, conflicting government policies and miles of bureaucratic red tape.

South Africa's Land Affairs Department admitted earlier this month that drastic measures were necessary to save the country's slow land reform programme.

Despite the government maintaining it is "committed to stability" and using a system of payment for land and negotiation with white farmers, patience is wearing thin for those waiting for land.

In 1994, about 87percent of agricultural land in the country was owned by whites, who form less than 10percent of the population.

Thirteen years later only 4percent of land, or four million hectares, has been transferred to blacks, and the department says it will be a "serious challenge" to reach its target of 30percent - 25 million hectares - by 2014.

In 1996, Selibo and others living in Muldersdrift had a dream to become self-sufficient.

About 250 families started putting away R100 a month a household until they had saved enough to make a purchase offer.

The community has since faced numerous obstacles, two cancelled sale agreements, court battles, as well as an out-of-court settlement where white landowners paid them not to move into their neighbourhood.

Now, since 2001, they have an agreement to occupy the 30,8hectare-property owned by the municipality, but still have not won the right to develop or farm on the land.

"It has cost us almost all the money we had saved," Selibo said. "It has gone to paying consultants to conduct the studies that are required. We have been going from pillar to post."

Tozi Gwanya, the new Land Affairs director-general, said that land reform had been hampered by opposition from landowners who dispute the validity of land claims and demand exorbitant prices.

He said when the government tried to fast-track the process "prophets of doom" suggested the country was going the same route as neighbouring Zimbabwe.

"We do not want to see what happened in Zimbabwe and we will always ensure that our land reform programme remains socially, economically and politically sound."

But Rogier van den Brink, World Bank country economist to South Africa, said: "You cannot predict when and how a land crisis will emerge."

Selibo says the community has been battling an absence of clear policy to help blacks buy land near towns.

However, over the hill, a high-income development which will eventually include 120 houses has surged ahead, easily gaining planning permission.

"Every landowner is opposing this development. People go far to prevent others from having a better life," said Selibo, a civil servant dealing with land issues.

He said the community did not want to build a township where people lived in appalling conditions.

"We have allocated a site for a primary school. We also plan to have community facilities, a hall and a taxi rank." - Sapa-AFP