The land belongs to us: Land reform in South Africa

Tygerberg Hills, South Africa
Tygerberg Hills, South Africa (© Flickr/Warren Rohner/)

One of the major challenges facing the new South African government is the issue of land reform. The apartheid regime confiscated vast tracts of land from the black majority as well as from coloureds and Indians. Africans were forced to move either to faraway homelands or to settlements on the outskirts of cities and towns. Now that apartheid is being dismantled, there are mounting calls for land redistribution, giving all South Africans equal access to land both in rural communities and cities.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: April 27, 1994


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch international service, presents “The land belongs to us – land reform in South Africa”. The programme is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

It’s very threatening. You talk about land anywhere in the world, it’s threatening.

If the need for land is not addressed, there is potential for real violence.

One of the major challenges facing the new government in South Africa is the issue of land reform. The apartheid regime confiscated vast tracts of land from the black majority as well as from coloureds and Indians. Africans were forced to move either to faraway homelands or to settlements on the outskirts of cities and towns. Now that apartheid is being dismantled, there are mounting calls for land redistribution, giving all South Africans equal access to land both in rural communities and cities. The roots of the land reform issue date back to 1948 when the ruling National Party instituted the apartheid system. According to Sue Wixley of the National Land Committee, which receives support from the Dutch development aid organisations HIVOS and NOVIB, 3.5 million people were forcibly removed from their land from the 1960’s to the 1980’s.

When they worked out which land was to be used to by whites and which was to be used to black people, they said black people would be forced into 13% of the land, and that was a real cause for lots of evictions. EB: When you say 13% of the land, you mean the homelands, right? Mainly the homelands, yes. Some of these communities are now coming forward with claims for that land. The scope for making those claims and the scope for getting the land back is actually quite limited because the only thing they can do is either go to the government commission on land allocation, which is appointed by the government, or they can institute negotiations with the farmer to get their land bank. The commission is very slow. It’s heard 1200 cases submitted to it. It’s only heard 25 of those cases because it has a very narrow brief. It only looks at cases where state land is involved. And of those, only 12 communities have got their land back. So obviously that’s a very small amount.

One of the communities that’s just been able to return to its land is located about 1.5 drive from Johannesburg in a conservative, white district. The community, together with the help of the Transvaal Rural Action Committee, which also receives back from the Dutch development aid organisation HIVOS, managed to get its land back after a struggle that lasted over a quarter of a century.

It was about 1966 when we were informed by the government agent that this place has been declared a black spot. Black spot is a place where black people are staying but surrounded by whites. Then we were told that we had to be removed from here to another place called Lierach (sp?). EB: And where’s that? On the other side of Rustenburg. You know Sun City? Somewhere near there. In Boputhatswana. Yeah, Boputhatswana. But at that time, there was no place like Boputhatswana. When Boputhatswana was declared, we were already there. Some members of the tribe, we refused to move in 1966. We stayed behind, and later we were arrested for trespassing. So we were locked up in Pretoria Central Prison for 9 months, 3 months in solitary confinement. After 9 months we were released. We were told to go back without being charged. EB: Go back where? To Lierach because this place here, we found everything of ours: houses destroyed and our livestock impounded. The ladies, old women who were left behind were arrested for trespassing. But we never stopped fighting to get our land back. We never stopped. It took us 27, 28 years. EB: How were you fighting? By legal means. In fact, we negotiated with the government. We negotiated through our lawyer. South African Council of Churches were behind us. The Transvaal Action Committee, TRACT, they helped us a lot with advice, what not, everything, until we met with other communities. We started being 19 communities who were fighting to get their land. We went to Cape Town to interview ??, and he told us he is going to appoint a commission which will deal with us. They called that commission Atla, Advisor of Land Commission allocation, something like that. We then made a submission to this Atla. They told us they will take our grievances back to the government, but they would recommend that we be given our land back, and they did just that. EB: The land actually belonged to you. The land belonged to us. We have a title deed for this land, but it was also confiscated from us when we were arrested. Now, after a very long struggle – this took us 27 to 28 years – we were told that we could reoccupy our land on the 1st of December 1993. But when we came here, the gate was locked. The farmer who is listed on this place asked us to give him three months because the government did not notify him of us coming to reoccupy our land. We agreed. It was December last year to the end of February. At the end of February, the 1st of March, when we were supposed to come here, the farmer again said he was not given a written notice. So he asked to be given one month written notice, and that was done. At the end of March, there were some white farmers around here who didn’t want us to reoccupy our land. But we told them, alright, despite that written notice you have been given, by the 1st of March we are reoccupying our land no matter what. The farmers here started holding meetings with us, telling us that the right-wingers will do what…threatening us. But we said, no, they can rather kill us in our land. We are going back to our land, and the 1st of March, we came in here. And so far, nothing happened from the right-wing threats and all those things right up to now. EB: What’s it like being on your land again? Excellent. Wonderful. I feel like on top of the world. Beautiful! Excellent! You can see those old ladies there, they have never been as happy as they are now. EB: And you? I’m on top of the world now. I’m right on top of the world. EB: Was the struggle worth it, the 27-year struggle to get your land back? Absolutely, absolutely. We are 27 years poorer than we were before, but we don’t care. So long as we are on our land, poor in our land.

