Unpacking South Africa’s fraught and complex land debate

Land reform a key issue before elections next year, experts say, turning up debate over legacy of apartheid.

Residents walk through shacks in Cape Town''s crime-ridden Khayelitsha township in this picture taken July 9, 2012.
Two decades after the end of apartheid, land reform remains one of South Africa's most divisive issues [File: Mike Hutchings/Reuters]

Johannesburg, South Africa – Last week, US President Donald Trump ignited a firestorm when he decided to wade into the sensitive land debate in South Africa.

Trump wrote in a tweet that he had asked Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, to look into “land and farm seizures” and “large scale killings of white farmers”.

Trump’s comment came after he watched a six-minute segment on the issue on Fox News, a conservative US broadcaster. The president was immediately condemned by the South African government and his comments raised the ire of many South Africans, a majority of whom, 24 years after the end of apartheid, are still waiting for land reform to take place.

The question of land remains among the most sensitive and divisive in the country.

Apartheid was, at its core, a system of separate and discriminatory development, with black South Africans either dispossessed or denied access to land, infrastructure and resources, while their white counterparts were given preferential treatment and access to the economy.

The legacies of apartheid persist to this day, with social and economic inequality preserved and perpetuated due to the lack of economic transformation.

Al Jazeera answers the key questions about the fraught and complicated land debate in the country.

Who owns land in South Africa?

Following the end of apartheid in 1994, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) said it would redistribute 30 percent of white-owned commercial farmland to black farmers.

“Our estimate is that [today] 9.7 percent of white commercial farmland has been transferred to black people since 1994,” Ruth Hall, from the Institute of Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (Plaas), based in Cape Town, says.

More than 60 percent of South Africans now live in urban areas, such as Cape Town (pictured) [File: Mike Hutchings/Reuters]
More than 60 percent of South Africans now live in urban areas, such as Cape Town (pictured) [File: Mike Hutchings/Reuters]

It is estimated that white South Africans, who make up around nine percent of the population, own around 73 percent of the commercial agricultural land.

As it stands, black people own more than 50 percent of agricultural land in just two of the country’s nine provinces.

Are white farmers being targeted and murdered?

Claims that white farmers are being disproportionately targeted and killed, or that a “white genocide” is taking place in South Africa have been repeatedly refuted.

Agri SA, an agricultural industry association based in Pretoria, reported in June that 47 farmers were killed between 2017 and 2018 – the lowest in 20 years. Omri van Zyl, Agri SA’s executive director, told Al Jazeera that despite the numbers, the organisation still feels that there are a “disproportionate number of farm murders”.

Between 2016 and 2017, there were 19,016 murders in South Africa, translating into a murder rate of 34.1 per 100,000 people. Police statistics indicate that during the same period, there were 74 farm murders.

These include farmers and workers of all race groups.

Afriforum, a right-wing lobby group that has both welcomed and taken credit for informing Trump’s tweet, claims that the murders of farmers translate into a murder rate of 156 per 100,000 people, or 4.5 times higher chance of getting murdered than the average South African.

Fact-checking website Africheck has repeatedly refuted Afriforum’s statistics, arguing that given that it is not clear how many people live and work on farms, the group’s numbers are fundamentally flawed.

There remains no evidence to suggest that farmers as a group suffer more attacks than any other demographic in the country.

Why has land reform been so slow?

Since 1994, the government has followed a “willing seller, willing buyer” model in which it has bought white-owned farms for redistribution. But this process has been slow, with the ANC accusing landowners of inflating farm prices and therefore hindering redistribution.

Experts, meanwhile, say the primary reason land reform has been slow is due to a lack of political will.


“Land reform has never accounted for more than one percent of the national budget. And this means the programme has been constrained by a limited budget.” Hall, from Plaas, says.

“The second reason is that the department of rural development is extremely weak. We don’t have a lot of state capacity to implement their policies … We estimate that six percent of all commercial farms are bought and sold each year, so we could be going a lot faster [if there was more money].”

Likewise, Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, author of The land is ours: Black Lawyers and the Birth of Constitutionalism in South Africa, says that the law was designed to help government redistribute land but “no explanation has been given as to why this has not happened”.

In other words, “the ANC tolerated a slow and failing land programme for more than two decades”, Hall adds.

Is the Constitution to blame?

The ANC has been consistently reprimanded for its slow land reform policy. Pressure has been building on the ruling party, especially from the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the third-largest party in the country, who have turned the land issue into a key election campaign topic.

With national elections due to take place in 2019, the ANC is at pains to illustrate that it is taking the concerns of the large black majority – who remain poor, landless and on the fringes of the economy – on board.

“This has become a party political issue for the first time, and people are aligning themselves with parties based on their position on land,” Hall says.

At its national conference in December 2017, the ANC resolved to expropriate land without compensation as a means to speed up land reform. This then ushered in talk of amending Section 25 of the Constitution in order to allow expropriation without compensation to take place.

“It has become pertinently clear that our people want the constitution to be more explicit about expropriation of land without compensation as demonstrated in the public hearings,” party leader and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said.

Ramaphosa has pledged to amend the Constitution to allow for the expropriation of land without compensation [File: Mike Hutchings/Reuters]
Ramaphosa has pledged to amend the Constitution to allow for the expropriation of land without compensation [File: Mike Hutchings/Reuters]

But legal experts say the Constitution is not the problem.

“My own sense is that they are scapegoating the Constitution for their failures … I don’t think the problem is legal, it is political,” Ngcukaitobi, the author, says.

