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Black South Africans may lose farms

A security guard stands near some ostriches at a Hammanskraal farm, which was rented to small-scale farmers who deserted it last fall outside of Pretoria, South Africa.

TEXT OF STORY

BOB MOON: South Africans start heading to the polls in a few hours. The ruling African National Congress is widely expected to win the election. It's been the party in control since apartheid ended in 1994.

Back then, Nelson Mandela's new government made a pledge to redistribute 30 percent of white-owned farmland to the black majority. But it's still a long way from that goal. And now the government is threatening to take back land it's given to black farmers. Gretchen Wilson reports.


GRETCHEN WILSON: Sibongile Simelane grew up in this crowded shantytown Duduza, about 80 miles outside of Johannesburg. Jobs were scarce. But she and her friends were determined to escape the streets and start a farming business.

SIBONGILE SIMELANE: It became a dream for us.

For decades, black South Africans were kicked off their ancestral land, and then barred from owning property. But when apartheid ended, there was black majority rule. And the government set up a reform policy to distribute land to aspiring black farmers. Three years ago, Simelane and her partners got the lease on a 400-acre farm.

SIMELANE: It was amazing to have a farm. I was very, very excited. And I was nervous!

Researchers say about half of the new black-owned farms have failed. Now the government is threatening to evict black farmers who don't make the most of their land. The policy is meant to reassure voters that South Africa won't go the way of neighboring Zimbabwe, where corrupt and inefficient land redistribution almost wiped out commercial farming.

But many South Africans say the confiscation policy is harsh. And they are furious at the ruling ANC party for what they see as the slow pace of land reform.

ANDILE MNGXITAMA: We believe that the dream that many people sacrificed for has not been realized and is continuously being compromised.

Andile Mngxitama is an activist with the Landless People's Movement. He calls the new policy racist, because it only threatens the land rights of blacks. White farmers, who didn't get the land under the recent redistribution policy, can be as unproductive as they like.

MNGXITAMA: It's an apartheid. We have sustained the apartheid system in many, many areas of life. So for me personally, I am unhappy to the extent that I will not be voting, in fact, in this coming election.

Critics across the political spectrum blame the government for the collapse of these new farms. The hopeful farmers are often lumped together in a group, and given lots of land, but little training. Many can't get bank loans to buy tractors, fertilizers and seeds. Theo de Jager is with Agri SA, a coalition of 70,000 mostly white commercial farmers.

THEO DE JAGER: Very often, the beneficiaries of land reform get the poorest of the farms. And they are delivered to failure.

So Agri SA set up a mentor program, where farmers can work together across the racial divide. Andre Botha is a farmer who developed the program.

ANDRE BOTHA: What the local farmers is we can't wait for government. Let's help these young black people make a success of their businesses.

Sibongile Simelane is part of this program. And so far, her 400 acres are going strong.

She and her eight partners raise hundreds of sheep, cattle and chickens. A neighboring farmer comes over a few times a week to teach them the basics.

SIMELANE: I've learned how to vaccinate, I've learned how to keep records of our mortality and our live sheep.

Simelane wants mentoring projects like this one to reach others like her. And she hopes that after the election, government will stop making threats. And instead boost its support for emerging black farmers.

In rural South Africa, I'm Gretchen Wilson for Marketplace.

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