On 4 and 5 February 2019, the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS), along with colleagues from the Universities of Fort Hare and of Rhodes, hosted a national conference entitled Resolving the Land Question: Land redistribution for equitable access to land in South Africa. This paper considers this conference as a case study of ‘policy sense-making’—an attempt to frame contentious issues in a way that renders them amenable to governmental resolution. It explores the contrasting conceptions of the political rationality of land reform put forward at the conference, and the different conceptions of the nature of democracy and government that informed competing policy visions. The paper also considers the disjuncture between the world of technical land reform policy deliberation on the one hand, the way the notion of land is used in contentious and popular politics in the public sphere on the other. In the end, the paper argues, much more is at stake in South African land debates than land itself. Beyond the question of who should own the land, how it should be used, and how it could be shared are deep and intractable questions about the nature of South African democracy and of the political community on which it depends.

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