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25 Years After Apartheid Ended, South Africa's Land Rights Problem Is Boiling Over


Since the end of apartheid 25 years ago, the South African government has promised to chip away at the white ownership of much of the country's farmland. NPR's Daniella Cheslow reports that the recent murder of a winemaker at the center of a land dispute illustrates how this issue is boiling over.


DANIELLA CHESLOW, BYLINE: Stellenbosch, the heart of Cape wine country, along the nation's coastal southwest - here, against craggy mountains and a vista of vines, I ride up a rutted dirt path.

AYANDA TOMOSE: Little rough entrance for small cars

CHESLOW: Ayanda Tomose drives. He's 29, a young father. And like more than a quarter of South Africans, he's unemployed. Tomose used to live in Kayamandi Township down the hill, but there was no room for his expanding family, so he built a shack on land just outside the township.


CHESLOW: He unlocks the padlock to the front door. It's one room with corrugated metal sheets nailed to a thin wooden frame. Tomose sleeps on a twin mattress and keeps his clothes in a cardboard box from a washing machine.

TOMOSE: We are still skeptical of putting proper things because we don't know when they can come and demolish the shacks.

CHESLOW: Shacks like Tomose's stretch across the horizon. There are about 1,400. Midas Wanana is a leader of this community, and he says black South Africans are taking back what should've been theirs. Under apartheid, black people were banned from owning most land in South Africa.

MIDAS WANANA: The white people grabbed the land, so the land belongs to the black people, not the white people

CHESLOW: Wanana says this land was just sitting empty, and people in Kayamandi had been asking Stellenbosch for more land for years. This particular property was owned by winemaker Stefan Smit. His family has been on the farm since 1896, and Smit had tried to remove the squatters by court order.


CHESLOW: Smit ran a vineyard called Louiesenhof. On a recent visit, birds chirped on the wooden deck of a tasting room. Smit refused an interview, but he told The New York Times in March he had received death threats. And then, on a Sunday night earlier this month, Smit was home with his wife and a friend when four people burst in and fatally shot him. Smit was 62. Police are searching for suspects. Wanana, the activist, condemned the attack.

WANANA: We're feeling shame for Mr. Smit. He has a family to look after.

CHESLOW: Wanana says this killing was not related to the land invasion. It was just regular crime. President Cyril Ramaphosa says he will make land more equitable. To do that, he says he will amend the constitution to enable expropriation of land without compensation. This has alarmed landowners. In a campaign stop in Stellenbosch ahead of May elections, Ramaphosa told farmers not to fear land reform.


PRESIDENT CYRIL RAMAPHOSA: It is going to be done in accordance with our constitution. It's not going to be land grabs.

CHESLOW: Ramaphosa was reelected, but the amendment is still in the works. Just before Smit's murder, the Stellenbosch municipality had agreed to buy his disputed land, about 150 acres, for roughly $3 million. Stellenbosch municipal manager Geraldine Mettler acknowledges that only about a thousand families can be housed on Smit's land, and they would be selected according to their position on a list of 22,000 people waiting for homes.

GERALDINE METTLER: We will never be able, if we are going to keep housing in the current form, to be able to address the backlog.


CHESLOW: The people living illegally on Stefan Smit's land have renamed it Azania. Women carry buckets of water to their homes. There is a little grocery shop selling cigarettes.


CHESLOW: Chris Peko seals his home using cloth and a sealant that he brushes on top.

CHRIS PEKO: For the wind, also for the rain so the rain mustn't come through.

CHESLOW: Peko says he used to pay 500 rand, or about $45, a month in rent. On the hill, he could build a shack for his family and another for his brother, who's sick.

PEKO: So we must give each other space for living.

CHESLOW: For NPR News, I'm Daniella Cheslow in Stellenbosch, South Africa.