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Land reform in post-apartheid South Africa – a disappointing harvest by Ben Cousins

Land questions have played a key role in the history of South Africa, and their successful resolution is critically important for stability, democracy and development. From the 17th century onwards, dispossession by white settlers of the land occupied by indigenous black societies was centrally important in creating a racially polarized and highly unequal society. From 1948 to 1990 the apartheid government relocated millions of black people, in both urban and rural areas, attempting to create separate racial zones and ethnically-defined ‘homelands’. Productive land was lost and the small-scale farming that helped rural households to survive was undermined. In contrast, white commercial farmers were given massive financial support and subsidies, and over time they became highly productive.


The legacy of this history is immense bitterness amongst black South Africans and a powerful desire to have the land restored to its rightful owners. This is one reason why land reform was seen as a high priority by the Mandela government that took power after the first democratic elections in 1994. To this day, high levels of racial inequality in land ownership symbolize and evoke a much wider range of deprivations and oppressions that were experienced in the past and are seen to require redress in the present. Land therefore carries a powerful political charge, as is the case in neighbouring Zimbabwe, which had a similar history to South Africa’s. It was for this reason, too, that ‘reconciliation’ was seen in 1994 as one of the important motivations for resolving the land question.


A second motivation for land reform is the belief that redistribution of farmland, together with other rural development programmes, can make a significant contribution to poverty reduction. This is why it is one of the five key focus points in the ANC 2009 election manifesto. Around 40% of the population is found in rural areas, and this is where the deepest poverty is found, so there is some justification for this view. Also, high levels of unemployment mean that the chances of rural migrants to the cities finding jobs are limited.


The complexity of land reform in South Africa


South Africa’s land reform programme is extremely complex and ambitious, and has three components.


Restitution involves the return of land to people who were dispossessed after 1913, the year of the first Land Act, which legalized land dispossession on a large scale. Redistribution of land aims to address the highly skewed ownership of land along racial lines. Tenure reform aims to strengthen the rights of people whose land tenure is insecure as a result of discriminatory laws and practices in the past: farm workers, labour tenants and rural households living on privately owned land, and people living in the former homelands (now called ‘communal areas’) under the authority of traditional chiefs.


Restitution is rights-based, and the law provides for either the restoration of land rights or cash compensation to the victims of forced removals. Nearly 80 000 land claims were lodged by 1998, most of them to urban plots. Rural claims involve much larger areas of land and many more people. In one province with a large rural population, it is estimated that three quarters of commercial farm land is under claim. After a claim has been validated the government negotiates a purchase price with the owner of the land, and the claimants must develop an approved business plan for how they will use the land when they take possession of it.


Land redistribution is not rights-based, and people wanting land must apply for government grants These are used to acquire farms offered for sale on the market, ie from ‘willing sellers’. Expropriation of land in the public interest, which the Constitution defines as including land reform, is possible but compensation must be paid, and so far very little land has been acquired for redistribution through such expropriation.


One crucial element of land reform is support to assist the new owners of land to become productive users of such land. This is particularly important for poverty reduction, and to allay fears that land reform will undermine production for local or export markets. Post-settlement support involves credit, farming inputs, water for irrigation, marketing arrangements, information and training. Training is crucial because of the loss of agricultural skills that took place in the apartheid era.


Combining these components of land reform in a coherent and effective manner is extremely challenging. Adding to the difficulties is the fragmented manner in which governments tend to operate. In South Africa land reform is undertaken by a department of land affairs, post-settlement support is the responsibility of the agriculture department, and water supply is under the department of water affairs. The three departments find it difficult to work together to support the beneficiaries of land reform.


Progress and problems


In 1994 the new democratic government set itself some very ambitious targets for land reform. Restitution clams would be resolved and implemented within 10 years. Redistribution of 30% of white-owned agricultural land would be achieved within 5 years.


