WHEN Nelson Mandela came to power in 1994 he declared South Africa would be a "rainbow nation" free from the hatred brought by years of apartheid.
But now a very different African leader’s influence threatens to shatter the dream of a racially-tolerant country with increasing numbers of white farmers being murdered by impoverished blacks inspired by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s policy of taking away their land by force.
In South Africa, more than 1,500 white farmers have been killed since 1994, compared to 14 murdered by Mugabe’s supporters in three years of violence in neighbouring Zimbabwe.
Most have died during robberies, but, according to a devastating report commissioned by South African President Thabo Mbeki’s government, they are increasingly being killed by farm workers who want land of their own.
In Pretoria on November 4, a cross-section of that country’s top security officers, academics and lawyers will meet to discuss what is seen as a serious threat to national security and the future of organised agriculture in South Africa.
They plan to tell the deeply worried Mbeki that he must take immediate action to meet the aspirations of millions of landless black South Africans.
A decade after the African National Congress (ANC) came to power promising blacks an end to white political and economic rule, some 40,000 whites dominate almost all aspects of food production. Mbeki recently condemned what he called the "two societies" that still exist in post-apartheid South Africa.
But black activists like Supho Makhombothi, of the Mpoumalanga Labour Tenants’ Association (MLTA) which represents landless farm labourers in the impoverished Piet Retief and Wakkerstroom districts, are tired of rhetoric.
"We have waited long enough. Nothing has happened despite all the promises made by the African National Congress (ANC) about returning the land to us," he said.
"We are still living in slavery. We have therefore given the government an ultimatum to give us land or we will simply follow the example of our brothers in Zimbabwe and invade."
Leaders of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) - whose pre-independence slogan was ‘one settler, one bullet’ - are calling on Mugabe to tour the country’s rural areas and address landless blacks.
Makhombothi, who the South African Government calls a "lawless thug", said: "President Mugabe has supported what we believe is the best solution for returning land to black farmers. We want to hear him speak and learn from him."
Police are boosting local capacity after these threats by the MLTA. There have been reports, denied by police, that unemployed and criminal-minded blacks are paid almost 200 a time to ambush, slaughter and then kill white farmers, their wives and children.
Werner Weber, chairman of a pan-agricultural union pressure group called Action: Stop the Farm Attacks, said: "They’re shown how to kill by watching videos made by some anti-white organisation called Black Jack."
Confirming that the police and army are developing emergency contingency plans to prevent threatened Zimbabwe-style land invasions, South African National Defence Commander Colonel Anton Kritzinger confirmed that plans were underway for the mobilisation of a rapid response army unit. "We obviously hope it is not necessary but we are developing contingency plans to deploy troops if the situation is too big for the police to handle," he said.
On the eve of the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Abuja, Nigeria, sources close to the Commonwealth Secretariat in London told Scotland on Sunday that despite all the predictions that he would step down this December, Mugabe was becoming an increasingly influential figure.
"It’s not just landless Africans who admire him," the source said. "Aborigines, Maoris and even Mexicans think he is a fighter for economic justice in the Third World."
Baroness Amos, who has a long association with African developments since 1997, said that it was time Africa woke up to Mugabe.
A senior Commonwealth source said: "Mugabe is going to use the land ownership issue at CHOGM to rally support for the landless against white power in Africa and there’s still plenty of white economic power in South Africa.
"He is quite capable of appealing to the black masses over the head of Thabo Mbeki if he is ever seriously criticised by the South African Government.
"Hence Mbeki’s desire to pursue his largely ineffectual quiet diplomacy on the Zimbabwean issue."
One of the men who has the ear of Mbeki on the land issue and the growing fear of Zimbabwean-style invasions is Dr Edward Latiff, a prominent academic with the Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of Western Cape.
"Mugabe has raised the profile of land reform," he said." It was an issue that hardly existed on the political landscape in 1998. At the grassroots level, there has been an incredible increase in militancy with the formation of the Landless People’s Movement and a series of threatened land invasions."
Mbeki tries to play down the fears, telling would-be investors that the deaths of so many white farmers is not the start of an ethnic cleansing campaign, but part of the general breakdown of law and order.
There are over 25,000 murders every year in South Africa, a rape occurs every minute and break-ins are a fact of life in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and other urban areas of a country where the contrast between the "haves" and "have nots" is terrifying.