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Commemorating the 1913 Land Act in a Land Divided

One hundred years ago, it was declared illegal for native South Africans to acquire land outside scheduled native areas, reserves which had been demarcated by the new Union Parliament and covered only a small fraction of the country. This short piece of legislature, the 1913 Natives Land Act, played a crucial role in the racial segregation of South Africa’s rural economy during the twentieth century and the separation of many of its people from the land and from farming. To mark the Act’s centenary, an international conference was held in Cape Town from 24 to 27 March 2013. Its organisers, from the Universities of Cape Town, Stellenbosch and the Western Cape, set themselves the task of exploring the land question in South African society and different ways of thinking about land as a social, economic and natural resource.

The conference, entitled Land Divided, was multi-disciplinary, with contributions from history, anthropology, environmental sciences, legal studies and rural political economy. Held at the University of Cape Town on the precipitous slopes of Devil’s Peak mountain, the conference attracted over 350 participants from South Africa and abroad, representing academia, civil society, agribusiness and the public sector.

The conference was opened by Minister Nkwinti of Rural Development and Land Reform and a plenary panel consisting of, in chronological order, Peter Delius (presenting a paper co-authored with William Beinart), Prisca Shabalala, Mamphela Ramphele and Sipho Pityana.

Delius’ talk was well-suited to kick-off the conference as it focused on placing the 1913 Natives Land Act in its historical context and then turning to the legacy underscoring that the Act was not, in itself, the cause of dispossession; it was more of a holding operation.  Delius made the point that by and large, dispossession had already taken place, following the conquests and wars of the nineteenth century; the Land Act came at the end of this process.

Shabalala’s account of a centuries-long struggle by the Matiwaneskop community to achieve and maintain rights over their land was delivered with the poised precision of a skilful storyteller, and its impact reverberated through the packed university lecture hall. The community’s victory has, however, been undermined by new laws that bolster the power of chiefs to control land and resources. The Chief in Matiwaneskop treats the communally held land as his own, selling portions thereof and blocking development, especially in respect of projects initiated by women.

Ramphele affirmed strongly the call raised by Shabalala for government to answer her questions: why is our government entrenching apartheid measures through traditional leadership laws that reassert the Bantustan boundaries; why does it back chiefs’ exercise of autocratic, top down power, and ignore the voices of rural people on land issues? She also underscored the need for a land reform programme that tackles the Land Act’s legacy of structural dispossession through structural remedies. At the same time, she emphasised that no ‘technical’ solution is going to work as long as the people who should be targeted - ordinary rural South Africans - are structurally excluded from the discussion on land reform.

Pityana concluded the panel by highlighting the glaring gap between the vision of the democratic Constitution and the reality of contemporary South Africa, i.e. land redistribution. He considered what may be solutions to address this gap within the existing constitutional by asking the questions: how will the shift from the policy of ‘willing buyer willing seller’ to that of ‘just and equitable’ compensation fast-track the redistribution of land, and is it economically viable? He emphasised the need to identify ways in which property law can be written, applied, and reformed to promote social transformation, strengthen and extend the dignity of ownership more widely throughout South Africa’s population. The Constitution points the way toward a transformation-friendly body of property law, but leaves the matter, in the end, for South Africans to resolve politically and democratically. He joined in the chorus asking the Minister directly how legislation such as the Traditional Courts Bill will impact on the redistribution of land, and the rights of full citizenship of people living under traditional authority, and what are the policy choices we must take in order to realize the transformational objectives of the Constitution? At the end of the panel, and questions from the audience, Minister Nkwinti made himself available to speak further with people present in the hall on the pertinent issues they had raised.

During the three-and-a-bit days there was a great range of presentations and debates, such as a session on representations of land in South African literature and a discussion on urban agriculture, with speakers from Canada providing insights into food security initiatives in Toronto. Papers and webcasts from the conference are available at From the sessions I attended, I picked up on three themes related to rural livelihoods and land use.

Historical flavour

The first was an appreciation for history, especially its shaping of the present and the lessons that may be learned from it. Phil Woodhouse described the interweaving of land policies and economic interests in an overview of changing property rights in Africa during the twentieth century. He described how colonial-era legislation such as the Natives’ Land Act suppressed indigenous land markets for the benefit of settler farmers. But from the 1930s, environmental crises in Africa and the United States prompted new agricultural research and the emergence of land titling schemes. Lionel Cliffe discussed Kenya’s land redistribution programme, initiated some fifty years ago, arguing that its relative lack of bureaucracy compares favourably with cumbersome processes in South African land reform today. Yet Kenya’s introduction of land titling for everyday people was ultimately a failure, Cliffe said: geographically patchy in implementation and overswept by land grabbing carried out by Kenyan elites “to an incredible degree”. From the University of Cape Town’s plant conservation unit, Tim Hoffman described changes in land cover in South Africa over the past hundred years, with vegetation recovering in areas of abandonment and destocking of livestock. To illustrate the changes, delegates were shown old photographs of landscapes alongside new photos taken by Hoffman and his colleagues. Mindful of work by people like Melissa Leach and James Fairhead and Ulf Helldén, I am wary of misinterpretations of historical evidence for land degradation, and I was glad when one participant asked if Hoffman had taken into account seasonal change (he had). He told delegates it is still unclear how much of a factor climate change has been in the expansion of grassland and bush.

