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In South Africa’s Fabled Wine Country, White and Black Battle Over Land

One cold morning, Stefan Smit, a white farmer in South Africa’s stunning wine region, woke up to find his vineyard under siege.

Anxious and angry, Mr. Smit, 62, drove his pickup truck to the highest point on his estate and peered down. Impoverished residents from the black township next door had stormed the land, clearing weeds and erecting 40 shacks in a matter of hours.

“I, personally, can’t breathe here,” Mr. Smit said later.

Virtually overnight, Mr. Smit’s farm, with its sweeping views of the Stellenbosch region, became a battleground in a bitter political fight that has split the nation and reached all the way to the Trump White House: Who should own South Africa’s land?

The fight pits white South Africans, who still control much of the economy a generation after the end of apartheid, directly against their black neighbors, many of whom are struggling to acquire a tiny patch on which to build a shack.

A recent government survey found that white farmers like Mr. Smit control nearly 70 percent of farms held by individual owners in South Africa. And the figure does not even include land held by companies and trusts, which account for the largest share of privately owned land in the country.

In this fabled corner of South Africa, where Americans and other foreigners come to taste chenin blanc and pinotage, white farmers like Mr. Smit have been trying to hold on to a part of the country they consider their historic domain.

  
He and his white Afrikaner friends call it an invasion, part of a calculated effort by the governing African National Congress to capture the only province that remains out of its political control.

“People are being brought” from other parts of the country “just to create a voting bloc,” said Jan de Klerk, a friend of Mr. Smit’s and a son of F.W. de Klerk, the former president who negotiated the end of apartheid with Nelson Mandela. “It’s not skills coming into the town. It’s basically just people coming in, and there’s no room.”

The squatters say they moved in out of desperation. Life had barely changed for the men and women in the neighboring township, even a quarter-century after achieving democracy. They still lived in flimsy shacks in cramped quarters, while Mr. Smit and his friends hold vast tracts of land brutally snatched from African inhabitants generations ago and deliberately kept in white hands for decades to come.
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The monopolies go far beyond private estates. Nearly 80 of the farms in Stellenbosch sit on public land. And most of them are locked in 50-year leases that local authorities signed with white farmers in the early 1990s, right before the end of apartheid, in exchange for private investments in water infrastructure, according to confidential municipal audits obtained by The New York Times.

The arrangements have enabled the farmers to maintain control of large stretches of public land long after the arrival of democracy.

“We see that land, we must take that land,” said Zola Ndlasi, 44, the man who led the takeover, as he walked among the new shacks. Because he came from the same region as Mr. Mandela, everyone called him by the same clan name, “Madiba.”

With only a few months to go before elections, this elemental struggle — over who owns South Africa — is playing out on a national level.

Many black South Africans feel betrayed by the failure of the A.N.C., riddled with corruption, to provide access to land for the black majority.

The A.N.C. has tried — halfheartedly, critics say — to redistribute some of it, but the party has failed repeatedly, angering black residents all the more. One A.N.C. program purchased land from willing white farmers, but was so tainted by corruption that politicians ended up with more land than the ordinary citizens who were supposed to benefit.

In recent years, an A.N.C. spinoff, the Economic Freedom Fighters, has tapped into this anger by calling on black South Africans to take land on their own.


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