"We the marginalised people of South Africa, who are landless and land hungry, declare our need for all the world to know. We are the people who have borne the brunt of apartheid, of forced removals from our homes, of poverty in rural areas, of oppression on the farms and of starvation in the bantustans. We have suffered from migrant labour that has caused our family life to collapse. We have starved because of unemployment and low wages. We have seen our children stunted because of little food, no water and no sanitation. We have seen our land dry up and blow away in the wind, because we have been forced into smaller and smaller places. These are the biggest difficulties facing our country in the future"
(Cited from the Land Charter adopted during the Community Land Conference in 1994.)

The challenge to undo centuries of colonial and apartheid dispossession, repression, segregation and exploitation through the migrant labour system is huge and complex. The countryside was deliberately skewed and underdeveloped to create a highly subsidized, modernised and protected White commercial agricultural sector and a cheap labour force. Today about 55 000 White farmers own virtually all farmland outside the designated reserves while 20 million rural Black people barely survive on minute allotments in the communal reserve areas. Current White power and privilege rests firmly on this skewed and unequal distribution of land. For most Black South Africans, therefore, the resolution of the land question will signal real change. This symbolic value that is attached to land should not be underestimated. Redressing the imbalances in land distribution is a crucial precondition for the legitimacy of the new democratic order.

The issue of land has always featured on the liberation agenda in South Africa. The Freedom Charter, demanded: "the land should be shared amongst those who work it" and reflected many of the concerns of the rural poor, as did the manifestos of all other political organisations. Thus even though land and agrarian issues were not key mobilising issues in the liberation struggle, land dispossession has always been a significant factor. The gross inequalities of land ownership, the squeezing of millions of people into reserves, the forced removals and the system of migrant labour kept the issue alive in the hearts and minds of those who struggled against repression and the undermining of their rights. This sentiment was reflected at the ANC's national conference in 1992, where the ANC adopted the Land Reform Policy Guidelines, which envisaged a central role for the state in the acquisition and allocation of land. A land ceiling was proposed with respect to land held for speculative purposes, as well as in the case of unused and indebted land.

Constitutional reform reflects the lack of an organised rural voice

The absence of a national organization that could directly represent the interests of the rural poor enabled the constitutional negotiators on the protection of property rights, and on the economy more broadly, to decide that land reform would be pursued within the framework of a market-led land reform programme. This was a reflection of the small role that the rural areas played in the struggle for liberation and the weak state of rural organization at the time. The organized voice of the rural poor, the farm workers and communal farmers, was absent at the negotiating table or in the streets. Instead, at the table, pushing for pro-market, demand-led land reform was the organized voice of the White agricultural sector, agri-business and the representatives of apartheid. In the end the influence of institutions like the World Bank proved too powerful.

This does not, however, mean that there was no rural, land rights voice. In fact, by the 1990s, there were several land rights NGOs like those affiliated to the National Land Commission and the Trust for Community Outreach and Education as well as many smaller community-based rural projects. However, these focused mainly on forced removals, farm evictions, rural poverty and the empowerment of rural women rather than on addressing the agrarian question. Perhaps the fact that no large-scale, land-based conflicts or struggles had surfaced in the preceding two decades created the impression that there was no land need or land hunger.

The new Constitution provided the framework for land reform and on the basis of this, the newly established Department of Land Affairs (DLA) produced a series of discussion and policy documents - the Framework Document on Land Reform, (1995), the Green Paper on Land Reform (1996), and the White Paper the following year. These ultimately led to the creation of a three-tier, market-based land reform programme premised on the willing-seller, willing-buyer principle. The three pillars of the programme were defined as the restitution of land rights (lost through racist legislation after 1913); a grant-based, demand-driven land redistribution programme; and a tenure reform component (that is largely undefined as yet). Thus the inputs of NGOs, community based and political organisations were ignored and it was decided that all land acquisitions through land reform would be based on market value (this included transfers of state land) and that the state would not play a pro-active role in land acquisition and supply.

What a fundamental break with the past offers

Over the past decade the performance of the land reform program has been dismal. Targets have not been met and budget allocations have not come close to the huge amounts of money required to implement a market-based land reform program at current land prices in South Africa. Instead, land speculation has been rife and rural communities have had to watch as land is sold off to foreigners and as large tracts of land that could be used for food security and livelihoods is converted into game reserves, hunting lodges and other tourist attractions.

In the first six years after 1994, land redistribution was taken forward primarily through the Settlement and Land Acquisition Grant (SLAG), through which poor people were able to access land largely for subsistence. In 2000, SLAG was superceded by the Land Redistribution for Agricultural Development (LRAD) policy. LRAD removed the requirement that applicants should be poor to be eligible for state support, and made larger grants available to those able to contribute to the cost of land and investments. Although LRAD is meant to provide for a range of commercial and subsistence land uses, in practice the programme has favoured commercial agriculture. Other land redistribution options such as municipal commonage and the provision of land for settlement and other non-agricultural purposes have been de-emphasised in recent years.

At the time of the LRAD policy, the target for land reform was amended by extending the RDP target of 30% in five years, to 30% in 15 years.

This was necessary because by the end of 1999, only 667 285ha of 83 million hectares of farmland in use by commercial farmers in South Africa (less than 1%), had been redistributed. Although the rate of land redistribution has increased in recent years, it is still well short of the rate required to meet official targets. By mid 2003, just under 2 million hectares of land had been transferred through land reform as a whole, amounting to 2.3% of all agricultural land. It is estimated that the current rate of delivery rate would need to be increased fivefold to meet the 30% target by 2015. Current trends also show that while there has been an increase in the amount of land transferred, the number of beneficiaries has actually declined.

