Land reform for dummies

Tshepang Tlhapane

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Just a few weeks ago the Twitterverse and social media in general flared up and caught fire over a controversial Feed a Child advertisement portraying a wealthy white woman feeding a black child like a dog. The video evoked a sharp range of mixed feelings from television viewers. Some viewers thought that the advert was an important […]

Just a few weeks ago the Twitterverse and social media in general flared up and caught fire over a controversial Feed a Child advertisement portraying a wealthy white woman feeding a black child like a dog. The video evoked a sharp range of mixed feelings from television viewers. Some viewers thought that the advert was an important socio-economic caricature of South Africa society while the other side felt the video was insensitive and deeply racist. The entire debacle, ultimately, was a true indication of how South Africa remains a deeply hurt and divided nation where racial relations and our history is concerned.

Fast forward just three weeks and there is another issue that has sparked divisive and sensitive debate – Land Reform. See for yourself here, here, and here. Before the unjust Apartheid system was abolished in 1994, 87% of South Africa’s land resources were owned and reserved for white people. Under apartheid law, black people back then were only limited to the remaining 13% of land. Land ownership, thus, is a very strong issue in contemporary South Africa.

Photo - Jerm
Photo – Jerm

At the African National Congress’s (ANC) policy conference in Midrand in 2012, representatives of the government claimed that some 87% of agricultural land is still in the hands of white farmers. This is eighteen years after the dawn of democracy. During his address at the policy conference, President Jacob Zuma admitted that the current policy of “willing buyer-willing seller” was not working and needed to change. Leader of the Freedom Front Plus, Dr Pieter Mulder however begs to differ. Mulder recently sparked great controversy following his claims that black South Africans have no historical claim to land in the Northern and Western Cape, and further that blacks own a greater share of the country’s land than the government suggests.

His comments come against claims that whites owned 87% of South Africa’s land and that little progress has been made in changing this picture. However some basic arithmetic reveals that a far greater share of the country is in black hands than is often acknowledged. It is also apparent that ensuring the productivity of the portion remaining in white hands is increasingly important to the government in maintaining political stability in urban areas. This naturally has implications for the manner in which future land policy is implemented.

Paul Weinberg/South photo
Paul Weinberg/South photo

Before we go on any further, here’s a question…what is this Land Reform that seems to be such a sensitive topic in South Africa anyway? Let’s break it down.

In 1913 the apartheid government introduced The Natives Land Act. This was a major piece of segregation legislation passed by the Parliament of South Africa which was only replaced after the 1990s by the current policy of land restitution. The Natives Land Act was a law aimed at regulating the acquisition of land by “natives”, i.e black people. It prohibited the establishment of new farming operations, sharecropping or cash rentals by blacks outside of the reserves (link-this is included in the natives land act link) where they were forced to live.

In 1955 the ANC compiled a statement of principles called the Freedom Charter (at an event called the Congress of the People) in Kliptown. The Congress of the People was an event at which the ANC planned to gather a list of ideals they referred to as “the people’s will”. The event featured other liberation movements like the South African Indian Congress , the South African Congress of Democrats  and the Coloured People’s Congress.

The charter consisted of the collection of “freedom demands” from the people of South Africa and the demands were synthesized into the final document, the famous Freedom Charter, by ANC leaders – Z.K Mathews, Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein and Alan Lipman (link-also on the freedomm charter link). One of the core principles of the Freedom Charter was that “The land shall be shared among those who work it”. It states that all land shall be re-divided amongst those who work it in order to banish famine and hunger. Today however, this has not been the case as the government struggles to reach its land reform targets.

In keeping with the Freedom Charter, the restitution or reformation of land ownership in South Africa was a promise made by the ANC in 1994 after taking power. Land Reform consists of three areas: restitution, land tenure reform and land redistribution .

Land restitution focusses on government paying individuals who were forcefully dispossessed off their land. Land tenure is a system of recognizing people’s right to own land control it. It aims to establish a land rights management board and to provide for acquisition of rights in land for resettlement. Land Redistribution is a process where government buys land from its current owners for redistribution to a community.

The state’s early land reform plan adopted in 1994 to return 30% of the land to black hands within 5 years after 1994 has utterly failed. After realizing that this target would be hard to reach, the target was reset to 2014. By 2011, however, it seemed unlikely that government would reach its target of transferring 24.5-million hectares of land by 2014, thus a government review report released in 2012 shows that between 1994 and 2011, only 6.8-million hectares of land dispossessed from people under apartheid was re-transferred.


According to many observers such as Pierre De Vos and Troye Lund , the state’s target has still not been reached for a number of reasons, some of them being the following:

The ANC government chose to take the “willing seller-willing buyer” policy  under president Mandela, which is a system that is inherently problematic as the process of negotiation involved is a lengthy and expensive one. “Willing buyer-willing seller”– as it is popularly referred to is a process that requires a completely voluntary transaction between a buyer and a seller of land.

Under this policy, the state has been paying for land dispossessed during apartheid at no cost to at market value today. The government has effectively been spending twice as much for land restitution.

An apt example of the expensive complexion of the current land reform policy is the purchase of the Mala Mala game reserve in Mpumalanga. In the most costly case of land restitution ever, the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform was criticised for paying R1 billion to former Mala Mala owner, Michael Rattray to settle a land claim by the Mhlanganisweni community in Mpumalanga.

Land Reform is an extremely complex procedure and it will take South Africa years to resolve, considering the different political views among the different political parties.

For more information, check out the following links:


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