Global Policy Forum

South Africa: Whose Land?


Landless Poor Lose out to Tourist Parks

By Colette Braeckman*

Le Monde diplomatique
September 2003

The new South Africa chose to reform agriculture 'with the help of market forces', which, so far, has meant further impoverishment of already poor black landless labourers and a worsening of the tensions between them and those white farmers who have retained their land and are doing well.

There are three round huts and a small brick house built on 30 square metres of dry ground: no drinking water and no electricity. The Ntuli family has lived at this place, in the South African province of Kwazulu-Natal, for 15 years. There are some 20 people in the family, mainly women, children and teenagers, and they all live on the 650 rand ($88) disability allowance the government pays monthly to Sarah, grandmother to the family.

The four able-bodied Ntuli men go to Newcastle, the nearest town, to look for work. Beyond the bridge, over the main road, stretch vast cornfields, which are permanently irrigated by sophisticated technology. The Ntuli family makes do with buckets of water from the polluted river running along the roadside. The landscape is littered with fences and barbed wire. Sarah, a woman with patient eyes, points out a little burial mound on the horizon. "That's where our ancestors are buried," she says, "but we can't go there. The farmer doesn't let us. We once used to work on the Cilliers' farm. We weren't paid, but they let us stay here. We could let our cattle graze around the house. Sometimes the farmer gave us 150 rand ($20) for the month. That's all over. Since the government decreed that workers on white farmers' land must be paid 650 rand a month, the baas (boss) decided we had to go because he couldn't afford us. Our three cows were confiscated and sold. We're not really even allowed to fetch water from the river."

Less than 50 metres separate the Ntulis' modest encampment from the road used by farmers' pickups and buses crossing Kwazulu-Natal. But on this path winding through the brush, the boys cannot ride their bicycles or motorbikes because it's private property. When we walked back to the road from the Ntulis, a woman was watching us. She had already called her husband, her son and the police on her mobile phone. "What are you doing on my land?" she said. "Who gave you permission?" We asked if it was forbidden to visit the Ntuli family at their home. Couldn't they see who they wanted to?

Mangaliso Kubheka, national organiser of the new Landless People's Movement (LPM), who was with us, lost his patience with the woman: "Maybe the land belongs to you, but these people are on it. These are citizens of the new South Africa, and they have rights." Then he added: "When you came here from Europe, you didn't bring this land with you."

The same scene plays throughout the province, and the stories are similar: black families, mainly women and children, living on little patches of land at the edge of vast properties, and deteriorating relations with white farmers. Many white farmers have been killed recently and their cattle stolen. Kubheka believes that the stealing has to do with mounting tension: "For decades white farmers enjoyed almost free labour from workers living on their land. But now suddenly they say they can't afford them. So they kick whole families off the land, and hire seasonal workers as it suits them."

Hunting reserves and game parks are opening up all over Kwazulu-Natal as in the rest of South Africa. Once the farmers are rid of their workers, many introduce crocodiles, rhinoceroses and elephants to the land and open tourist parks.

After nine years of grace, the patience of South African peasants is wearing out. More and more are joining the LPM, which Kubheka founded in 2002. After discussions with the Brazilian counterpart, the Landless Peasants' Movement (Movimento Sem Terra), Kubheka urged more direct action: "We disapprove of the methods used in Zimbabwe, where civil servants and party members appropriated redistributed land for themselves. But we will also end up resorting to occupations. First, we will create the landless peasants' army, not to attack anybody, but to defend ourselves against private security companies. Their commandos, hired by farmers, harass farm workers. They prevent families from burying their dead on land they've lived on for decades. I no longer have access to my father's grave." Farmers refuse interment rights because they know that families can subsequently claim the right to return or to remain on ancestral ground.

In South Africa other issues occupy the headlines: the HIV/Aids epidemic, which affects every fifth adult (1), the role of regional power that President Thabo Mbeki wants his country to assume, and the launching of the new partnership for Africa's development (2). But among the legacies of apartheid, the matter of land is still the most problematic, even though farm workers, without any political outlet, have not gained any power.

Throughout South Africa there is a striking contrast between immense stretches of carefully fenced land reserved for pasture and intensive farming and served by roads in excellent condition, and black families camping on tiny parcels of land. At the end of dirt tracks are what is left of the old homelands, eroded land subject to the authority of tribal chiefs. The able-bodied men abandoned it for the cities.

Apartheid was responsible for the largest population movement and dispossession of the 20th century: between 1960 and 1980 more than 3.5 million blacks were evicted from their land and relegated to homelands or to townships surrounding the big cities. Stripped of land, blacks were no longer potential rivals for white farmers. They became a cheap labour pool for farming, mining and industry. When the African National Congress (ANC) came to power in 1994, it promised to change a landscape in which 60,000 white farmers held 87% of the fertile land and millions of blacks shared 13%. No one believed that colonial conquest and the Boer war were responsible for blacks being dispossessed and driven from their ancestral lands without compensation. It was the result of a deliberate policy since the 1913 Land Act. When the Afrikaners came to power in 1948, they created the homelands and the country accelerated population transfers that began in the 19th century.

