South Africa’s Unanswered Land Question

By Katlego Ramantsima and Refiloe Joala

South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world. To this day, it has shocking levels of poverty and unemployment. This inequality is starkly apparent in the country’s pervasive Apartheid landscape, where overcrowded informal settlements and townships lie next to leafy suburbs and sprawling, almost exclusively White-owned, large-scale commercial farms.

Evidently, one of the most striking legacies of South Africa’s centuries-long encounter with settler-colonialism has been the extent to which it has reshaped the very geography of the country. Today, 5 percent of South Africans (most of whom are White) own 85 percent of the country’s wealth, while over 50 percent (most of whom are Black) own less than 1 percent of the wealth.

One indicator of this is Black South Africans’ growing dependence on social grants as the second most important source of income for half of the population nationally. In December 2021, about 47 percent of the population received social grants the largest group to receive these grants being Black and Coloured South Africans. In many places land, and the ownership of it, evokes strong emotions, and this feels especially true in South Africa. For Black South Africans, land can symbolize the violence that was done to their heritage and identity: the separation from their ancestors, the desecration of burial grounds, their displacement from home, and their arrested development as a socioeconomic group. Cumulatively, land is the material representation of the country that was stolen from them.

At the advent of democracy in South Africa in 1994, many Black people put their trust in the African National Congress (ANC) to lead a swift and significant reappropriation process for land. After all, land was one of the reasons the ANC was founded in 1912, and the restitution of dispossessed land has featured prominently in the party’s agenda ever since.

Initially, this land reform seemed promising. The first law passed by the first democratically elected parliament under President Nelson Mandela was the Restitution of Land Rights Act (1994). This was meant to be a solution for people who had lost their land as the result of racially discriminatory practices, such as forced removals. However, in spite of this start, land reform remains an elusive dream. The protracted, perpetually unrealized nature of this process fuels a deep-seated resentment towards both the ANC and South Africa’s White minority. Every time a Black person travels to or from their village in the former homelands or communal areas, which have been squeezed into areas allotted by the Apartheid system, they are reminded that their government has failed them.

When the ANC came to power in 1994, it made a commitment to transfer at least 30 percent of the country’s 86 million hectares of arable farmland to Blacks by 1999. This became a shifting goalpost, as the target date kept being moved backwards; first to 2010, then to 2015, and in early 2024 it has faded out of discourse. Official figures reported by the state indicate that only 8 percent to 9 percent of commercial farmland has been transferred by 2018 under redistribution and restitution programmes between 1994 and 2018 under the government land redistribution programme.

Estimates reported in 2020 indicate that over 60 percent of South Africa’s population do not have any secure tenure rights.

There are reports claiming that up to 25 percent of farmland has been acquired from White farmers since 1994. However, this estimation is fundamentally flawed and does not demonstrate progress in the redistribution of land or meaningful transformation because it adds up all the land owned by Black people in the country. This includes land privately acquired by black people, as well as all the land held by the government for various purposes and the land in communal areas, which makes up 13 percent of South Africa’s total land. South Africa’s farmland is estimated at 93.5 million hectares, or 76 percent of the total 122.5 million hectares. The redistribution of farmland from White farmers to Black South Africans therefore remains far behind the 30 percent target.

Presently, the bulk of the country’s land area is held in private title, which remains the securest form of tenure. Estimates reported in 2020 indicate that over 60 percent of South Africa’s population, which is more than 48 million people, do not have any secure tenure rights. In urban areas, this often means living with the risk of eviction, either at the hands of unscrupulous landlords or greedy developers and powerful corporate investors. In the countryside, rural populations (which tend to comprise mainly Black poor and vulnerable people) battle against mining conglomerates and multinational agribusiness.

A History of Dispossession and Destruction

In 1913, Sol Plaatjie, one of the founding members of what was then called the South African Native National Congress (later known as the ANC from 1923), became landless. Plaatjie, like many other Black South Africans, was a victim of the Natives Land Act. In great distress, he wrote: “Awaking on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African Native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth.” The pain of this dispossession continues to haunt South Africa, 30 years into democracy.

