NTHLAVENI, South Africa -- Frank Baloyi, 80, remembers the armed officers ordering him to torch his home in his tribe's ancestral lands and then climb into a truck, with only the possessions he could carry, for resettlement here, in what was then a wilderness.
"They were threatening if you didn't do that, they would shoot you," recalled the still-sprightly husband of two wives and father of nine children.
"My wife was crying, moaning, crying. It was a very sad state of affairs."
That was 30 years ago.
Any day now the South African parliament will formally approve the return of the tribal lands to Baloyi and 10,000 other members of the Makuleke tribe, righting one of the many wrongs committed during the apartheid era.
The Makuleke land claim is one of thousands that have made the South African land reform program one of the biggest in the world.
It will take up to a decade to complete. But it is a crucial part of the transformation of this country from a bastion of white privilege and black poverty to a more equitable society.
The program has two main objectives:
Restitution of land seized from blacks, Indians and people of mixed race since 1913;
Distribution of state-owned land to the landless poor for housing and development, with a $3,000 government grant per family for resettlement.
Land affairs minister Derek Hanekom, who attended the initial signing ceremony for the return of the Makuleke land last year, said: "When people do go back, there is huge joy which accompanies it."
The emotion hits particularly the older people, who can remember their former home, he said, adding: "They have been living with the dream for the last 30 years, and when they go back, it is a very powerful moment."
The Makuleke were forcibly removed from their ancestral home -- on 56,000 fertile acres between the Limpopo and Luvuvhu rivers -- in 1969 under the 1959 Bantu Areas Act, which designated "homelands" for blacks.
They were resettled 40 miles away in Nthlaveni, in the former Gazankulu homeland, which, under the "new dispensation" here, is part of Northern Province.
The negotiations with the government for the return of the Makuleke land took 18 months. The outcome was approved last month by the Land Claims Court, and its ratification during this year's opening session of parliament is regarded as a formality. The Makuleke will then get title to their land.
But there's a twist in the arrangement with the Makuleke, for they will not actually inhabit the land. After their eviction, most of it became the northern tip of the Kruger National Park, a protected conservation area known as the Pafuri reserve.
Instead, they will benefit from the development of eco-tourism by building a cultural center, a game lodge and bush camps, and organizing safaris on the land they once inhabited.
The Kruger National Park also stands to gain. About 6,000 acres of the Makuleke lands that lie outside the park's boundary will be incorporated into the reserve.
The Makuleke are now busy conducting feasibility and financial studies for the tourism project. They have legal and technical advisers, who will help them select a development partner.
"We have been approached by a lot of companies who say, 'We would like to be your partner.' We say 'Fine, but the time has not yet come,' " said community leader Livingstone Maluleke.
The community, he said, initially objected to the refusal to allow them to live on the land.
"Most of them were very happy thinking, 'We shall be going back to the land,' " he said. "When you are born in a place, you always remember it. When you lose the soil, you feel very much deprived."
They also explored the possibility of mining after representatives of a mining company told them there were diamonds on the land. Maluleke and other leaders convinced the community mining was too risky and environmentally damaging. In the land claims agreement, the mining rights have been retained by the government to permanently block such activity.
Eventually, after listening to environmentalists and developers, the Makuleke were persuaded that eco-tourism was in their best long-term interests. The income from their projects inside Kruger National Park will be used to improve schooling, health and sports facilities in Nthlaveni.
About 400 jobs will be created in a society suffering from 65 percent unemployment.
Hoping to get one of them is Clifford Chauke, 22, one of half a dozen young members of the tribe studying business management on donated computers in a company-supported study center in the administration complex here.
"We are studying because of what is happening in the park," he said. "If it wasn't happening, maybe we would be hanging around being drunks.
"I didn't have any vision before because I didn't have any money to better my situation. I know that to be a manager doesn't come overnight, but I could be a ranger or a receptionist and then, if things go well, I will be a manager."
Community leader Maluleke, who is also principal of a local school, said: "This project must not only look at earning money, but at retaining one's culture.
"Most of the youth were born here [in Nthlaveni], but it's very important for them to know where they came from, where they originate."
For Frank Baloyi, developing the ancestral land rather than returning to it, is a satisfactory outcome.
When he and his family arrived in Nthlaveni, they were given a tent and 10 days in which to build their own hut, after which the tent was given to another family.
"It was a wilderness. The first night here there was a lot of lions roaming around," he recalled. "We didn't know where we were. It was very painful."
Today Baloyi has six rondovals, or round thatched huts, in his family compound, in one of a series of Makuleke villages that, by hard labor and much sweat, now dot a green and fertile landscape. The tribe now has its own irrigation system and acres of fruit trees and maize.
"I am now old," said the weathered octogenarian farmer. "This is my home. I don't have any energy to go and establish another place. So I feel satisfied we are not going back [to the traditional tribal lands] but will utilize the area instead."
In another major settlement, the San, the original bushmen inhabitants of this country, are to be given title to their ancestral lands in the Kalahari-Gemsbok National Park next month.
"It will be a very big event," said land minister Hanekom.
The program has been criticized for its slow delivery of land to blacks, with fewer than 40 of 40,000 claims for restitution settled to date. Hanekom said the pace is about to pick up with more cases being put on the "fast track" for administrative rather than judicial settlement.
"Why should it not succeed?" he said in an interview in his Pretoria office, noting that land-owners and the landless here had seen the chaos surrounding land reform in neighboring Zimbabwe.
"They have developed an appreciation of what is happening there," he said.
In near-bankrupt Zimbabwe, after 18 years without effective land reform, President Robert Mugabe is trying to seize thousands of white-owned farms for redistribution to the peasants, provoking a freeze on international aid and contributing to the implosion of the country's economy.
With $35 million budgeted for land reform in South Africa this year and the cost expected to increase as settlements accelerate, Hanekom can tap, if necessary, the government's $1 billion contingency fund.
"We can afford it," he said. "We will afford it. We are constitutionally obliged to afford it. If it means cutting back on other areas, we will."
Pub Date: 1/12/99