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  • Land reform in South Africa is failing. Can it be saved?
  • Ben Cousins (bio)


What is going wrong in South Africa’s post-apartheid land reform programme, and how can its failings be addressed? Twenty two years after the transition to democracy and the commencement of land reform, there is a great deal of lived experience to reflect upon and a rich literature to draw on. Here I offer a diagnosis of failures, suggest a new narrative for land reform, and offer some provocations around alternative policies. The paper argues that the logic of land reform as a whole needs to be re-thought, rather than merely tinkering with details.1

Land grabbing over nearly 350 years of South African history saw the loss of key productive resources by indigenous populations and erosion of their rights to land and natural resources (Hendricks 2013, Ntsebeza 2007, Platzky and Walker 1985). Women’s land rights were severely undermined, especially in areas where land was held and governed within systems informed by custom (Claassens and Ngubane 2008, Claassens and Mnisi 2009). Spatial inequalities defined by race were hard-wired into the South African capitalist economy from its very beginning, partly as the basis for a cheap-labour regime involving circular migration (Magubane 1979, Wolpe 1972). Social differences and inequalities based on a complex articulation of race, gender and class identities thus underpinned the unequal distribution of land and insecure rights to land. The legal system underwrote the unequal land dispensation: private property rights to land and housing were not on offer to most black South Africans, or were allowed on highly discriminatory terms, and the legal system helped to legitimise forced removals (Murray and O’Regan 1990). [End Page 135]

The nature of the ‘Land Question’ in South Africa is thus inherently complex. Post-apartheid land policies must seek to provide redress for historical injustice at the same time as creating sustainable livelihoods through production, employment creation and equitable forms of growth, within socially differentiated rural and urban settings and a wider society undergoing rapid social change. It is not surprising that success has been elusive, or that controversy continues to dog these policies.

Land reform policies: a critical assessment

The Mandela years: 1991 to 1999

A constitutional framework for land reform was agreed in difficult negotiations. The property clause provides protection for property rights but land reform is defined as in the public interest, thus allowing for expropriation at compensation levels that are just and equitable rather than simply at market value. It provides a right to restitution of land dispossessed after June 1913, and a right to security of tenure, in both cases along with measures for comparable redress (cash compensation or alternative land) when appropriate (RSA 1996).

Land reform includes a land redistribution programme, aimed at broadening access to land among the country’s black majority; a land restitution programme to restore land or provide alternative compensation to those dispossessed as a result of racially discriminatory laws and practices since 1913; and a tenure reform programme to secure the rights of people living under insecure arrangements on land owned by others, including the state (in communal areas and the former ‘Coloured’ rural reserves) and private landowners (farmworkers, farm dwellers and labour tenants). A less high profile programme to improve systems of land administration was also proposed.

Access to land through the redistribution programme is not a right, but the state must take ‘reasonable measures’, ‘within its available resources’, to foster conditions enabling equitable access to land. Government adopted a willing buyer, willing seller approach to land acquisition for purposes of redistribution, and prices paid have generally been around market value (DLA 1997). Compensation for land acquired for restitution has also been at market value, and very few expropriations for land reform purposes have occurred since 1994.

Government’s early vision of land reform emphasised its multiple [End Page 136] objectives: addressing dispossession and injustice; creating a more equitable distribution of land; reducing poverty and assisting economic growth; providing security of tenure; establishing sound land administration; and contributing to national reconciliation. The rural poor (seen as comprising victims of land dispossession, small-scale farmers, farm workers, labour tenants, communal area...