KAAP MUIDEN, South Africa, Apr 18 (Reuters) Eric Sibiya beams with pride as he talks about taking his first steps towards becoming a fully fledged commercial farmer.
Until last year, he was a peasant farmer with just seven hectares (17 acres) of his own in Kaap Muiden in South Africa's Mpumalanga province, 400 km (250 miles) east of Johannesburg.
Now he owns 33 hectares of some of the country's prime sugar fields. He and six other black farmers who share a 260-hectare plot are putting veterans in the industry to shame with their high-yielding crops.
''We feel strong and confident. We feel good,'' Sibiya said with a determined expression when asked if he was fazed by the challenge of making the leap from subsistence farming.
So he should be. He started working his 33 hectares a year ago, but already he and his colleagues are producing promising results.
The group averaged 135 tonnes per hectare, compared with 91 tonnes for the province as whole.
This is the kind of success that the government would like to see as it tries to reverse the unequal distribution of land created by apartheid and colonial laws, by bringing more blacks into farming.
However, stories of unsuccessful land reform projects abound and the pace of transferring ownership has been painfully slow, sparking threats of land invasions from activists.
About 96 per cent of the country's commercial arable land still belongs to white farmers, according to the government, which aims to put 30 per cent of agricultural land in black hands by 2014.
Critics say the government has failed to equip new black farmers with skills to cope with a demanding industry in its haste to redress these historical imbalances and quell frustration at the sluggish progress.
In a report, the Centre for Development and Enterprise, an independent research and advocacy group, painted a gloomy picture of South Africa's future if the government continued on its current path.
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