Land Reform (Labour Tenants) Act 3 of 1996

What is a labour tenant?

A labour tenant is someone who works on a farm in exchange for the right to live on that farm and work a portion of that farm for themselves. For a more detailed definition, see Section 1(xi) of the Land Reform (Labour Tenants) Act 3 of 1996.

Labour Tenancy timeline

The Native Trust and Land Act aimed to eliminate independent African tenants on White-owned land by restricting their residence on “White land” to labour tenancy or wage labour, which prohibited African land ownership outside of the reserves.

Labour tenancy is seen as a barrier to the rapid modernization of “White agriculture”. Calls to abolish it escalate, and widespread evictions ensue.

The Abolition of the six-month system where a labour tenant and his children work six months of every year to secure the tenancy contract is implemented. Labour tenants now have to work all year round.

Over 1.1 million people are evicted from farms.

Labour tenancy survives in parts of KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and Free State; particularly in marginal agricultural areas.

The South African Constitution is adopted. It protects property rights but also requires that those people with insecure tenure as a result of racially discriminatory laws are given secure tenure or comparable redress. The Land Reform (Labour Tenants) Act 3 or 1996 is passed to give effect to this provision.

At least 20 000 applications were submitted in terms of section 16 of the Labour Tenants Act within the window period between 1996 to 2001. Apart from neglecting the labour tenant applications, the Department of Land Affairs at the time, -for a period, also completely ceased processing applications. Based on the Department’s own estimate, 11 000 claims remain unsettled and require referral to the Land Claims Court.

A survey finds that 4,2 million people, including labour tenants, have been displaced from farms between 1984 and 2004, with just over half displaced after 1994.

The then Department of Rural Development and Land Reform adopts new policies that no longer transfer ownership to land reform beneficiaries including labour tenants, but leaseholds on state owned land subject to productive use. However, the Labour Tenants Act, which provides for labour tenants to claim land ownership, has not been amended.

The applicants seek only a supervisory order for the appointment of a Special Master. The Department and the then Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform objects. When the matter came before the Land Claims Court on 19 September 2014, statistics on outstanding labour tenant claims had not been provided.

The Department estimated that it would need two more years to capture the details of thousands of applications still outstanding. This suggested that the Department was itself unable to determine how big a problem confronted it. Even after the Department’s records were revealed as non-existent or shambolic, it continued to proffer repeated undertakings to comply with the Land Claims Court orders, but continued to breach them.

Donna Hornby, who amongst others prepared this timeline, has also charted labour tenancy developments in 2015. See:

The Land Claims Court appointed a Special Master of labour tenants to help the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, process labour tenants’ land claims i.e.Mwelase vs Director-General for the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform 2017 (4) SA 422 (LCC) (per Ncube AJ) (Land Claims Court judgment).

The Department and the Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform, objected and the Supreme Court of Appeal upheld their objections. By a majority, it overturned the Land Claims Court’s order. The applicants, who are, or represent labour tenants, ask the Constitutional Court to reinstate the Land Claims Court’s order. At issue, is the extent of the Land Claims Court’s power to fashion and implement remedies to secure practical justice for claimants who, 25 years into democracy, still have no secure tenure – even though a statute promised them this more than 20 years ago. The order of the Supreme Court is set aside and the order of the Land Claims Court is reinstated  (;

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