South Africa: Land Battles Fuel Economic Fears

Stealing property from millions of black South Africans was the country's original crime. But more than two decades after the fall of white minority rule, only a few have seen the land returned.
Mhle Msimang with his cattle.
South Africa Tensions Source: Photography by Alexia Webster for Newsweek

It’s just after 8 on a crisp morning outside Besters, a farming village in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, and Mhle Msimanga is wading through his herd of cattle in a wire pen, calling out directions to his sons and nephews standing outside it. “The cows can’t get out if you’re all crowded at the gate!” the 48-year-old farmer yells, speaking the local isiZulu language. The boys move aside, and a few cattle trot out, meandering onto a dirt road that leads toward the low-slung mountains that spread out behind Msimanga’s property.

It wasn’t always his land. In 2005, the post-apartheid South African government bought about 1,112 acres from his former boss—a white farmer—and transferred the title deed to Msimanga and his fellow workers. It was part of a larger transaction in Besters that year: The government acquired over 34,590 acres from white South African farmers and transferred the ownership to nearly 200 black South African families, who, like Msimanga, had lived and worked on the land for years.

The deal changed Msimanga’s life and rewrote the future of his children. In 1991, he went from earning roughly $18 a month on this land to owning it, as well as a large herd of cattle. “There is no money in being a worker,” he says. “It’s only now I see money for all the work I put in.”

‘Wake Up, My Friend. Our People Want The Land’

Land Ownership was supposed to be the reality for hundreds of thousands of black South Africans by now. But 24 years after the nation’s first free elections, the country is still struggling to correct the gross injustices of colonialism and apartheid, the system of white minority rule and racial segregation.

European colonizers arrived at the southern tip of the continent in the 17th century and for the next 200 years drove Africans off their homeland. A policy in 1913 allowed

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