Year Hectares
1995 11 171
1996 67 887
1997 140 527
1998 273 416
1999 174 286
Total 667 285


As far as restitution is concerned, the settlement of mainly urban claims through financial compensation explains the steep rise in the number of claims settled. But this is not matched by a similar increase in the numbers of households benefiting and the number of total hectares transferred. To date just over half a million hectares of land has been earmarked for restoration through this programme. The majority of the large and complex rural claims remain unresolved, and it is uncertain how these claims will be settled, as many of them involve large commercial farms, mining operations and towns.

Of the three pillars of land reform, tenure reform has fared the worst. The main achievements have been the enactment of a number of laws aimed at creating statutory rights in land. These include the Extension of Security of Tenure Act 62 of 1997 (ESTA) and the Land Reform (Labour Tenants) Act 3 of 1996 (LTA), which protects the tenure rights of people living on farms, prohibit arbitrary eviction, and provide the possibility for farm dwellers to secure long-term rights in land. It is not known how many farm dwellers have been legally evicted in terms of ESTA and the LTA, nor how many have been illegally evicted in violation of these laws. It is also not known how many labour tenants have successfully acquired ownership of the land they use. Experience on the ground however indicates that in practice farm workers are not much better of than they were before.

No. of Cases of Evictions and Land Rights Infringements as initially reported to the KwaZulu-Natal Land Legal Cluster Project, for the period October 2001 - October 2004:

Total No. of Cases 1034  
No. of Cases Closed 119 12%
Active Cases 915 88%
Analysis of Case Type
  No. of Cases As % of Total Case Load
Threatened Eviction 419 41%
Interference with Rights 272 26%
Other 184 18%
Eviction 73 7%
Unknown 47 5%
Labour Tenant Applications 21 2%
Judicial Proceedings 18 2%
Source: KZN Land-Legal Cluster Project November 2004

Measures to protect people with informal rights in the communal areas (the former reserves/homelands) are less developed. The only communal land tenure reform to date is in relation to 23 former 'Coloured' reserves, in the Western and Northern Cape, and Free State and Eastern Cape provinces. Here the state is in the process of consulting with residents on the tenure and institutional arrangements through which they wish to hold their land. This process has elicited strong support from residents for community governance of common resources through local institutions, but with state support. In relation to the former reserves or homelands, a recently promulgated Communal Land Rights Act, which essentially hands over control of communal lands to existing tribal authorities (as created through apartheid legislation), is yet to be implemented. The Act was passed despite huge criticism, as it is apparent that tenure reform in the existing reserves can only serve to perpetuate the existing status quo. Outside a context of land redistribution, it amounts to a mere tinkering on the sidelines of the divides in our society.

Provincially, more land has been transferred through land redistribution than through restitution. The least land has been transferred in Gauteng province, which is largely urban, and the Western Cape, where agricultural land prices are particularly high. Provinces with large, poor rural populations like the Eastern Cape, Free State, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and North West have, however, not done much better, delivering less than 200 000ha each over the past 10 years. Performance has been relatively good in Kwa-Zulu Natal, where more than 300 000ha, including substantial areas of good quality land, have been transferred. The greatest portions of land transfers, however, have taken place in the sparsely populated and semi-arid areas of the Northern Cape province.

Thus, after ten years of democracy, a negligible redress of past injustice has taken place. The 13%-87% split in land ownership in favour of the White minority, remains largely undisturbed. Despite the fact that White commercial farmers benefited from colonial and apartheid dispossession and labour policies of the past, they have not played a meaningful role in the process of transformation and social change in the country. It is clear that both the policy itself, and the means for implementing it, require serious attention. The contradictions in the policy together with the state's administrative and resource incapacities combine in a manner that favours continuity with the practices of the previous regime rather than a fundamental break with the past. In addition the absence of practical measures and actual strategies that link the objectives of land reform to an overall plan for rural development aimed at food security and the creation of sustainable livelihoods, means that land transfers have taken place in a piecemeal and ad-hoc way, without the necessary support and infrastructure development that will enable its productive use. Furthermore there has been no evidence of a rethink of high input, large-scale commercial farming practices that are patently unsuited to small-scale sustainable agriculture. Land and agrarian relations and practices were skewed by colonial and apartheid re-engineering. It is therefore imperative that any attempt at land reform is inserted into a wider rural development and agrarian reform strategy.

New forms of organising

The low levels of organization of the rural poor around demands for land and agrarian reform has, in part, resulted in the current status quo. But the past decade of democracy has seen increased self-organisation and a re-awakening of struggles for land from below, reflecting the levels of anger and dissatisfaction at the pace and nature of land reform. Many valuable lessons have been learnt from previous attempt to build a movement amongst the rural poor. The most valuable of these has been that a movement or even a national organization cannot be built from above or from the outside. It will be built slowly by the landless and rural poor themselves around their own demands.

This does not, however, mean that NGOs cannot or should not facilitate or support local processes, as is currently the case. On the contrary, NGOs have played an important role in the last period in contributing to the re-emergence of a consciousness amongst broad layers of the population of the levels of land need and land hunger in South Africa. They have helped to place the issue of land and agrarian reform firmly on the national agenda through waves of public meetings, conferences and international forums such as the WCAR and the WSSD. Events like the Week of the Landless and the TCOE Tribunal on Landlessness must be seen as building blocks towards a heightened awareness of land need and growing poverty in the country. They also play an invaluable role in building the levels of confidence and in heightening the understanding of the people's leadership and people's organizations. The emergence of the LPM and a plethora of small people's organizations like community development committees, land restitution groups, land committees, farmer and fisher associations are clear indications of a new moment in the history of rural struggles for land and agrarian reform. This can only be advanced as consciousness increases and as rural poor organize around their own interests.