In February, a national community land conference was held. Over 350 rural communities were represented, and they drew up a land charter with a series of demands, which they expect the new government to deal with. Sue Wixley of the National Land Committee again.  

What communities are saying is that there should be a land claims process that is addressed, a proper process. They’re saying that the commission isn’t actually proper. It’s more a stalling mechanism than anything else. They’re saying that should happen. People should be able to claim land. Secondly they are saying that there should be a broader land reform programme for those communities that haven’t got specific claims to land in order to alleviate the huge land hunger problem in this country, to give people land for farming, to give people land for residential purposes. People believe that that has to happen as well. Thirdly people believe that they should have services on that land. There’s no point giving communities land back if they don’t have the services to support themselves, so that means quite basic infrastructure like roads, electricity, water. People are saying that they should have some of the services that the government gave to white farmers in the past. They should have access to credit facilities, access to training and agricultural work. The other point is the reality of what a government is going to do. And at the moment one of the real worries is the interim bill of rights, the interim constitution that is going to govern the next five years has got in it a few clauses that are going to make land reform quite difficult as well as land restitution or land claims. These clauses only give people the right to make a claim, so it only says that people can go to court. It doesn’t say they have a right to get their land back. And in fact the court is not going to be weighed in their favour really.

But members of the community land conference recently held a meeting with Nelson Mandela who agreed with their concerns about the interim constitution, according to Theresa Plewman of the Transvaal Rural Action Committee, TRAC, returning rural land to Africans will not be an easy issue. Just look at what happened in other African countries.

I think that in any country where a government has been a liberation movement, when you come to power it’s quite easy to fall into the trap of having farms and things for friends, which is what you are seeing in Zimbabwe at the moment, which is very scary. I think in South Africa there is the potential to sort this out with minimum problem. I think that nobody really doubts the moral basis for the justice that the people deserve in terms of land that was forcibly taken away from them. What is more difficult always is the actual redistribution of land that is held by other people. That there is a lot of land that is underutilised or not utilised at all because it has been oversubsidised and white farmers have just abandoned their farms, so that is available for redistribution, we would think. There is also a lot of state land that isn’t used at all. And there’s mining land, and I believe that organisations like Transmet ??, the people who organise the transport, they also have a lot of land that is not used either. So I think that there is room for redistribution without knocking private individuals to too much of an extent. I think there needs to be more than redistribution. There needs to be a policy that says we are committed to land for everybody. So there needs to be an administrative process that ensures that that can happen. They need to be processes whereby you can have secure forms of tenure without discriminating against other people as well. A balance needs to be drawn. I don’t think it’s going to be easy, but I do think it’s possible.

