JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA H — JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The South African government announced a major concession on the emotional issue of land ownership yesterday, saying it would set up a commission to hear complaints from people who were forced off their land under apartheid.
The government said it remained opposed to the idea of returning land to victims of apartheid because restitution of that sort was "not practical or financially viable."
"The government is, however, not insensitive to the cause of people or communities who were possibly disadvantaged in the past," said Hernus Kriel, minister of planning, provincial affairs and national housing.
Mr. Kriel announced plans for the advisory commission, which would make recommendations to President Frederik W. de Klerk, at a news conference in Cape Town.
His announcement came in response to the angry outcry that greeted Mr. de Klerk's land-reform proposals in March, when the government outlined plans for the repeal of racially discriminatory land ownership laws.
Blacks were prohibited from owning land in 87 percent of the country, and land was seized from an estimated 3.5 million people when their property was declared to be in "white areas." Anti-apartheid activists, led by the African National Congress, demanded that the government set up an appeals process that would allow blacks and other non-white groups to reclaim their old land.
The ANC welcomed the government's concession yesterday but said it did not go far enough since the commission would merely be advisory and would not be empowered to settle land disputes.
"It's a great improvement in a rotten position," said Aninka Claassens, a researcher on land issues at the University of Witwatersrand's Center for Applied Legal Studies.
Government officials had consistently opposed demands for restitution to land owners who lost property under apartheid, saying it would cause chaos to try to sort out past land disputes or to take land away from current owners.
"The government believes that the capital and energy which would have to be invested in restitution could be used more productively for the development and upliftment of deprived communities and the creation of new job opportunities," Mr. Kriel told reporters yesterday.
Several black communities have sought to return to their land in recent months.