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Mfengu Land Settlement Sets Precedent in South Africa

IN a landmark settlement to right the wrongs of the apartheid era, a South African community in eastern Cape that was dispossessed of its ancestral land at gunpoint 17 years ago has won back their land from 19 white farmers.

The out-of-court settlement, which follows three years of negotiations between the 4,000-strong Mfengu community and the farmers, was sealed at a signing ceremony March 26 on Mooiwei farm, a dairy previously owned by white farmer Gerdie Landman in southeastern Cape.

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The settlement is the first to involve privately owned land, and sets an important precedent. About 70 claims by dispossessed rural communities remain outstanding, and tens of thousands of individuals were forcibly removed from urban areas under the Group Areas Act, the notorious 1956 statute enforcing residential segregation. The law was abolished in 1990.

``This settlement represents a major victory for the Mfengu community after years of struggle,'' says Geoff Budlender, director of the Legal Resources Center (LRC), a group that has played a major role in rolling back apartheid laws. ``It is the first time that a black community has regained the land from which it was forcibly removed and where that land was in private hands.''

During four decades of apartheid, some 3.5 million black South Africans were evicted from their homes or dispossessed of land under an experiment in social engineering that sought to relegate blacks to independent but impoverished tribal homelands. The evictions left whites in control of 87 percent of the land.

The Mfengu community was forcibly removed from their land by a government decree in 1977, and banished to a barren site in the Ciskei homeland. Efforts at restitution gained new momentum with the intervention of Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The Nobel Peace laureate led a Mfengu delegation to Pretoria in 1991 for talks with President Frederik de Klerk.

NOW, after winning the long battle for their 20,000 acres, they face major practical problems regarding the reoccupation of the land and maintaining its productivity.

``You are coming back to your land,'' Thobile Makamba, chairman of the Tsitsikama Exile Association, told members of the community at the ceremony. ``You are still poor, but you have your dignity and your humanity back.

``Unfortunately, we may forgive the injury caused by the state and the government, but we cannot easily forget the crimes they have committed against some 3.5 million people who were driven off the land at gunpoint,'' Mr. Makamba added.

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In terms of the agreement, the 19 farmers will be paid a total of $10 million for their farms, and ownership will be transferred to a Mfengu-controlled trust.

The settlement is in line with a restitution clause inserted into the interim constitution approved by multiparty negotiators last November in a bid to address what is likely to become the most emotive and contested issue of the post-apartheid era. So far, four dispossessed communities occupying state land have won back their land under this clause.

Under the new interim constitution, future land claims will be settled by a Commission for the Restitution of Land Rights and a Land Claims Court.

Tobie Meyer, deputy minister of the Agriculture and Land Affairs Departments, attended the signing ceremony. ``It is a really historic moment in the history of South Africa,'' said Mr. Meyer, who owns a farm nearby. ``Through negotiation we have reached an agreement which could form the basis of all future land claims and disputes.''

His remarks were clearly directed at the nervous white farming community that fears large-scale redistribution of land under a government controlled by the African National Congress.

The ANC, which backs the principle of private ownership, has indicated any redistribution of land will be on the basis of fair compensation and will target unused and unproductive state land before turning to private land.

Mr. Landman represented the farmers during three years of negotiations that resulted from a court action by the LRC. The action sought to have the removal of the Mfengus declared invalid.

``It is a disappointing day from our angle because we have to part with farms that we have built up over the past 11 years,'' Landman said. Speaking at the ceremony in the Xhosa tongue of the Mfengu, he said the farmers had bought the land in good faith from the state and were now parting with the land as a peaceful solution to the country's problems. He said the farmers accepted that the Mfengu were the rightful owners.

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