These targets were clearly unrealistic. Progress was very slow to begin with, and by the end of the Mandela era very little land had been restored or redistributed. Under the Mbeki administration that took office in 1999, the targets were revised: the completion date for restitution was extended to 2008, and then again to 2011, and the date for redistributing 30% of farm land was extended to 2014.


By 2008 a total of 5.8 million hectares (around 5% of commercial farmland) had been transferred to blacks through a combination of restitution and redistribution. Over 90% of land claims had been resolved, most of them urban claims, but the majority of large rural claims were still unresolved.


Laws and programmes aimed at protecting the tenure rights of farm workers and labour tenants have been ineffective: evictions have continued, and more people have lost access to rural land in this way than have gained it through land reform. Legislation on communal land rights that strengthened the powers of chiefs over land was passed in 2004, but is subject to a constitutional challenge and has not yet been implemented.


Critics have chided government for the slow pace of land reform, and warned of the possibility of the land question becoming politically explosive, as in Zimbabwe. Land activists see the ‘willing seller, willing buyer’ approach as expensive and cumbersome but also unjust, given that land was forcibly appropriated by the racial minority in the past.


The small budget for land reform (around 1% of the national budget) has also been heavily criticized. The National Treasury, however, has been reluctant to vote more money to land reform because of the failure of many projects and lack of evidence that land reform is making any impact on rural poverty. Critics have in turn pointed to the almost complete failure of government to provide adequate post-settlement support, and to badly designed business plans. Water reform has not been integrated into land reform.


Should land reform support the emergence of large- and medium-scale black commercial farmers (which will limit the number of people that benefit), or promote small-scale agriculture (thus broadening the spread of benefits)? This has been a highly controversial issue. The Mbeki administration tended to favour emergent commercial farmers, but the 2009 ANC manifesto emphasizes small-scale production within a programme of agrarian reform that will be implemented in communal areas as well as on land reform farms.


A major constraint on land reform is weak capacity in the relevant government departments. There are insufficient staff members, many are not adequately trained, and staff turnover is high. The government agricultural extension service is very weak. Many agricultural officials see household-based production systems as inefficient and ‘backwards’, favour large scale farming methods, and are not motivated to support land reform for the poor.


Can land reform become both effective and pro-poor?


Are there feasible land policies that can address the historical legacies of dispossession, maintain levels of production, and help reduce rural poverty? In my view there are, and the ANC is moving in the right direction by calling for integrated agrarian reform. But detail is lacking, and the ‘devil is in the details’.


To help get the details right, government should seek to work more closely with other actors in society. Securing the active participation of potential beneficiaries, civil society organizations and elements of the private sector in such processes would strengthen policies and help ensure that they receive broad-based support.


Specific options which should be explored include the creation of a new department of agrarian reform, with sufficient numbers of well-trained staff. Agricultural training colleges should be revitalized and linked more closely to extension support services. Area-based planning for agrarian reform that can integrate redistribution, restitution, tenure reform, small-farm support, and infrastructure development will be key to success.


Consideration should be given to providing input subsidies for small-scale producers, with an emphasis on ecologically sustainable technologies and farming systems. Farms with irrigation infrastructure should be targeted for land redistribution. Legislation and support for the tenure rights of farm dwellers and workers needs to be strengthened, and the powers of chiefs over land need to be curtailed.


In my view the target of redistributing 30% (or more) of farm land can be achieved without jeopardizing food security or exports, if land acquisition through the market is undertaken in a planned and strategic manner. This is why an area-based approach to agrarian reform, that identifies zones of both need and opportunity, is so important. Production at a range of scales can be encouraged, from small to medium to large scale, depending on and potential and the nature of the enterprise.


If land questions remain unresolved, the possibility clearly exists for populist politicians to focus strongly on these issues in order to build a support base, leading to unrealistic policies that promise much but fail to deliver real benefits. This in turn could lead to discontent and unrest.

Professor Ben Cousins is the Director of the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape.

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