No policy for change

This paper discusses whether or not the land reform polices adopted by the South African government since 1994 are adequate to bring about a fundamental change in property rights. It will show that the land reform policies in South Africa cannot bring fundamental change. The paper starts by looking at what would constitute a fundamental change in property rights and goes onto to assess the land reform policies in terms of their potential to bring change and the actual experiences of implementation. The paper concludes with some thoughts on why there is no programme to bring fundamental change and suggestions for what needs to be done.
Fundamental Change in property.
Before we can look at whether or not land reform policies are adequate to bring about fundamental change in property rights we need to establish what would constitute fundamental change. It is also important to ask whether such change is even desirable. The history of apartheid and the dispossession of black people from the land that was a central part of the system are well known. This left a situation in South Africa where in 1996 white people still owned and controlled over 80%[1] of farm land despite being only 10.9%[2] of the population. Meanwhile the 76.7%[3] of the population that are African had access to less than 15%[4] of farm land. An estimated 5.3 million black South Africans lived with almost no tenure security on commercial farms owned by white farmers.[5] Black people had been denied the right to own land and, apart from a few exceptional cases, had their land rights limited to permission to occupy arrangements in former homelands and rentals of housing in urban townships. White people owned land with title deeds giving one of the strongest legal ownership rights of any country in the world. People classified as Indian and Coloured who made up another 11.5%[6] of the population had arrangements somewhere between the strong rights of Whites and the extremely weak rights of Blacks. Indians and Coloureds had a limited role in agriculture except for Indian small farm owners in Kwa-Zulu Natal and Coloured farm workers in the Western Cape.
Race and land ownership defined political and economic influence especially strongly in rural areas. In these areas the white farmers were one of the only sources of employment and had a very strong influence over local institutions especially the justice system. Despite the changes taking place since 1994 black farm residents continue to receive an inferior service from the justice system compared to white farm owners, especially where the accused is a white landowner.[7] [1] Total hectares of farmland owned as commercial farming units (82,209,571) as a percentage of total farmland (100,665,792). Figures sourced from N. Vink. Table 6 and Table 5 respectively (See Appendix A). Unpublished lecture. 2002.
[2] Statistics South Africa. Stats in Brief 2000.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid note 1.
[5] A. Wildschut and S. Hulbert. A Seed Not Sown: Prospects for Agrarian Reform in South Africa. 1998.
[6] Ibid note 3.
[7] Human Rights Watch. Unequal Protection

    • The State Response to Violent Crime on South African Farms. 2001.
      The extreme racial inequalities in property rights tend to get most attention in debates on land reform in South Africa, but there are major distortions in property rights that go beyond race. In 1996 less than 1%[1] of the population owned over 80% of farm land and over 67%[2] of the total land in the country. Even forgetting the fact that this 1% are white the inequality is extreme.
  • The white and black communities have traditionally been very patriarchal. Both have tended to vest ownership and control in the hands of male family heads regardless of whether it is women who do most of the work on the land. It has been well argued that the success of land reform “should be judged by the extent to which it impacts positively and progressively on reducing systematic and structural inequalities along race, gender and class lines


    • These extreme inequalities need to be seen in the context of the socio-economic conditions in South Africa as a whole. Official unemployment stood at 33.9%[4] in 1996 and has been growing since then. The economy has been growing at 2.7% from 1994 to 2000, which is only just above the population growth rate of 2.2%[5], and only grew by 2.2% in 2001[6]. The highest concentration of poverty and unemployment is in the rural areas where 46.3%[7] of the population reside.


  • As well as the compelling justice and equity arguments there are strong economic arguments for changing property relations. International evidence shows an inverse relationship between farm size and productivity. This is characterised by smaller farms having a higher output per hectare, higher labour use per hectare and usually higher total factor productivity. Studies in South Africa show that the extent of this inverse relationship might be varied, especially across different types of production, and that below a certain size the trend may change, but there is still an inverse farm size efficiency relationship.[8] Van Zyl concludes that “significant efficiency gains can be made if farm sizes in the commercial sector become smaller”[9]. This is combined with an under utilisation of much of the commercially owned farmland in South Africa. In 1988 only 3% of farmers in South Africa earned 41% of the total gross farm income while 74% earned only 19% of gross farm income[10]. The indication is that significant gains could be made in productivity, economic growth and poverty reduction if substantial amounts of land are redistributed. Rogier van den Brink, et al estimated that a redistribution of 30% of commercial farmland in a five-year period could create a net gain of approximately 1.5 million rural livelihoods
  • A fundamental change would be one that addresses the history of racial dispossession to create patterns of land ownership that roughly reflect the demographics of the country. This requires the transfer of approximately 71million hectares or 70% of farmland to black owners. The other requirement is to reduce, regardless of race, the concentration of land in such few hands. This needs to be accompanied by a change in farming methods to maximise the economic and rural development potential of the agricultural sector. A substantial small and medium size farm sector using more labour intensive technologies can make a substantial contribution to employment creation and poverty reduction in the agricultural sector and through the multiplier effects in the non-farm rural sector[12]. To complete the transformation the gender inequalities in land control need to ensure full participation of women in land use accompanied by ownership and control.