This Natives Land Act, which was passed by the Union of South Africa’s government in June 1913, opened the door for White ownership of 93 percent of total land. Whites accounted for 7 percent of the population at the time, and this drastic siphoning of resources into the hands of the very few left Black people to scramble for what was left. The Natives Land Act incorporated territorial segregation into legislation for the first time since the Union of South Africa’s inception in 1910, which began the transfer of rule in South Africa from the British crown to the White Afrikaner and English-speaking British settler communities.

The 1913 act defined less than one-tenth of South African land as “reserves” for its Black population and prohibited any purchase or lease of land by the Black majority outside of these “reserves”. The act thus entrenched South Africa’s dual land tenure system, which was comprised of, on the one hand private, titled land ownership for White people, and on the other, communal land ownership presided over by a traditional council. Black land ownership was recorded at only 13 million hectares, which is about 14 percent of South Africa’s total land, while 82 million hectares, which accounts for 86 percent of this land, remained in White minority hands at the end of Apartheid. This 1913 law also restricted the terms of tenure in labour tenancy arrangements, under which Black people could live on White-owned farms. Labour tenancies lasted until the 1930s, and in effect, they meant landowners allowed workers to live on their farms. The workers would typically have to work for six months for little or even no payment, and in return, they could live on the farms with their families and use a portion of the land for animal grazing and crop production.

Things continued to deteriorate for the Black majority population of South Africa when the Native Urban Areas Act was passed in 1923. This act segregated the urban residential space into separate White and Black areas, and created “influx controls” to reduce access to cities for Black people. It also restricted Black people from buying or occupying all of the 93 percent of the land, which was White-owned, including all the farmland that is not in the communal areas, the only exception being Black workers occupying or using White-owned land for example farm workers, domestic workers among others. The first townships in South Africa had emerged as early as the period between the 1900 and 1920s to provide low-cost housing for Black, Coloured and Indian South Africans. By the early 1930s, these townships had become an important part of the government’s segregationist urban planning, especially as they meant an accessible, local source of cheap labour for White businesses.

Between 1948 and 1960, the Apartheid government continued to invest in the expansion of existing townships, as well as the establishment of new ones. In these urban settlements, residents became progressively isolated and poorer, as access to both economic opportunities and urban amenities was restricted. In 1964, the six-month system by which farm workers had been able to secure labour tenancies was abolished: now labour tenants had to work all year round. Simultaneously, the Apartheid government strengthened its resolve to address the “native question”, a term coined in 1903 to describe the ongoing challenge of African people attempting to resist and fight against the White settlers’ escalating conquest of Africans and their land.

This resulted in the adoption of the 1951 Bantu Authority Act, and the formation of Bantustans, or “black homelands” — ten “homelands” territories set up by regional authorities according to ethnic groups. In an immediate sense, these self-governed territories essentially removed Blacks from the South African political system, denying them any kind of basic legal protections, including the threat of violence. Ultimately, the establishment of Bantustans also enabled the Apartheid government to do away with any obligations to economically develop the ten homelands.

As political constructs of the Apartheid government with virtually no economic base, the homelands were almost entirely dependent on the Apartheid South African government for jobs and the government transfers that were paid to the traditional councils. With much of South Africa’s arable land in the hands of White farmers, farming was not a viable enterprise in the homelands, as a result, young men were forced to leave their villages in search of jobs as “guest workers” in the growing industries in the cities, which included mining. This exodus also meant density in the cities increased, leading to an increased housing demand in urban areas. This demand resulted in the formation of the first informal settlements; residential areas of the urban poor developed through the unauthorized occupation of land.

When the ANC officially won the first democratically held elections in South Africa in April 1994, it set out a three-pronged approach to resolving the land question: restitution, redistribution, and tenure reform.

