HUMANSDORP, South Africa -- A smooth dirt road winds through the green pastures of this dairy farming region, where full-bellied cows graze on thousands of acres of disputed land.
"It has been said in the press that this is some of the most productive land in South Africa. If you said that 20 years ago, people would have laughed at you," said Peter Korkie, one of the 19 farmers who bought land in Humansdorp from the government in 1982.
"It was extremely infertile land when I purchased it," Mr. Korkisaid of his 600-acre farm in the Tsitsikamma Valley. "If it's good land now, I've made it that way."
For the Fingo people and their supporters, the main issue is not how much the farmers have improved the land but how they came to be in possession of it.
In 1977, the Fingos were thrown off the land, which had been legally theirs, by armed government forces carrying out a national policy of removing blacks from "white areas." They were transported nearly 200 miles to a place the government had designated for blacks, and the land, for which they were never paid, eventually was put up for sale to whites.
Mr. Korkie, 42, a land rehabilitation expert who worked focoal-mining companies before buying the land in Humansdorp, said that he "didn't have a clue" in 1982 about how the Fingos were forcibly evicted.
He answered an advertisement in an agricultural gazette, he said, and it never occurred to him to ask how the government had gotten the land it was selling. He said he had studied agriculture in college, had been saving money for years and was so anxious to buy a farm that he might have been blinded to other issues.
"If I thought an injustice had been done, I would have asked questions. But there's a lot of forest in that area. It could have been empty government forest land," he said.
"Only after we had committed ourselves and had been here six months did I start hearing about the Fingos. If I've committed a crime because I didn't pull up lock, stock and barrel at that point, then I'm a criminal."
According to records compiled by the Legal Resources Center, a non-profit legal aid organization, Mr. Korkie paid 70,753 rands for his farm ($28,300 at current exchange rates) and received government loans totaling 193,558 rands ($77,423).
Altogether, the government sold 15,000 acres of Fingo land for 1,345,000 rands ($538,000). At the time, independent appraisers estimated that the land was worth four times that amount, and the area recently has been valued at 10,251,483 rands.
Farmers say the land is worth that much now because they have developed it intensively over the past eight years, but their opponents point out that the government made it possible for them to develop the land by subsidizing them. The government even agreed to write off 10 percent of the farmers' loans each year, which meant that after 10 years their original debt would be wiped out.
"I'm not trying to justify an injustice," Mr. Korkie said of the serieof events. "But I've had to do my best within the system. I think the farm I've developed has been a credit to South Africa and to any country in need of food.
"I don't think justice will be done, I don't see how it can be done to those 4,000 souls by returning them to the land and expecting them to farm it viably," he said.
"I've got a viable, well-run proposition at the moment, while the Fingo community has been scattered all over the country. If they weren't compensated for the land, then I feel there's still some way they could be compensated other than by removing the farmers."
Judy Chalmers of Black Sash, a women's organization that provides assistance to black victims of apartheid, said that she felt "sorry for the farmers. They put 10 good years into that land. But that's not really the issue as far as the Fingos are concerned."
She said there was no doubt that the land was stolen from the Fingos by a government set on enforcing the unfair land laws of apartheid, which reserved 87 percent of South Africa's land for ,, the white minority. "The Fingos owned the land. They had title deed," she said. Seizure of their land "went against any moral perception of human rights."
The Legal Resources Center, which is representing the Fingos, has served notice on the 19 farmers that the Fingo community is planning court action to try to get its land back. After 13 years of unsuccessful attempts, the Fingos hope they will have a better chance now that the government is repealing the apartheid laws used to evict them.
The farmers, meanwhile, are sitting uncomfortably on the sidelines and arguing that taking the land from them now would only be another injustice.
"I can't justify that forced removal. Who can? No right-thinking person can," said Mr. Korkie. "But taking back the land, whether that's going to be justified in terms of agricultural efficiency, I have my doubts."
He said he has put everything into his property, including "eight years of my life. I could never put the same effort into another farm."
TOMORROW: Return of the Mogopa.