South Africa’s land reform is in flux – and, arguably, in crisis. We argue here that the widespread criticism of its slow pace fails to capture the extent of this crisis. Our argument follows from that of Lionel Cliffe (2000), who pointed out that land redistribution was constrained not merely by the constitutional settlement and protection of private property, nor by the World Bank’s market-based land reform formula of the 1990s. More profoundly, he argued, the manner in which redistribution was practised was ‘constricted by old-fashioned “modernist” (and often implicitly colonial) orthodoxies still current in South Africa’ (Cliffe 2000Cliffe, Lionel. 2000. “Land Reform in South Africa.” Review of African Political Economy 27 (84): 273–286. doi: 10.1080/03056240008704459, 273). This briefing shows how, years later and after several policy shifts, these orthodoxies have shaped a contorted reform, centred on criteria of commercial ‘viability’ and governed by state officials, consultants and agribusiness ‘strategic partners’ concerned with surveillance and control of ‘beneficiaries’ in ‘projects’ with precarious tenure on un-subdivided commercial farms now owned by the state. This is a far cry from the vision of land reform restructuring the countryside and establishing a major smallholder class with independent and secure land rights.