Today, more than 4 million people live in informal settlements across South African cities, making them the fastest-growing household sector in the country. Despite increased levels of investment in post-Apartheid South Africa, the living conditions in these settlements and townships remain poor, with inadequate sanitation infrastructure, routine power and water cuts, and a lack of public transportation services.

Segregationist and racist legislation has long been used in South Africa. It spans back to even darker times in the British and Dutch colonialist’s conquest of South Africa’s land and people. Indeed, one of the earlier proponents of legislative measures to dispossess, exploit and enslave can be traced as far back as the nineteenth century. As in many other African countries, and other parts of the world too, the settler-colonialist project in South Africa was driven by imperialist ideals of domination and the exploitation of its people and natural resources, especially land.

Understanding South Africa’s 1994 Land Reform Plan

When the ANC officially won the first democratically held elections in South Africa in April 1994, it set out a three-pronged approach to resolving the land question: restitution, redistribution, and tenure reform. This land reform was supposed to facilitate transfers of land for both residential and agricultural purposes and its key defining feature was a pro-poor focus. At the same time, it was influenced by a market-led approach, commonly known as the “willing-buyer, willing-seller” approach propagated by the World Bank (WB) and other mainstream international economic institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).


The restitution of land programme established the legal basis for the redress of radically discriminatory laws or practices. This process involves restoring the land rights of persons or communities that were dispossessed in the past without compensation. About a third of South Africa’s population (about 19 million people), including 75 percent of small-scale food producers, live in former homelands or communal areas. Rural communities historically often held land in commonage systems, meaning the land was owned by different families collectively. Therefore, most of them submitted group restitution claims to the South African authorities. In May 2023, the Commission on Restitution of Land Rights reported that 65,410 of the total 82,976 land claims made between 1995 and 2023 were settled.

While insecurity of people’s land rights varies substantially across different areas of the country and according to different tenure arrangements, overall the decline of land administration in the communal areas since 1994 has meant that land occupation in these rural parts of the country is increasingly undocumented. This means that households who have been allocated land under customary land tenure systems since 1994 likely do not have a record or proof of their rights. In these settings, land rights holders rely on social tenures that are backed by living customary law.


The second pillar of land reform, redistribution, had a decidedly pro-poor focus on rural and agrarian reform, while at the same time being influenced by the “willing-buyer, willing-seller” approach. Here, the market-determined price of the land is negotiated between the landowner who wishes to sell their land, and government officials who act on behalf of the intended beneficiary. In South Africa, this market-led approach has received a lot of criticism for the way in which it inherently favours White farmers, who were given the liberties to set their asking prices in line with market trends. In cases where settlements resulted in an actual land transfer, claimants and beneficiaries were also pushed into a heavily bureaucratic process, with government-set constraints for the claimant and government-led prescription on agricultural production. Landless people and their supporters have called for the state to take a more interventionist approach, both in terms of the identification of suitable land and monitoring the level of compensation paid to landowners.

Policy and approaches to land redistribution have undergone changes since 1995. The current state leasehold model for land redistribution was revised through the adoption of the State and Lease and Disposal Policy (SLLDP) in 2013. The SLLDP grants Black farming households and communities 30-year leases, with an option of a renewal for 20 years before beneficiaries can apply for full ownership and title. Black farming households and communities can also access government support for on-farm infrastructure and production through the 2009 Recapitalisation and Development Programme (RAPD), which requires them to enter into strategic partnerships with farming or agribusiness companies.

It is important to take into account that the purpose of the land redistribution programme is to ensure that poor and landless people access land for residential and productive purposes. The profound changes observed as a result of the land redistribution policy and programmes have had an adverse impact on the rural and peri-urban farming households and communities they were intended to benefit. Research findings from a field study on land redistribution, for instance, reveal that the current distribution policy undermines land rights for beneficiaries. This is firstly due to the lack of clarity about the tenure for beneficiaries, and secondly because the policy introduced rent. In response to the beneficiaries’ inability to pay rent, the leases are converted into “caretakership” agreements, which essentially exempt beneficiaries from rent but also mean that the beneficiaries become caretakers of state land rather than leaseholders with land rights.

