BY NORM DIXON
On the eve of the August 27-September 7 United Nations World Conference Against Racism in Durban, the South African government has announced plans to penalise "instigators" of so-called "land invasions".
On August 13, housing minister Sankie Mthembi-Mahanyele told a press briefing that the African National Congress government will amend the Prevention of Illegal Eviction and Unlawful Occupation of Land Act of 1998 because "some courts have interpreted this [act] very narrowly and the organisers of land invasions have escaped prosecution".
"The government is in the process of strengthening this act in order to ensure that any person who instigates land invasions is prosecuted regardless of whether they have benefitted financially or not", Mthembi-Mahanyele warned.
The move follows recent land "invasions" in Bredell, near Johannesburg, and near Khayelitsha in Cape Town. The newly formed Landless People's Movement has threatened to launch a wave of occupations if the government does not implement land redistribution promised in 1994. Landless groups are also to highlight the ANC's failure to reverse the legacy of apartheid with the Landlessness = Racism campaign during the UN's anti-racism conference.
"We regard land invasions as unacceptable and the government is not going to tolerate any unlawful act in the allocation of land and shelter", Mthembi-Mahanyele declared.
On August 15, public works minister Stella Sigau told an assembled group of capitalists at the Africa trade exhibition in Johannesburg: "We will not allow political opportunism to mislead poor people on false promises of possible land acquisition, nor will as government tolerate any acts of land invasion that run contrary to our structured program of land reform."
Apparently oblivious to the irony, Sigau soon after announced that 125 hectares of "redundant" state-owned land had been sold to a joint venture between information technology companies from South Africa and China for R25 million (A$6 million) — R15 million less than the company offered in the first place.
Defending the subsidised land for big business, Sigau explained it in terms of the ANC government's belief in trickle-down economics: "We don't want to constrain the developers into using finance intended for the development of the site. we put more value on what will come out of the project in terms of job creation and economic development of the area."
The National Land Committee (NLC), a network of land rights, poor and landless people's organisations across South Africa, condemned the moves as "a draconian threat to further criminalise the desperately poor and landless, as well as any organisations that support them".
"Although the NLC has never instigated land occupations, and does not have a policy of doing so, it cannot but sympathise with landless people whose desperate circumstances, made worse by government neglect, has lead them to do so", said NLC director Zakes Hlatshwayo.
"Less than 2% of land has changed hands from white to black in the seven years since the birth of the new South Africa, and the resulting widespread landlessness in rural and urban areas has created desperate circumstances for millions of poor black people. It is not surprising that poor people would begin occupying vacant land.
"The NLC would have hoped that a popularly elected government would dedicate its energies to developing plans to unblock the delivery of land reform and low-cost housing rather than demonstrate that it is 'determined to stamp [its] authority' to prevent land occupations.
"The government's chosen path sadly demonstrates that it places a far higher priority on grandstanding to the international community and placating foreign investors than on offering a compassionate response and tangible solutions to the desperate pleas of its own constituency."