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Reviewed by:
  • Land Reform in South Africa: An Uneven Transformation by Brent McCusker, William G. Moseley, Maano Ramutsindela
  • Cherryl Walker
Brent McCusker, William G. Moseley, and Maano Ramutsindela. Land Reform in South Africa: An Uneven Transformation. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016. ix + 214 pp. References. Index. $78.00. Cloth. ISBN: 9781442207165.

Land reform in South Africa has been something of a puzzle for analysts since the heady days when the Restitution of Land Rights Act was passed to a standing ovation in the country’s first democratic Parliament in November 1994. In part this is because of the dispiriting gaps between popular expectations and state promises, on the one hand, and implementation and outcomes on the other. Most commentators agree that some form of land reform is required and that current state programs falling under this heading are, at best, stalled, but there is little consensus on the scope of land reform, why current efforts are falling short, and perhaps more fundamentally, what weight to assign to rural land redistribution in a country where almost two-thirds of the population is urban and the primary demands are for jobs, housing, and services, rather than farmland.

Thus any new book that promises fresh insights on the “uneven transformation” signaled in the title is to be welcomed. The volume under review is a collaborative effort by three geographers who stress the importance of a spatial understanding of the land question as it has unfolded historically in South Africa, and propose two concepts as key for advancing the analysis: “hegemony” and “uneven development” (5). The latter took a particular form in twentieth-century South Africa as a result of the race-based spatial engineering that resulted in the native reserves of the segregationist era, followed by the forced population removals and consolidation of the bantustans in the apartheid era.

The authors are right to emphasize the significance of this racist spatial legacy in both animating and constraining postapartheid land reform. Also welcome is their emphasis on the need to address urban and rural land issues as interrelated and their inclusion of urbanizing dynamics within the former bantustans in their frame (although they are not the first to make these points). Less clear, however, is what the struggles for “political, economic, cultural and . . . spatial hegemonies” (54) that they emphasize have been about, or how “hegemony” is operating in and through (or despite?) land reform in the present, and to what end. The authors claim that they are “fill[ing] the gap” in existing analyses, and they criticize other scholarship for its “insufficient historical and theoretical reference,” with “debates [End Page 247] about peasants, modes of production, and capitalism” cast aside (4)—a claim that seems less than generous to the rich historiography of agrarian change in South Africa and the content of critical debates on postapartheid land reform since 1994. At the same time, while the authors conclude that the peasantry is a “necessary category for understanding land reform in South Africa’s countryside” (185), they skimp on the evidence for this in part 2 of the book, which sets out to analyze “the ideals versus the realities of land reform” in the present. Also missing are the voices of the actors themselves, despite the assertion early in the text that the book is really about “the people” for whom land holds deep meaning, and their struggles “over being” (6).

Despite these reservations, part 2 of the book is the section I found the most illuminating on the subject of land reform projects and processes since 1994. Through their collaboration the authors were able to draw together and reflect upon an unusually wide range of case material, based on their own as well as others’ primary research. Their discussion encompasses redistribution projects in Limpopo, share equity schemes, and a former mission station in the Western Cape, as well as restitution claims on national parks and in urban areas. Individually and collectively, these cases illustrate the dynamic interplay between space and time, structure and agency, policy and politics in particular contexts. Ultimately the complexity this reveals suggests that “land reform” may itself be too unitary and misleading a conceptual frame for analytical purposes.

A problem that...


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pp. 247-248
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