An even more complex problem than the rural land issue is the situation in urban areas. Under the apartheid system, each race – white, coloured, Asian and African – had its own specific area, and people from one race could not live in an area designated for a different race. The separation was very arbitrary, but Norah Walker of the environmental Support Group, also a beneficiary of aid from the Dutch development aid organisation HIVOS, explains what it meant it practice in South African cities.

If you can imagine it is three concentric rings around a city, where the whites would be located in the central areas, closest to the facilities and the major commercial activity, the Indians in the next band around that and then the Africans located right on the periphery. EB: And as a result people had to be bussed in often over long distances to get to work. That’s right. Some people are spending a quarter of their salary a month on transport getting to work, and spend up to two hours to three hours a day getting to and from work. It raises the whole question of the location of future housing, and particularly housing for low-income people. There is a lot of debate at the moment as to how one begins to break down the structure of the apartheid city and how can one bring in low-income people back in to the central city areas. Negotiations are underway to see where really to work on an allocation system for that housing. I think there is a lot of debate as to how one can allocate that land because obviously there is an enormous housing backlog. There are a large number of people who want to come and live close to their places of employment and commercial activity. I think one is going to have to devise a system that takes income into account, that tries to keep that land circulating within low-income households to stop speculation and that allocates in a fair way across income distribution. EB: It’s going to be an extremely long process. It’s not going to be something that can happen overnight or even in a year or two. Well, I think what is happening is that a lot of low-income households and homeless people  are not going to put their faith in any system of allocation or in any future government, and they are beginning to vote with their feet and basically invade land and take occupation of that land. EB: Can they actually lay claim to this land? They can get de facto claim to the land because no one, at the moment, want to handle the political hot potato of evicting them off the land.

One of the areas where squatters have been living for years is Site 5 or Masiphumelele, a settlement of about 3000 people about an hour’s drive from Cape Town. I went to the settlement and met a group of Masiphumelele’s inhabitants, as well as Ann Jelima (sp?), an American doing her Ph.D. and who has been working closely with this community and others like it.

Many of these people have been here for 10 years or longer in this general area. The area used to be a rural area with small holdings and farms. As Cape Town grew, much of that land was turned over to private developers for commercial purposes and for white residential suburbs. People were increasingly forced out of the areas that they used to stay on. They struggled for the right to remain in this area, which is where they work and where many of them have lived most of their lives. And in 1990, the provincial administration finally agreed to establish a settlement for them here. Half of that settlement has been completed with services. The other half is still unserviced and has no taps, toilets or tarred roads or street lights. EB: And when you say services, what type of services are we talking about? That’s exactly what we’re talking about. We’re talking about running water, we’re talking about toilets, we’re talking about roads and street lights. We’re not talking about electricity and we’re not talking about houses. EB: I guess I should describe what this shack is like. It’s approximately 3 metres wide by about 6 or 7 metres long. It’s all made of metal roofing. There are also holes in the roof, so when it rains, the rain falls inside. Everything gets wet. And what happens when it’s windy because there are lots of storms here in the winter. The sand come through the house and when we are sleeping, the sand come through the nose and the ears, and the baby also sick. We are sick because there are a lot of wind. We are staying at a dirty place because we have got no boxes to put in the dirty things. EB: No trash cans. No dirty bins, yeah. There’s no water here. EB: So where do you get water from? We got two taps here for the one area. More than one thousand people who are staying here in this site. EB: And they only have two taps of water. Are there long lines, long queues? Yes, there are long queues because there are many people. Sometimes, there’s no water. EB: How long have you been living here? About 5 years we stay here. EB: Where were you before this? I come from East London. EB: Why did you come here? We come here to find jobs because there’s no jobs. So here it’s better. EB: Does your husband have a job now? No, it’s a part time job. He’s working three days a week. EB: How much does he earn? 30 rands a day. EB: So he earns around 400 rand a month, which is just over $100. So we can’t get enough food and enough clothes. EB: Would you like to stay here or move someplace else? We want to stay here, and the government will build houses here. EB: That probably isn’t going to happen, is it?  There has been a plan announced by which a subsidy of 12,000 rand will be available to people earning below a certain level, but with that money it should be possible to provide housing. EB: Is this place where you are living much like this place here? Yes. EB: How big is your family? Only two families in the house. EB: How many people? 5 to 7 people live together in one room. EB: It’s very crowded then. Yes. EB: And when it rains, does the water come inside your house? When it rains in winter time, the rain fall inside the house. All the clothes is going wet. And the children are going to be sick. EB: Are your children often sick? Yes, with flu and cold. EB: Does your husband work? No, I’ve got no husband. EB: Do you work yourself? At the moment, I’m doing for part time job. EB: And how much do you earn? 50 rands a day. EB: And how many days a week do you work? 3 days a week. EB: So you earn 600 rand which is 200 dollars. Is that enough to sustain your family? No, it’s not enough. EB: So how do you make ends meet? I’m doing the small business, selling sometimes fruits and old clothes and vegetables. EB: Do you earn a lot doing that? No. EB: How much? Maybe 100 rands a week.