Land Tenure Reform

Lastly, we come to the third pillar of land reform, the land tenure reform, deals with security of tenure. Whether legally or customarily defined, land tenure security refers to the rules that have been put in place to determine how rights to land are allocated and managed. Land tenure reform tackles land rights where people are living now. It focuses on making de facto rights legal, and giving new rights to those who need protection (especially farm workers and labour tenants) while balancing this with the rights of the existing landowners. It was introduced to give people rights and security of tenure, over houses and land where they work and stay, including people living in communal areas, and addresses the extent to which these rights enable landholders to defend their ownership, occupation, use of and access to land.

In South Africa, the Interim Protection of Informal Land Rights Act 31 (IPILRA), of 1996 currently serves as the overarching legal instrument that ensures people’s informal and customary rights to land in communal areas. Although a permanent communal land tenure legislation is yet to be enacted, the IPILRA ensures communal land rights and tenure security by protecting people’s rights to access, use and occupy land, including beneficiaries of trusts and beneficial occupiers who have occupied the same land continuously since 1993. In practice, however, people’s informal and customary land rights are routinely violated, and recourse mechanisms for victims are scant and ineffective. Furthermore, the lack of records, and therefore the lack of proof of many people’s land rights, poses a major obstacle for small-scale food producers in accessing funds. This is in terms of private sector financing, and also for state loans and grants, as farmers are expected to provide proof of tenure when applying for these kinds of funding.

An ideal process of land reform would deliver equitable access to land, cater for different land needs, and move away from a narrow focus on agriculture and emphasis on commercial success.

A glaring gap in the evolving debate on South Africa’s land question is urban land reform. This can be attributed to the overwhelming focus on agricultural land, which is evident across all three pillars of the land reform programme. As a result, debates on rural and urban land reform have often proceeded separately. The close connection between urban and rural land struggles is ignored, and therefore resolutions which might consider the problems of both are not reached. It is only in recent years that the explicit notion of “urban land reform” received attention in the post-Apartheid policy agenda, but still, not much has been done to reform urban areas.

The existence of informal settlements is the most conspicuous sign of the pervasiveness of unequal land access in urban areas. The 1996 Constitution of South Africa sets out that the state should foster the conditions which would enable citizens to gain access to land and adequate housing on an equitable basis. However, in urban areas, the availability of reasonably priced, well-located and well-maintained land remains a major obstacle to the realization of this constitutional right. An analysis that bridges the rural-urban divide is essential if proposals to the land question are to be coherent.

Transformation Requires Action

The reasons for the slow pace of land reform in South Africa continue to be debatedIn the ANC’s December 2017 conference, the idea of “expropriation without compensation” was laid on the table as a potential pathway for redistributing land. In this conversation, there was renewed focus on how to accelerate the land reform agenda, even within the confines of the market-led approach. Parliament published a Draft Expropriation Bill in December 2018, listing certain types of property that “may be expropriated at nil compensation”. This signalled a willingness on the part of the ANC-led government to test the waters of “nil compensation”, while maintaining its position not to expropriate large tracts of productive agricultural land. This process came to a dramatic stop in December 2021, when the ANC failed to muster the required two-thirds majority to amend the constitution.

To help make sense of the repeated failures to reform the land distribution, and the resulting mass discontent, it might be useful to return to the foundational principles of South Africa’s land reform programme. The adoption of the market-based, or “willing seller, willing buyer”, approach to land reform has raised concern among its critics. This is specifically in relation to the ways in which it diminishes the powers of the state in steering the land reform programme, while extending ever-greater capabilities to the market. Through this model, the “willing seller” dictates not only the selling price of land, but also how much land ultimately gets transferred within the state’s allocated budget at any given time. This debate gained momentum through the early 2000s, and it focused on both the discretionary power and the amount of compensation given to the landowners. Supporters of the approach, such as the Democratic Alliance (DA), blame the government for not being sufficiently active in buying up land that comes onto the market.

