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South Africa bureaucracy buries tribal land claims; Red tape delays processing in years of lost opportunity


MMABOI, South Africa -- When the new post-apartheid South African government launched a program to return property stripped from black communities under white rule, members of the Mojapelo tribe rushed to the front of the line to stake their claim.

That was five years ago. They are still waiting.

Mired in bureaucratic and legal red tape, the claim has gone nowhere. Government officials promising action have paraded into the tribe's poor, windswept village in the Northern Province, never to be heard from again. Dust has gathered on the plans to use the property for a fish farm, tourist lodges and cattle farms. And the Mojapelos' dream of living on the land of their ancestors has been replaced with frustration and despair.

"We have been victims. We have been stressed. When you start talking about land reform I feel like I am attending my father's funeral. It's a sad story," says Fixwell Mojapelo, a member of the tribe fighting to reclaim more than 14,000 acres.

Across South Africa, tribes such as the Mojapelo are expressing growing impatience with the government's sluggish land reform program. Out of more than 63,000 land claims filed, just 4,000 have been settled. Many people fear, with good reason, that they will die before their case is resolved.

Several groups of landless blacks in Mpumalanga Province, the Western Cape and in Northern Province are threatening to invade and take over farms, as has happened in Zimbabwe, if they don't receive land soon.

"Looking at the pace of land reform, it will take another 20 years to redistribute the land. Land reform is not happening at the pace government promised," says Zakes Hlatshwayo, director of the National Land Committee, a nonprofit organization helping groups making claims. "Reform and transformation has to happen in South Africa. Unless land reform occurs, we are likely to go the Zimbabwe route."

Such threats are being taken seriously in South Africa, where apartheid laws allocated only 13 percent of the country's land to the black majority. Police have been put on alert in Mpumalanga Province to curb any outbreaks of violence.

Presidential assurances

In a state of the nation address this month, President Thabo Mbeki tried to assure the country that land reform would occur peacefully. And government officials are scrambling to make a dent in the huge backlog of cases.

"Everyone is calling on us to find out what South Africa is doing about land reform. It has put a lot of pressure on us," says Wallace Mgoqi, chief land claims commissioner for the South African government.

That pressure could be seen one Sunday morning in Mmaboi, where Mgoqi faced 70 frustrated members of the Mojapelo demanding resolution to their 5-year-old claim.

"I see nothing to be thankful about. It is government officials who have delayed this. When you leave, if you give us a check for the land, then I will have a reason to be thankful," said Patrick Mojapelo, wagging his finger at Mgoqi. (About 90 percent of Mmaboi's 8,000 residents have the same last name.)

"I'm getting agitated," said another resident. "I have the potential of getting very angry."

Under the government restitution program, the Mojapelo needed to prove that their tribe had occupied the land in question and was forcibly removed by discriminatory land ownership laws passed since 1913.

But for most tribes, there are few written records, land deeds or papers to back their claim. So they must rely on the oral history of the tribe.

In their formal claim, the Mojapelo trace their origin to an unruly chief's son who long ago broke tribal laws by eating the heart of an antelope, then fled to begin a community of his own near present-day Mmaboi.

European farmers began settling in the region in the late 1800s, carving out plots for cattle grazing and crops but keeping their distance from the Mojapelo.

But as farming land grew scarce, that relationship changed. In 1928, a member of the tribe cut a white farmer's fence that was encroaching on tribal grazing land. The white farmer ordered the tribe out of the region, and the Mojapelo dispersed in search of new homes.

Many members of the tribe work as tenants on white farms they once owned. Others scattered as far as Johannesburg, 150 miles away.

But what appears to be a simple case of righting the wrongs of history by returning the land to its owners was sidetracked almost as soon as it was filed.

White farmers disputed the tribe's claim, arguing that the Mojapelo never occupied the land settled by Europeans. Further complicating matters, several neighboring tribes filed claims on some of the property.

No clear claims

Because there is no clear title, sorting out the mess takes weeks of court time and huge resources -- something the new government's land affairs office has not had. So, cases such as the Mojapelo claim have been stalled from the outset.

Some frustrated tribe members have grumbled that they were treated better under apartheid. In 1985, after the Mojapelo had been demanding their land back for years, the government returned a small portion of the farms from which the tribe had been evicted in the 1920s. It became the village of Mmaboi.

About 8,000 people live in Mmaboi, a loose collection of shacks and tiny homes where people have made a living out of waiting. Unemployment is high. Goats and cattle wander aimlessly down potholed streets.

Within sight of their village lie thousands of acres the Mojapelo say will be the answer to their problems. Five years ago, hundreds of villagers attended community meetings to discuss their case. But because of the delays, community leaders are lucky to get more than 50 people interested now.

Barnard Mojapelo is one of the few who has not given up hope. Sharply dressed in a suit and armed with a cell phone, the 48-year-old tribe member has spent much of the last five years lobbying politicians and government officials to pay attention to their case.

"If you do not have land, you cannot bear to live," he says.

In order to jump-start the case, Barnard Mojapelo has persuaded one white farmer to sell more than 4,000 acres of the land in question to the tribe.

Under the restitution program, the government will buy back land lost by the tribes or offer them compensation. But until the government makes a ruling in the case, no money will be available to buy it.

"I've been trying to sell them the land for three years," says Sam Bolon, who has owned his property since the 1940s. "There's a willing seller and a willing buyer. I don't know what the problem is."

Efforts accelerate

The government is the first to admit that its delays have been the source of many of the woes. In the Northern Province, the Mojapelo case is one of 11,000 land claims. Only two have been resolved.

In the past few weeks, the government has tried to move the cases more quickly by having the parties settle out of court. Mgoqi says cases are now being settled at a much faster rate.

"I want us to drive this case to finality as soon as possible," he announces at the meeting.

The audience erupts with applause.

Outside the hall, Kgasago Mojapelo, son of the chief, was hopeful that there is "light at the end of the tunnel," but remained cautious.

"We never exploded, but you can tell we are not impressed. It's the same thing again and again," he says, adding that the case is simple.

"What is yours is yours. Just like a mother is attached to her child, we are attached to our land."

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