Land reform winners and losers

A second theme to emerge is the unintended consequences of land reform programmes. Drawing on fieldwork in Mwenezi, Zimbabwe, Patience Mutopo suggested that fast track land reform in that country has opened up spaces for women to access land for small-scale farming, assert their independence and take decisions over, for example, which crops to grow, which would not have been possible for them in the male-dominated communal areas. Also reporting from Zimbabwe, Easther Chigumira explained that radical land reform is attracting urban workers, miners, farm workers and other members of society back into agriculture. Whereas many speakers at Land Divided stressed that farming was no longer an attractive way of life for many Africans, particularly the young, Esther suggested that people in urban areas wanted land as a place to belong and to retire to. However, resettled beneficiaries of land reform are left without services or support, and many are turning to small-scale mining to buttress their access to the land. “It is more secure to have a mine title, a mining claim, than it is to have land title,” she explained.

From KwaZulu-Natal came field reports from Donna Hornby and Rauri Alcock, this time from the realm of livestock production. Hornby revealed inter-community tensions that emerged during the development of a land redistribution project which involved the formation of groups for collectively owning cattle herds. She found that as the herds grew, the more powerful in the groups were able to acquire resources and push others out of production. She concluded that those who have knowledge and skills and are considered ‘proper farmers’ by the government are most likely to benefit from land reform. Alcock of the NGO Mdukatshani also suggested that government land reform and related aid initiatives gravitate towards the more powerful and visible in rural communities. “We give them fences, so they can exclude women and the vulnerable,” he said. Yet much economic activity goes on unseen by official eyes, such as the raising of goats by female household heads. He called this “invisible farming” and the people who practise it, Alcock said, are already farmers – not “emerging farmers” who need to be taught how to commercialise.

Commercial agricultures

The third theme that struck me was the strategising of various actors within the contemporary commercial setting of South African agriculture. One part of the spectrum are South African agribusinesses and investors. Henry Bernstein recalled how agricultural interests skillfully positioned themselves during the post-apartheid transition to take advantage of oncoming deregulation of the agricultural sector. Ruth Hall explained that, twenty years later, agribusiness corporations are extending value chains into the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, in such countries as Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Echoing Ruth’s suggestion of South Africa presenting itself as the route to agricultural investment in Africa, Antoine Ducastel reported research findings from CIRAD that investment funds which are based in South Africa but financed by international investors are active in acquiring stakes in farms or agribusinesses and large areas of farmland in other African countries. “South Africa is a stepping stone to the rest of the continent,” Antoine said. Meanwhile, capitalist farmers are moving into professional farm management on restituted land and expanding into other countries – with the South African farmers’ association, AgriSA, rebranding itself as a continent-wide association, for example. Theo de Jager, the head of AgriSA, spoke of the struggle for large commercial family farms to remain competitive in the era of deregulation and their resistance to confiscation through land reform.

At the other end of the spectrum are smallholder farmers who are also battling to adapt to the commercialisation and supermarketisation of South African agriculture. There were relatively upbeat presentations by Ben Cousins and Davison Chikazunga on smallholder farmers who have managed to accumulate capital and sell their produce through informal market channels. Nevertheless, Cousins suggested that “we should abandon the notion of full-time farmers in our economy”, a popular message from the conference. Alex Dubb and F Mtero described smallholder farmers struggling to remain economically viable in sugarcane and maize farming, respectively. They are hindered, said the presenters, by structural inequalities and, in Mtero’s case, poor implementation of an Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative for South Africa (AsgiSA) scheme. Their analyses, along with a highly engaging presentation by Bridget O’Laughlin on the puzzle of sugarcane burning in Mozambique, persuaded me that Marxist political economy is alive and well in rural southern African research! (For the answer to Bridget’s puzzle, see her presentation here). But one thing that Land Divided made clear is that class analysis is just one of many methods being used by researchers and civil society activists to understand the far-reaching and often unexpected impacts of land reforms and rural change in contemporary Africa.

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