Poor progress of the land reform programme, coupled with the ebb and flow of political frenzy, then inertia, around the land question are indicative of the tendencies and effects of journeying in circles. This plays out across political party lines, and in the mainstream media. In as much as the obstacles to a meaningful land reform programme — including poor targeting, incoherent government policy and programming, lack of capacity and funding, and wavering political will at the best of times — continue to undermine progress, South Africa’s land question remains largely the same.

As the well-known expert and scholar-activist in South Africa’s land debate, Professor Ruth Hall, put it in 2018 at a public lecture on land reform organised by the University of the Western Cape, “The land question is not a single one, but multiple questions about urban and rural, and even within the rural, between the commercial farming areas and the communal areas.” Hall went on to argue that land questions broadly relate to questions of access or who should get the land, and the tenure arrangements that define what rights people should have. These are the questions South Africans continue to grapple with 30 years into democracy.

Policy Proposals for Land Reform

An ideal process of land reform would deliver equitable access to land, cater for different land needs, and move away from a narrow focus on agriculture and emphasis on commercial success. It would also address spatial inequality and access to land for the urban poor. With all the challenges that this holds, there have been various policy proposals by stakeholders (including farmers’ associations, municipalities and district land reform officials) for the state to adopt a broader land acquisition strategy that is not confined to market forces. This broader strategy would mean a mixed approach, including donations and expropriations where necessary.

In recent years, two concerted attempts have been taken by state leaders to rigorously assess the various policies, government programmes, and expenditure on South Africa’s land reform since its outset in the 1990s. These efforts to analyse the outcomes and impacts of different measures took the form of firstly the High Level Panel on Assessment of Key Legislation and Acceleration of Fundamental Change of 2018, chaired by the Former President Kgalema Motlante. And secondly, the 2019 Presidential Advisory Panel (PAP), convened by the current sitting President Cyril Ramaphosa. Both these reports call for the adoption of a Land Reform Framework Bill to set meaningful redistribution of land into motion.

A first key change that the PAP has introduced, one which previously appeared under other iterations such as the “One Farmer, One Hectare” programme, is that transferred farm plots can be made smaller. The key advantage of reducing the size of plots to be transferred is that the process gets accelerated, which helps to kill the perception of justice denied. At the same time, small plots also remove the need to make big investments in mechanization in the pursuit of large-scale farmer status. Within this new framework, the president recently announced that these smaller farm plots had been transferred to over 200,000 beneficiaries.

A second important shift that has resulted from PAP is the recognition that provincial governments need to adopt a more deliberate approach to town planning. The country’s poverty challenges mean that there is often a reflex by the poor to choose shacks and backyard dwellings as a means of survival or springboard. Poor and vulnerable people rent accommodations from homeowners in townships, but few landlords provide built structures, instead they offer backyard space for tenants to build shacks in order to generate income. Public housing and even significantly more investments in universal basic income grants should be employed deliberately to improve access to housing in urban areas.

Policy proposals — which come from grassroots movements, civil society groups including NGOs, labour formations, and progressive academic communities — continue to demand that once land has been acquired by the state through land reform half of that land should benefit the poor and vulnerable groups. When it comes to the mechanics of how land reform should happen, calls for a completely decentralized and participatory process are gaining prominence. A decentralized approach to land reform policies and programme would have to be a two-way stream. This is in order to prevent a scenario, in which only local planning is subject to national policy, but national policies do not adequately consider and reflect the experiences and perceptions of targeted communities or beneficiaries such as smallholder farmers. Such a considered, decentralized approach will help to prevent a situation where the imperatives of national policy are imposed on local planning, without sufficiently taking into account the experiences and perceptions of targeted communities or beneficiaries at local levels.

Katlego Ramantsima is a Land Lead Researcher at the Land and Accountability Research Centre (LARC) at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

Refiloe Joala is the Food Sovereignty programme manager in the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Southern Africa Office in Johannesburg.

This article first appeared on the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung website on 3 May 2024.

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