People in Masiphumulele are fortunate because it’s possible to get jobs close to the settlement. In 70% of the households, at least one person is employed, a relatively high figure. But among women and young people, unemployment rates are high, and many people like that woman I spoke to have to eke out an existence from casual labour or the informal sector. And while the living conditions of the settlement’s inhabitants are appalling bad, it used to be even worse, says one of the people who has been living on and off here for nearly 20 years.

I come here in 1976. At that time, it was pass laws, Black Areas Group Act. At that time, my sister was working at the ?? You didn’t have the right to build your shacks like this. EB: It was illegal. It was illegal. We slept under the trees.

And lived like animals, he explained. But even though it was illegal, people eventually built shacks for themselves out of tin roofing, even though they were continually harassed by the town council. When the National Party government finally accepted that it wouldn’t be able to force all Africans to move to homelands, it decided to move urban blacks to a single township. The authorities often arrived in the squatter camps very early in the morning without any warning. The shacks were bulldozed, and people were shipped off to the site and service township, which in the case of Cape Town was called Khayelitsha.

They put it in sandy wasteland very close to the sea, about 35 kilometres away from Cape Town, and they began pressuring groups of squatters who were living elsewhere in and around Cape Town to move to Khayelitsha. EB: This all happened in 1986. But then it failed. It did fail and because services and security of tenure were provided In Khayelitsha, many people who have come to Cape Town since then `have moved there because those amenities have not been provided in other places. So the population is probably between 400,000 and 500,000 people. There are no factories, no sources of employment or shopping facilities, recreation facilities, anything like that within any reasonable distance of Khayelitsha, so people describe it as being like a desert.

Two months after being evicted, the residents of Masiphumulele or Site 5 began to return to their squatter camp, illegally. Their houses had all been destroyed. The inhabitants, tired of being moved from one site to another, decided to get together and demand basic necessities like running water, toilets, electricity and roads. With the support of the Surplus People Project, which receives backing from the Dutch development aid groups NOVIB and HIVOS, they formed a committee to fight for their rights.

They were taken to court and everything to and from because they were fighting for the people. So after a time, we heard that we are allowed to stay in Green Point because we couldn’t afford to build the shacks. So we could take from the removes of the time, so build a shack there. What happened then: the other guy he bought that land where we stayed. So we had to be moved there again. We don’t want to move from shack to shack. So we would like if at least it can be better houses. So they promised to build us houses. But when we come here, we didn’t see those promises. We had to build our shacks by ourselves. We had to stay 2 days, 3 days building our shacks. Rain, wind, because it was a sandy area. So we built our shacks. We wanted houses, toilets and everything. But when we saw the so-called toilets, they are not toilets. If you are sitting there, the rain is coming all day. You have to go defecate yourself wearing a rain suit. Underneath there, the door is open. So they can see. If I was fighting maybe with ??, so you could see maybe this is Brian sitting here. So I will wait for him, waiting outside. So that is the type of toilets that are built here.

