South Africa Confronts Confounding Question: Who Gets the Land?

HILTON, South Africa—After the morning mist lifted from the rolling hills behind his bare-bones house, Bhekindlela Mwelase gazed out at the contested land he has lived and worked on his entire life.

The pastures that once fed his goats and cattle are part of the 4,000-acre estate of Hilton College, an exclusive boys’ boarding school that has educated South Africa’s elite for the past century. But who the land belongs to—the college that bought it in 1860 or the 87-year-old Mr. Mwelase, whose family has lived on it for many generations longer—is at the center of an intensifying political debate roiling Africa’s most developed economy.

Twenty-four years after the end of white minority rule, South Africa’s new leader is promising to tackle a problem that has confounded former colonies from Bolivia to Zimbabwe: how to redistribute land without hurting the economy.


Cyril Ramaphosa

and the ruling African National Congress have pledged to pass laws letting the government expropriate land without compensation, a high-stakes move they say is necessary to remake some of the deep inequalities plaguing South Africa.

He and other senior ANC officials have said that would be an appropriate way to handle the cases of so-called labor tenants—people who swapped work for the right to live and farm on white-owned land—as well as farm dwellers and people living in informal settlements around South African cities.

That is raising the hopes of poor, black agricultural workers such as Mr. Mwelase.

“I was born here,” Mr. Mwelase said as he sat in the backyard of the house he shares with more than a dozen family members. He argues that more than a century of free or barely-paid labor provided by him, his parents and grandparents to Hilton College entitles him to a small slice of its vast grounds. “I worked there from the first day I remember to the day I retired.”

Hilton College says Mr. Mwelase and other community members weren’t labor tenants but modestly remunerated farmworkers.

The issue looks set to be a defining legacy for the party of Nelson Mandela. Since 1996, when a new constitution promised equal access to land for all South Africans, government programs have moved just 8% of agricultural property from white into black ownership, far short of the 30% target the ANC had set for the first five years of democracy.

“If well handled, land reform will help bind the nation together and produce benefits for all,” Mr. Ramaphosa, who also heads the ANC, said recently. “If badly managed, it will simply redistribute resentment, damage the economy and destroy social peace.”

South Africa’s anemic efforts at agrarian reform have been led by voluntary sales by white farmers and other property owners to the government. White South Africans, who make up around 8% of the country’s population, still own 73% of agricultural land, according to estimates from farmers association Agri SA.

Mr. Ramaphosa has embraced more market-friendly policies than his predecessor,

Jacob Zuma,

but faces a far-left challenge from the upstart Economic Freedom Fighters in national elections next year. The EFF and its fiery leader,

Julius Malema,

have encouraged their followers to invade white-owned properties and take for themselves what government hasn’t provided.

White Afrikaner interest groups have threatened to take legal action against the planned expropriations bill and warned that it could drive them out of the country. Others, including South Africa’s Banking Association, caution that expropriating land without compensation could trigger further downgrades of the country’s sovereign debt rating, erode property prices and stymie private-sector lending.

In that charged environment, cases like that of Mr. Mwelase could provide an opportunity for the government to show quick results without eroding food security and investor confidence, according to land experts and ANC officials.

The claimants “are living on the land already, they are using the land,” said

Siya Sithole,

program coordinator at the Association for Rural Advancement, a civil-society group that is helping Mr. Mwelase and other members of the Hilton community pursue their land claims. “It has zero value [to the owner] already, so when you expropriate you need no compensation.”

Mr. Mwelase says his family should benefit from a 1996 law that promised labor tenants government help to buy the plots they have been living on. Barred from owning property under apartheid rules, black labor tenants—similar to sharecroppers in the U.S.—swapped work for the right to live, raise crops and graze livestock on white-owned land.

Mr. Mwelase, his health fading, is waiting for a ruling on his land claim, which was first entered in 2001 and is disputed by Hilton College. Like other members of the small community about a mile from the college’s manicured lawns and gabled schoolhouses, he can’t expand his home, keep more than three adult goats or invite visitors without approval from the college. They say they feel under pressure to abandon the land where they have buried their ancestors and feel safe from the crime plaguing South Africa’s cities.

“The master-servant relationship continues,” said Mr. Sithole. “They have to live by the rules of the land owners.”

Like members of the Hilton community, the college says it has been paralyzed by the state’s failure to rule on the claim. It has helped pay for government homes for community members in a township about 12 miles from the college, where around 100 families have moved voluntarily. Staying on college property is “not a sustainable way of living going forward, especially for the young people,” said

George Harris,

Hilton’s headmaster.

Members of the Hilton community say they hope new land laws would finally bring them some certainty.

“My wish is to remain here and be able to farm,” said Thanda Mwelase, whose brother, a cousin of Bhekindlela Mwelase, also filed a claim against Hilton College before he died in 2005. “And when the time comes to meet my forefathers I want to be securely buried here.”

Write to Gabriele Steinhauser at

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