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  • Gaining Ground? ‘Rights’ and ‘Property’ in South African Land Reform
  • Cherryl Walker (bio)
Deborah James (2007) Gaining Ground? ‘Rights’ and ‘Property’ in South African and Reform. London and Johannesburg: Routledge-Cavendish and Wits University Press.

This is an ambitious study of land reform in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa, which draws on a long history of field work by the author in the area, stretching back to the early 1980s. A major strength of the book is that it is a regional study – not simply a single case study, nor a high-level national overview but, rather, a series of case studies and associated analyses of what they mean in combination. This allows James to bring to the fore and explore the complex range of categories of land ownership and rights, past and present, that characterises land relationships in the province (focusing in particular on the former white countryside rather than the former bantustans), as well as the way in which they overlap, intersect, cross-cut and compete. The different types of rights in land include freehold title, labour tenancy and various forms of communal and informal tenure, all of which are mediated through relationships to legal institutions, state bureaucrats, traditional leaders, private landowners (black and white), and other local power brokers. James also highlights rural-urban linkages and their significance for understanding relationships to land, and is critical of analysts who conceptualize land reform as targeting a distinct rural sphere, rather than appreciating the extent of the interdependence between urban and rural livelihoods for most ostensibly ‘rural’ people.

It is thus a highly complex terrain which James presents, one which she is at pains neither to simplify nor romanticise. Had she located Mpumalanga more clearly in relation to other regional contexts within South Africa, she might have been even more successful in demonstrating not just complexity [End Page 173] but also delineating the regional specificity of Mpumalanga and what this means for the larger analysis of land reform that is also an important concern for her. This province is an important locus for land reform but it is not fully representative of South Africa’s rural areas in their entirety, nor of the more highly urbanized provinces. A major challenge for land reform, therefore, is that it is a national endeavour that has to take regional differences into account in the development and implementation of policy.

For poor black rural households, land provides a form of social insurance in a world where employment is no longer assured and the state’s capacity to provide social security is itself not certain. While recognising that, James also explores land as a symbol of citizenship and the challenges facing a bureaucratically-driven process of land reform that ‘represents an attempt seamlessly to combine political priorities with material ones’ (253). She thus identifies the importance of land not only materially, for livelihoods, but also politically and symbolically, the latter driven by its centrality in denying black South Africans citizenship and rights in the past.

Along with others, she is of the view that this has placed unrealistic expectations on the programme. Land reform, perhaps more than other policies in the new South Africa, has provided fertile grounds for the forming of such expectations. Failing to nourish these adequately has made the subsequent disappointment inevitable. Land reform has been a social experiment ambitious in its breadth of scope but ultimately unrealistic given the material and other human resources on which it has had to rely. As James puts it:

. . . An eagerly-anticipated future is built upon unrealized ambitions in the present and fuelled by longer memories of injustice which demand redress. If the future fails to materialize as expected, the past provides a fall-back position.


Missing, however, is an account of what a more realistic programme could or should look like – especially given not only the political but also the economic context in which it is necessarily embedded.

An important focus in this study is the role of ‘middlemen and brokers’ (James 2007:13), in particular lawyers, planners, and NGO activists in shaping the land reform policy and mediating between its beneficiaries’ and the state. Because the study...


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pp. 173-176
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