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Land Redistribution in South Africa: Progress to Date1

Edward Lahiff2

Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS), University of the Western Cape

Paper presented at - "Land Redistribution: Towards a Common Vision, Regional Course, Southern Africa, 9-13 July 2007"

SARPN acknowledges the World Bank as a source of this paper:
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Introduction and Background

This paper provides an overview of land reform in South Africa since the advent of democratic government in 1994, with a particular emphasis on land redistribution. It begins with a brief sketch of the historical background before outlining the main aspects and achievements of the land reform programme to date. The final sections of the paper briefly discuss some new policy proposals and the key challenges facing land reform in the country.

The extent of dispossession of the indigenous people of South Africa by European colonists, mainly Dutch and British settlers, was greater than any other country in Africa, and persisted for an exceptionally long period. European settlement began around the Cape of Good Hope in the 1650s and progressed northwards and eastwards over a period of three hundred years. By the twentieth century, most of the county, including most of the best agricultural land, was reserved for the minority white population with the African majority confined to just thirteen per cent of the territory known as native reserves, and later African Homelands or Bantustans. The European decolonization of Africa was strenuously resisted and delayed by the settler-colonies of southern Africa, with the result that South Africa made the transition to democratic, non-racial government only in 1994.

At the end of Apartheid3, approximately 82 million hectares of commercial farmland (86% of all farmland, or 68% of the total surface area) was in the hands of the white minority (10.9% of the population), and concentrated in the hands of approximately 60,000 owners4. Over thirteen million black people, the majority of them povertystricken, remained crowded into the former homelands, where rights to land were generally unclear or contested and the system of land administration was in disarray. These areas were characterised by extremely low incomes and high rates of infant mortality, malnutrition and illiteracy relative to the rest of the country. On private farms, millions of workers, former workers and their families faced severe tenure insecurity and lack of basic facilities. Today, South Africa has one of the most unequal distributions of income in the world, with income and quality of life being strongly correlated with race, location and gender (May 2000: 2).

The transition to democracy in South Africa (1990-1994) occurred under very different circumstances to those of its neighbours, through a negotiated settlement rather than an all-out war of liberation. This political compromise left much of the power and wealth of the white minority intact, including property rights. The international political and economic climate was also changing rapidly, and the old certainties that had informed both the nationalist and the socialist wings of the liberation movement, led by the African National Congress (ANC)5, were fading fast. The new Constitution created the basis for a liberal democracy, albeit with an emphasis on socio-economic rights and a clear mandate on the state to redress the injustices of the past. The Constitutional clause on property guaranteed the rights of existing owners but also granted specific rights of redress to victims of past dispossession and set the legal basis for a potentially far-reaching land reform programme.

South African agriculture is of a highly dualistic nature, where a developed commercial sector co-exists with large numbers of small subsistence farms on communal lands (National Department of Agriculture 2007; OECD 2006). The commercial sector generates substantial employment6 and export earnings, but contributes relatively little to Gross Domestic Product in this highly urbanized and industrialized economy – agriculture’s share of GDP fell from 9.12% in 1965 to just 3.2% in 2002 (Vink and Kirsten 2003). While close to half of the African population continue to reside in rural areas, most are engaged in agriculture on a very small scale, if at all, and depend largely on nonagricultural activities, including migration to cities, local wage employment and welfare grants, for their livelihood. South Africa had a thriving African peasant sector in the early twentieth century, but this was systematically destroyed by the white settler regime on behalf of the mines, demanding cheap labour, and white farmers demanding access to both cheap land and cheap labour (Bundy 1979).

  1. This paper has been prepared for the workshop “Land Redistribution in Africa: Towards a common vision.” The findings, interpretations, and conclusions expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank and its affiliated organizations, or those of the Executive Directors of The World Bank or the governments they represent.
  2. Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS), University of the Western Cape.
  3. Apartheid is an Afrikaans (Dutch) word meaning ‘separation’, and implies strict racial segregation in all areas of life. It was the official ideology of the white minority regime that held state power from 1948 to 1994.
  4. In 1996, the South African Census reported a total population of 40.5 million, broken down in the following terms: African = 76.7%; White = 10.9%; Coloured = 8.9%; Indian/Asian = 2.6%; Unspecified/Other = 0.9% (Source: Statistics South Africa).
  5. The African National Congress was founded in 1912. During the struggle against apartheid (1948-1994) it contained both nationalist and socialist factions, and has a long-standing alliance with the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions. The ANC was victorious in the general elections of 1994 (when it formed a multi-party Government of National Unity under the leadership of Nelson Mandela) and again in 1999 and 2004 (under the leadership of Thabo Mbeki).
  6. Agriculture accounted for 10% of formal employment in 2002 (Vink and Kirsten 2003: 6)

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