It had been hoped that the new black majority South Africa would be actively involved in dismantling the wrongs of the past. But it did not have the means to act quickly. One of the key compromises between the ANC and the De Klerk government had been to agree not to alienate the white population, especially farmers. Agrarian reform, presented as a priority by the agriculture minister at the time, Derek Hanecom, turned out unsurprisingly to be better in intention than practice. There were three sections: the restitution of Land Rights Act (1994); tenure reform to ensure greater tenant security (Communal Property associations Act, 1996); and agrarian reform in the strict sense (Labour Tenants Act, 1996, and the Extension of Security Tenure Act, 1997).

The goal of redistribution was to allow the most underprivileged groups access to land. But the state, until recently the instrument of land confiscation, preferred to forsake its prerogatives and abstain from any authoritarian resolutions. It favoured market-assisted agrarian reform, based on freely made agreements by all parties. Black growers wishing to acquire land could do so either by launching themselves as entrepreneurs, if they could afford it, or by forming buyers' collectives, to take advantage of the 16,000 rand ($2,172) subsidy the government promised to each. Despite the initial inequity between the participants, the basic principle was freedom for both parties and respect for private property.

The reconstruction and development programme set out in 1994 foresaw the redistribution of 30% of agricultural land over five years. When it won power, the black majority government multiplied subsidies and allocations in the countryside, created mobile clinics, opened schools and improved access to drinking water (passing the bill on to consumers by privatising water distribution). But progress was slight. In June 2000, out of 65,000 restitution requests, only 6,250 were successful and only 1% of land had been redistributed (3). In eight years, 1,098,008 hectares were transferred, only 0.89% of the country's surface area.

After eight years 386,000 victims of forced transfer had benefited from restitution programmes. But it was often city-dwellers rather than landless peasants who received the allotment of 40,000 rand ($5,430). White farmers could claim up to 3m rand ($400) for each relinquished farm. In June 2000 the government reiterated its intention to transfer 15m hectares to black farmers over the next five years, a promise amounting to three times the land acquisition budget set aside for 2003-04.

The prospect makes Kubheka smile: "Quite often, when we tell the authorities that a farmer is willing to sell his land, and point out the black farmers ready to take up the challenge, we receive no response. They tell us there is no money, though the minister for agriculture hasn't even spent the allocated funds for buying back land."

The reality, as outlined by the Association for Rural Advancement (Afra), which has struggled for reform for 20 years, is that government priorities are elsewhere. In Pietermaritzburg, northwest of Durban, Sanjaya Pillay, Afra's spokesman, explains: "Instead of giving priority to the poor, the government decided to place its bet on the strongest, those we call emerging farmers." Those who receive credits are commercial black farmers, if they are able to make their own contribution of 5,000 rand ($678).

That excludes 70% of the rural population, considered as poor, with a yearly income of less than 1,680 rand ($228). Only the most enterprising, and those with access to influence, can benefit from the reform. For the 7 million people living on 65,000 white commercial farms and the 12 million blacks living on the old homelands, there hasn't been much change yet.

Afra considers that "the principal achievement of the new regime is to have deracialised unfairness". Certain black farmers have been co-opted by the whites and their success highlighted. Sometimes there is a process of monitoring: white farmers adopt and train their black compatriots. But landless peasants are more marginalised than ever, and no solutions have been offered to city-dwellers, who are victims of a 45% unemployment rate and want to return to agriculture. Pillay thinks the Gers programme (growth, employment and redistribution strategy) has rerouted initial intentions towards liberalisation, opening up the markets and privatising water.

Far from adopting a programme for the poor, the ANC has undertaken the modernisation of the rural sector, now market-driven and centred on currency-generating exports. Afra says: "It's a reform that the Afrikaners couldn't have done better."

*About the Author: Colette Braeckman is a journalist with Le Soir, Brussels.


(1) See Philippe Rivií¨re, "South Africa's Aids apartheid," Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, August 2002.
(2) The new partnership for Africa's development (Nepad), a Marshall plan for Africa, is a compact between African states and the developed world, which has agreed to provide more aid for infrastructure projects, debt relief and education, to ease access for African goods to the markets of the developed world, and to channel greater investment into African economies.
(3) Tom Lebert, "Tinkering at the Edges", Land reform in South Africa, 1994 to 2001, a report for the international conference on access to land, Bonn, 19-23 March 2001.

Translated by Jeremiah Cullinane

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