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South African president pledges to hasten land redistribution

Section: Daily Dispatches

By Paul Simao
via Yahoo News
Friday, February 9, 2007

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- President Thabo Mbeki on Friday pledged to tackle poverty and crime and speed up land redistribution to blacks, signaling a new interventionist approach in fighting South Africa's glaring social ills.

In a speech marking the opening of parliament in Cape Town, Mbeki acknowledged the government needed to do more to help millions of unemployed, poor and landless South Africans living on the sidelines of the country's fast-growing economy.

He outlined programs to spur employment through expanded public works projects, increase subsidized housing for the poor, and implement a broad social security system designed mainly to help low-income workers.

"All these economic and social programs form part of our strategies to reduce and eradicate the poverty that continues to afflict many of our people," Mbeki, who is halfway through his second and final term, said in his State of the Nation speech.

The 64-year-old leader has been under pressure from powerful trade unions and his own divided African National Congress to improve life for ordinary South Africans, many of whom lack electricity, water and other basic services.

Raising the quality of social amenities has become a major demand on Mbeki's government, highlighted by violent protests that erupted over the issue in mostly black townships last year.

Mbeki said the use of buckets to collect water and sewage, a common practice in slums and rural areas, was an "ugly and repulsive" fact that needed to be eliminated. Nearly a fifth of South Africa's 45 million people still have no clean water.

In one of his strongest statements yet on the controversial, racially tinged land-reform issue, Mbeki said too many claims remained unresolved for those dispossessed under apartheid and colonial rule and that redistribution should be sped up.

Land redistribution is seen by the ruling ANC and its largely black constituency as a cornerstone of black majority rule, but for whites it evokes the specter of the land seizures and agricultural collapse occurring in neighboring Zimbabwe.

"Mbeki's comments that land reform needs to be speeded up are unlikely to be well-received by investors, although we don't believe there is any implication of the Zimbabwe-style land grabbing in his comments at all," Tania Kotsos of the Royal Bank of Canada in London said.

Initial market reaction to the speech was muted, with the rand weakening slightly at 7.16 to the dollar at 1230 GMT.

In his speech, Mbeki bowed to growing public pressure to tackle crime, amid widespread perceptions the problem was spiraling out of control, especially in the country's economic hub Johannesburg.

South Africa has one of the world's highest murder rates.

Business leaders have expressed fears that violent crime, if left unchecked, could deter foreign investment and tourism in Africa's biggest economy and ruin the country's chances of successfully hosting the 2010 soccer World Cup.

Mbeki, who took over from former President Nelson Mandela in 1999, said the country had made progress in combating criminals, though he acknowledged many people still lived in fear, "closeted behind walls and barbed wire."

"Decisive action will be taken to eradicate lawlessness, drug trafficking, gun running, crime and especially the abuse of women and children," he said, adding he would increase the size of the police force.

Mbeki also said the government was committed to expanding programs to fight HIV and AIDS, which affects about 5 million South Africans.

The country's main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, said Mbeki had correctly identified some of the most pressing problems in South Africa but added that he had waited too long to offer solutions and lacked a coherent vision.

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