Reclaiming a country

In the North Western province of South Africa, Hannes Visser is making history. According to the New York Times, he is on the verge of becoming the first white farm owner to have his land annexed as part of reparations being made in the wake of apartheid. He and the South African government have been in negotiations over the sale of his land for months without resolution, and the government is considering harsher measures.


Visser isn’t alone.


According to ReliefWeb, a Swiss humanitarian rights group, five other farms are facing expropriation. There are 1,200 black households staking claim on the land that could be seized. Most of these households include former landowners who were forced to sell their land during apartheid.


It’s been a decade since the end of apartheid, but its effects are still being felt throughout South Africa. Currently a minority of whites owns the majority of healthy lands, and the majority of blacks are relegated to poor, cramped swatches of land.


The negotiations for the sale of white-owned lands have been relatively successful, but with many white farmers holding out for what the government considers unreasonable sums of money, the government is beginning to take more drastic action. And while it’s true the “willing buyer, willing seller” philosophy has been slow going in returning lands, the forced government seizure of farm lands could have drastic effects. Can South Africa handle the transition?


In Zimbabwe, land seizures under President Robert Mugabe have had chaotic results on the country’s agricultural output. Ousted landowners were offered no compensation for their land and Mugabe and his government promised the reinstated black community that repairs and updates would be made to ease transition. Mugabe claims there is no money to follow through on the promised changes, and many of the new farmers are too poor to complete the changes themselves. The result of this has been catastrophic.


Since 2000 more than 4,000 farms have been seized under Mugabe, many violently, and the lack of structure in reparations has led to a 60 percent drop in food production, resulting in years of food shortages.


In light of Mugabe’s veritable laundry list of human rights violations his violent methods for land dispersal are hardly surprising. However, there is no reason to assume the results will be the same in South Africa. But the question remains: What is the right way to repair the damage done by the years of apartheid in South Africa?


It’s not as if the government of South Africa hasn’t been taking steps to acquire the land peacefully. According to an article published on ReliefWeb, the South African government feels it has exhausted its options. In the article, Blessing Mphela, land commissioner of the North Western province, characterized the negotiations, some running for up to 12 months, as “fruitless.”


It’s obvious that the current financial imbalance, directly linked to apartheid rule, needs to be remedied. Reparations are a small step in righting the wrongs of a racist state.

Granting reparations for former slaves in the United States has been an ongoing debate for more than a hundred years. The fight continues today, often championed by relatives of those originally freed.


In South Africa it’s been just a decade since the end of apartheid, and while the proactive nature of the reparations is admirable, I worry that violence could ensue and South Africans will suffer.

Great strides have been made since the end of apartheid, but South Africans are still living with overwhelming unemployment, rising crime, a devastating HIV epidemic and crushing economic disparity. If the land appropriations turn violent, despite their admirable objectives, the country may encounter setbacks that would discount any progress made in the last 10 years.


Black South Africans, who have suffered ridiculously under apartheid, deserve to regain their country, and South Africa itself deserves to continue to improve. However, I hope that the government does not get overzealous in its reparation efforts. I cannot imagine how difficult it would be to resolve the violence and racism of the apartheid government, but if the government doesn’t work in a calculated manner then it could hurt more than just the former oppressors, it could destroy the lives of those already so exposed.