NELLMAPIUS South Africa (Reuters) - To the squatters marking it up this week with sticks, rocks and strips of plastic, ‘Malema Valley’ is a little slice of South Africa they want to call home.
To many others, including the government, the derelict land on Pretoria’s outskirts handed out by supporters of opposition firebrand Julius Malema is the thin end of a land-grab wedge that could ultimately derail Africa’s most advanced economy.
Few South Africans have forgotten the economic catastrophe that unfolded in neighboring Zimbabwe from 2000 when liberation war veterans - with initial acquiescence and then encouragement from President Robert Mugabe - invaded white-owned farms.
For the moment, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) is holding the line, sending riot police to clear the land, owned by Pretoria city council, and dismantle the shacks springing up on makeshift 12m x 12m plots.
“This is no-man’s land. There’s nothing here and people need a place to live. We’ve done nothing wrong,” said unemployed 26-year-old Nelson Poeletso, rolling a yellow police rubber bullet between his thumb and forefinger.
The tough stance could be politically costly for the ANC, which overthrew decades of white-minority rule 20 years ago with promises to provide a ‘better life for all’, backed by a constitution that enshrines the right to ‘adequate housing’.
The reaction to Wednesday’s removal of hundreds of would-be shack-dwellers was a riot, with residents of the township of Nellmapius, 20 km (12 miles) east of Pretoria, burning tyres in the street and looting the house of the local ANC councillor.
Egged on by activists from Malema’s ultra-leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), who said they had 7,000 people signed up for ‘Malema Valley’ housing plots, and with a strong sense of moral entitlement, the shack-dwellers vowed to return.
“We will come back and have this land. That’s not a threat - it’s a promise,” Poeletso said.
The legacy of apartheid, which saw black South Africans who made up over 80 percent of the population consigned to less than 10 percent of the country, has ensured that land and housing remain highly charged issues.
Since 1994, the ANC has made huge strides, building more than 3 million low-cost houses and providing electricity to 85 percent of homes in 2011, compared with just 58 percent in 1996.
However, it still needs to build 2.3 million houses to accommodate the homeless, who have long resorted to building makeshift shacks around apartheid-era “townships” but seldom strayed in orchestrated fashion onto other pieces of land.
With a budget deficit of 4 percent of GDP - the hangover of a 2009 recession - and ratings agencies downgrading its credit, the government has no more money to throw at the problem.
Housing Minister Lindiwe Sisulu admitted last month that the government was starting to cap its largesse, making a distinction for the first time between those who were adults at the end of apartheid and those who were not.
“We will no longer give people who are young free houses,” she told a conference in Johannesburg. “Those younger than 40 years can build their own houses.”
With little affordable land available, such admissions play into the hands of the EFF.
The party won 6 percent of the vote in May on a ticket of nationalization of mines and banks and seizure of land without compensation - a radical Mugabe-style antidote to what it says is unacceptably slow social transformation under the ANC.
‘Malema Valley’ is a classic example.
Ward councillor Precious Marole said the land - bought by the city from a white farmer 15 years ago - had been earmarked for a low-cost housing development to start early next year.
However, after 20 years of waiting in line for homes that never arrived and with the EFF banging the drum, few residents of Nellmapius believed him.
“They (EFF) told people there was land in Pretoria and they must come and grab it,” Marole told Reuters by phone from a safe-house after his home was ransacked. “The EFF believe that everything they want must happen now.”
The result is unprecedented public questioning of the principles on which Nelson Mandela and the ANC negotiated a peaceful and stable handover from apartheid in 1994.
“There was always the implicit threat of the catastrophic transfer of property but the basic deal was to use taxes and the law to change the demographics of the economy and how people live,” said political analyst Nic Borain.
“It’s now open season on that idea.”
(This story has been refiled to correct the date)
Editing by Joe Brock and Philippa Fletcher