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  • Revisiting unresolved questions: land, food and agriculture
  • Ruth Hall (bio)


In the first years of Transformation, three papers dealt with intersecting rural questions: Makhosazane Gcabashe and Alan Mabin’s ‘Preparing to negotiate the land question’ (Transformation 11), Tom Bennett’s ‘Human rights and the African cultural tradition’ (Transformation 22) and Henry Bernstein’s ‘Food security in a democratic South Africa’ (Transformation 24). These three papers all ask, from different vantage points, what the future of land, food and agriculture will be in a new, liberated South Africa. They deal with the thinking behind moves in the early 1990s towards enshrining land and customary rights in law; towards agricultural deregulation; and towards the redistribution of commercial farmland. Reading them collectively, they suggest a variety of land questions and point out that agrarian change is not all about land.

Bennett (1993) grapples with the contradiction between human rights frameworks, with their universalising logic, and tendencies towards cultural relativism. His concern is to expose the tensions underpinning debates at the time, in the context of political transition, about the place of customary law and traditional authority in a constitutional democracy. He explores the possible implications of a proposed gender equality clause in the Constitution and how this might be reconciled in law and practice with a future for customary laws, practices and institutions.

Bernstein (1994) presents a perspective that weaves together issues of land, food and agriculture – which was unusual at the time, when these policy debates were highly segmented, taking place is disparate fora and involving [End Page 81] different networks of actors. He bases his piece on Sen’s (1981) view that adequate and secure ‘entitlements’ are preconditions for ‘food security’, which cannot be assured through increased aggregate production. It doesn’t help to say that poverty causes hunger – the essentially tautological message of the World Bank – and so to wait for a generalised increase in affluence. Rather, hunger arises from a loss of entitlements. This suggests that rural food security should involve securing entitlements to land and other resources, as well as restructuring agricultural markets.

Gcabashe and Mabin (1990) ask the profound question of ‘what it would mean to end apartheid in rural South Africa’. They note that, like the transition itself, the land issue would likely not see an ‘abrupt disjuncture’. Their paper provides a useful delineation of key dimensions of land and agrarian debates at the time – with the exception of the question of restoring lost rights, or providing a ‘right to return’, through restitution. Historical land claims and a wider initiative towards redistribution were not clearly distinct at the time; indeed, the emergence of restitution as a discrete programme (and with its own law, policy framework and implementing institution) emerged in the context of the failure of radical options for redistributive reform in the early 1990s. They urge substantial research to support the development of policy options, and warn against economic reductionism in dealing with land and agrarian issues.

This article explores these three articles from the perspective of 2011, focusing on four themes: the politics of negotiations; the location of ‘rights’ in land and to custom; the political economy of agrarian change; and the multiple facets of the ‘land question’. In conclusion, it draws attention to enduring questions about how to confront agrarian dualism, dynamics of changing and deepening inequality in the countryside, tensions between the logic underpinning land and agricultural policies, and the need to recast agrarian change in a wider frame, in recognition of the profound ways in which what happens in South Africa’s rural areas are part of regional and global dynamics.

Negotiating the land question

Gcabashe and Mabin, writing in 1990, expressed the realistic concern that ‘illprepared participants in negotiations can witness results – even agreements – which may contradict their intentions’ (1990:60). Yet in hindsight, I am not convinced that ill-preparedness explains the African National Congress’ (ANC) position and eventual compromise around property rights in [End Page 82] negotiations, either in 1993 at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) or in the debates at the Constitutional Assembly in 1995 leading up to the adoption of the final constitution in 1996. Indeed, most parties were poorly prepared on...


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