“If, after 24 years of an enabling framework, you’ve done nothing to enforce it, it is very difficult to explain to the public why you have done nothing to enforce it … it easier to say the Constitution constrains the government.”

Do black South Africans want white-owned farms?

The ANC’s call for amending the Constitution has also ushered in hysteria, rampant misinformation and fake news, culminating in Trump’s tweet last week.

Experts say that while the narrative has centred around the fate of white farmers and the seizure of commercial farms, mostly due to the lobbying of Afriforum, the reality is that most black South Africans are not interested in rural land.

“Unfortunately, the conversation is being framed around white farmers … but white farmers will be largely unaffected, because the demand for land is in the urban areas,” Ngcukaitobi says.

Van Zyl, from Agri SA, confirmed that the demand for urban land was on the rise. He added that while farms were not being seized as reported, land occupations closer to urban areas were taking place.


More than 60 percent of South Africans now live in urban areas and the struggle over land is no longer a question of resolving historical dispossession but a matter of inclusion in the country’s economy.

“The political heart of the matter is located in the urban areas … in particular, the big metros,” Hall says.

“Remember, apartheid kept black people out of the cities.”

With urban housing either too expensive or low-cost housing inaccessible from the city, millions of black South Africans have, since the end of apartheid, resorted to occupying vacant plots of land, often belonging to the city or local government.

“People don’t look at land as purely a hard asset. People look at land as a mechanism to be closer to where they work,” Ngcukaitobi says.

“This is where the future of contestation over land is headed,” Ngcukaitobi adds.

At least 11 percent of all households in the country’s urban areas are located in informal settlements. In Gauteng province, considered South Africa’s economic hub, 19 percent of households are in informal settlements – often without proper water, sanitation or legal electricity connections. It is this demographic who consistently face eviction and displacement.

“Our cities are poverty traps 24 years after apartheid,” says Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Johannesburg.

Friedman says that if one looks at other places around the world where progress has been made in the fight against poverty, one of the common dominators is the proximity of poor people to economic hubs. “Until we change that [here], the poor will simply continue selling things to other poor people,” Friedman adds.

Hall says that ordinary black people want action over land because they are well aware that it is they who are most likely to suffer displacement or dispossession.

“We see it in the urban areas: people from informal settlements are evicted by the state. On commercial farms, large numbers of black people are evicted by white farmers,” Hall says.

She cites cases where commercial farmers evict black workers and their families who have lived on these farms for generations due to financial pressure amid worsening economic conditions, as well as political reasons due to the perceived fear of robberies and violence.

“The rate at which black people are kicked out of commercial farms is faster than that rate at which they accessing land,” says Hall.

“Then in the communal areas, the traditional authorities are evicting people after they get into deals with mining companies … across these three spaces, the cities, the farms, communal areas, we see a process of black people being pushed off land and left in much more vulnerable and insecure positions.”

Black South Africans black own more than 50 percent of agricultural land in just two of the country's nine provinces [File: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters]
Black South Africans black own more than 50 percent of agricultural land in just two of the country’s nine provinces [File: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters]

Ngcukaitobi warns that indiscriminate use of expropriation without compensation would hurt poor black families more than it would white families.

He cites the experience of the country’s preparation for the World Cup in 2010, where black families were forced to move to make way for a rail network, and the urban poor were pushed out of the cities in a bid to beautify the metros before the football tournament.

In Durban, some families who were moved to make way for the stadiums are still living in transit camps.

“The likely targets of expropriation without compensation will be the poor and vulnerable and not white people in the suburbs, and we have to put in measures to ensure this does not happen,” Ngcukaitobi says.

Will South Africa become the ‘next Zimbabwe’?

Many commentators continue to point at the experiences of neighbouring Zimbabwe when the question of land reform is debated in South Africa. Former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe embarked on a series of land grabs in the early 2000s that led to the collapse of the country’s economy.

Even though there are concerns that land could be transferred to the politically connected, like in Zimbabwe, experts are clear that the situation in South Africa is very different, pointing out to the country’s vigorous civil society and independent judiciary as bulwarks of democracy.


“White people like the idea that they are being targeted,” Ngcukaitobi says, “but the reality is that this is not the case and that black people’s needs have moved from the countryside to the urban areas”.

Last week, David Mabuza, the country’s deputy president, looked to allay fears when he addressed the Land Summit in the northern Limpopo province. He said that no farms would be invaded or grabbed and that farmers did not have to fear for their well-being.

“As the leadership of the ANC and government, we are clear that the implementation of land reform measures must not result in social fractures and racial polarisation,” Mabuza said.

Responding to the address, van Zyl, the Agri SA executive director, said he believed Mabuza’s commitment was “authentic”.

“The problem is that in the rural areas, they [government] are not there. And that means its a practical issue,” van Zyl said.

“Farmers understand that transformation has to happen, and a lot of farmers are doing it already. But we need incentives and mechanisms … it has to be done in a commercially sound way, otherwise, everything will implode.”

But it is not clear how the government will decide who will get these newly released plots and, for experts observing the process, that is what will matter most.

“There has been an astonishing lack of transparency about who the beneficiaries will be,” Ngcukaitobi says. “It has to be transparent.” 

Friedman, meanwhile, says that “Afriforum, like Trump, are only interested in protecting whiteness.”

The rage over land reform among ordinary South Africans is also a manifestation of a larger concern. In 2017, 30 percent of the black South Africans were unemployed compared with 6.7 percent of whites.

“What black South Africans are actually talking about [when they refer to land] is their sense that this is a minority-controlled economy,” Friedman says.

“This is what lies at the heart of a debate that is still not very coherent or straightforward.”

Source: Al Jazeera