A new rural land grab as urban elites build homes on customary farming areas

By Sienne Molepo

All over southern Africa, new urban-to-rural migration and settlement trends are emerging. Far from being abandoned, rural areas are in high demand. This exacerbates the precarity of home and life for those who still live in rural areas, especially on customary land.

A study led by Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (Plaas) senior researcher Dr Phillan Zamchiya and conducted with the Nkuzi Development Association has investigated how land tenure relations and livelihoods for people living on customary land are being reconfigured by the movement of domestic elites in Kwena Moloto and Ceres villages in the Capricorn West district of Limpopo.

The study found that members of the South African urban-based black middle and working classes are investing their life savings not in buying valuable urban property, but in building new homes in former homeland areas.

Driving through the rural village study sites of Moletjie and Ceres, one may wonder whether a whole town has gone on a visit to the countryside. This is a result of the massive movement of urban elites working in the city of Polokwane who have been moving onto customary land to avoid paying rates, and seeking cheaper retirement homes.

The urban elite are building upmarket houses in Limpopo’s Capricorn West district. (Photo: Supplied)

Members of the middle class are building expensive new mansions and multistorey houses on customary land where they do not have formal title. Contrary to the dominant narrative about rural development paradigms, the middle class is not demanding institutional changes in tenure before making significant investments in residential property.

Instead, many of them feel secure on their land, even without formal titling. The only kind of formal documentation they have is a “Permission to Occupy” document issued by the traditional leaders.

Headmen within one traditional authority may sell the same piece of land to two different people, leading to conflict between the two buyers.

This has led to increasing demand for rural land which accelerates the processes of commodification of customary tenure. More than three-quarters (75.25%) of our respondents who acquired customary land in the past 10 years paid for it in cash to the traditional authority or to individuals (which is illegal) rather than acquiring the right to the land through customary social norms.

The demand for residential stands by urban elites has thus created an opportunity for traditional leaders and local residents to earn an income by selling land to the migrants.

Upmarket houses Capricorn West, Limpopo. (Photo: Supplied)

The growing informal customary land market has been accompanied by the rise of new non-state institutions composed of young men who exercise autocratic power and authority over land by mimicking “stateness”.

These are usually unemployed “young boys” aged between 28 and 36 illegally demarcating and selling land to urban elites. The residents in these areas believe that they are connected to certain political elites which gives them the power to influence how land is distributed.

By contrast, the local police believe the predatory informal institutions have the clandestine support of tribal authorities.

The types of land that are targeted for sale by traditional leaders and the “young boys” are communal fields and the land covering common property resources such as grazing land, natural resources and woods.

In turn, the sales are affecting access to common property resources which are central to the livelihoods of rural women.

The sales have also meant that there has been a change in land use from arable and grazing land to residential. Incomes are upended as locals must now find alternative ways to sustain their livelihoods. People in Moletjie who used to have fields for agricultural purposes have been reduced to wage seekers since their fields have been sold for residential and non-agricultural business purposes.

We found an increase in social and gendered conflicts over land and boundaries. In Moletjie, the traditional leader has private security who reportedly have destroyed people’s houses that were built on land under contestation with another chief. The residents are victims of the fight between the two chieftaincies over land boundaries.

Some of the houses built by members of the urban elite in Limpopo’s Capricorn West district. (Photo: Supplied)

Furthermore, double allocation of land is not uncommon in these informal land markets. Headmen within one traditional authority may sell the same piece of land to two different people, leading to conflict between the two buyers and conflict within the groups who claim authority to sell.

Related to these difficulties is the increasing violence by local “gang” groups who target women who speak out against traditional leaders and against land grabs. The local “gang” groups are usually aligned to traditional leaders.

Balance of power

To protect the land rights and livelihoods of rural women and men, the researchers argue that there should be a shift in the balance of power to individuals, families and members of the community living on customary land.

The current laws vest too much power and authority over land in the hands of the traditional leaders. Common property resources should be securely vested in the hands of members of the community, including women.

New and amended land governance laws should ensure that within families, women – in their differentiated nature (married, single, poor and those living with disabilities) – should have secure rights that are legally equivalent to those that men enjoy in “ownership” of residential plots and arable land, along with clearly defined access rights to natural resources that are held in common.

State policing, the judiciary and other independent institutions must penetrate customary territory to assert their authority in order to stop the illegal selling of land and to protect and stop violence against women from local gangs.

Finally, state institutions must intervene to stop the proliferation of predatory institutions that are shaptycustomary landland grabsland rightsLimpopoNkuzi Development AssociationPhillan ZamchiyaPLAASPolokwaneSienne Moling fortunes in these neo-rural landscapes, and promote legitimate land governance and public authority.

This article first appeared in Daily Maverick on 30 March 2023.

Sienne Molepo is an MPhil student in Land and Agrarian Studies at Plaas, University of the Western Cape. This research was conducted in 2021 and 2022 with fieldwork funding from the Austrian Development Agency, with 127 people interviewed for the project.

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