EB: So this is it? Yeah, this is it. You can see how it is built. You can see when it’s raining underneath there… EB: It just pours in. Yeah, just pours in. EB: It’s built of brick. It’s around 3 metres high, 2 metres wide, and it’s very, very primitive. You can see even the pipes there. These taps are not the original ones. And the white people, they are not living on such way as us. When you stand here, you see around. Nice place. But this place here is nothing what we can say is nice. EB: Where the Africans live. Yes. You can see even the pipe here. The pipe. Look at it. It’s on top there. The children can even play with it, cut it off. That’s why I say these people just brought us flies here, not toilets. You can see it for yourself.

With the end of 300 years of white domination, Africans are increasingly demanding far-reaching land reforms. Land redistribution is crucial to creating a more equal society, says Nora Walker, because it’s linked to better access to education and jobs, as well as one other key issue.

In urban areas, I think the urban land issue is really about the housing issue and the shortage of housing. It is a very critical issue. It’s one around which communities have organised and certainly in terms of the internal struggle for liberation, housing was an issue that people organised around. It’s also a very contentious area to deal in because I think it’s an area where given the existing housing backlogs and the existing standard of housing delivery plus the location of that housing is very poor, I think it’s an enormous challenge to try and deal with the problems.

The reason that it is so challenging is that it’s bound to create a lot of resentment among whites.

For the professionals, it’s probably going to be very traumatic. I think for the surrounding residents, it’s very traumatic, and some people are choosing to stay and fight and other people are just selling their properties and getting what they can. But I think it’s part of the overall restructuring of the city, and one is going to see that happen in a number of other parts, for example, as has happened in Joburg and to some extent in Durban, but not to the same extent, where you have blocks of flats in the centre of town becoming occupied by more and more low-income households and the occupancy rates of those flats becoming very high, where you have a family in one room instead of a family in one flat. So I think it’s part of the changing face of South Africa. EB: Is it going to create problems though? It does create racial tensions, and obviously people, no matter what their race, are concerned about their property values. What one has to avoid is a situation where the tensions start blocking all attempts to develop areas. What there has been a lot of discussions about is setting up sort of appeals courts or mechanisms for dealing with the tensions between different groupings. But at the end of the day, it’s a very political issue, and it depends on the will of those who are going to control the local authorities in the future to actually override the interests of some of the powerful white or middle-class rate payers and particularly the interests of the poor.

David Cooper, the director of the Agriculture Policy Centre in Johannesburg, also supported by HIVOS, believes that instead of focusing on the problems which land reform could create, South Africans should look at the benefits it could provide to all of society.

We operate in a history in which land reform elsewhere in the world has a bad record. And so there are those who say, no, let’s just go for urbanisation as our development strategy. But there’s a fairly good argument to be made that land reform is an important part of the development approach. I’m fairly optimistic that there will be significant resources made available, both from the South African government and from the international community, for a land reform programme, which our research has shown can both be sustainable but also be a very big provider of jobs, provider of economic opportunities for many more people and therefore create the framework for a better economy and a peaceful country.

For Africans like Regina Ntongana, who works for the Surplus People’s Project and who for many years fought for her right to own her own land, what’s at stake here is not war or peace. It’s equality in the new South Africa.

Black and white and coloured must be mixed because if people move now to Khayelitsha, they are going to be separate. There are only blacks. Now what make people to stay here because most of the people have been born here. They are spending their whole life. Their fathers died here, and now they want to settle here, and they want better conditions. Their aim is to want to build houses, and they want to be among because they are South Africans. They are not new in South Africa. They’ve been born here. EB: Most people outside think that Africans want to move into areas that are white areas so that there will be integration. You are saying the opposite. Why? African people don’t want to go and stay in other areas.

We want to stay here. We have our parents who died here. We have our comrades who died here. So we want to sit where we were born. We were moved here by the Group Areas Act. We feel that this is part of our land.

We want to go to the white areas but people haven’t got money. So it’s not to say people are not willing. If things are coming, the door is open, we will move tomorrow to the white areas. There’s nothing that will stop us. That’s why people are settling here because they want to share with the whites. They want to show the whites they are South Africans.

“The land belongs to us” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Richard Vassen. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.