Land Ownership and Land reform in South Africa

Tuesday, March 6, 2012 - 15:13
This article focuses on land ownership in South Africa and some of the facts that people, including politicians, have to get correct when commenting around the land issue


It is no use giving anybody land if they do not know how to work it. Government should put money aside to give bursaries to those who did not benefit in the apartheid area so that they can go and study agriculture. I am a coloured and do not know of a coloured farmer. Instead of giving bursaries to students to go and study anything related to IT. Children should be taught at school the value of land and what they can achieve with a plot of land.
Land redistribution may be a sensitive and controversial issue to some, but for us Africans it is a bread and butter issue. It is hard to understand how over 400 years the indigenous ppl were dispossed their land, eventually ending up with less than 10% thereof.At the same time, foreigners came in and hoarded large tracks of land through this dispossession. What was taken away must be given back. Furthermore, the notion that SA belongs to all who live in it is resulting in more dispossession as foreigners drive Africans away from their land for development purposes, with little or no compensation. The laws must be strengthened to limit ownership of land in SA. This applies in other countries, why not SA. France is enacting nationalist and laws discriminating against other cultures, why not SA, African imigrants are being harrassed and driven back in UK and other European countries - why cant we drive out European immigrants who continue to arrive in large numbers and settle in CT where they give each other business opportunities while discriminating against us? Originally, the struggle was about land being returned back to us, not about equal ownership. Since the other side is not willing to compromise and share land looted from us, we might as well go back to the original goals of our struggle. Our people, especially youth, live in abject poverty and the looters have no shame - want to hoard tracks of land while over 80% suffer.
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Well iam a black south african i have no land at all what should i do to claim a piece of land my cell no is 0720352497 my email is
This doctor is an idiot. If the blacks have no claim to the Western Cape then neither do the whites. It belongs to the coloured folk, as we are what are left of its much raped previous inhabitants. Go home!
I find this following remark of yours very funny... "Is the South African government not elected by us all and representing South Africans of all ages, gender, creed, race and colour?" You really believe this? Do you live in South Africa? Give ANY proof that this Goverment has ANY intention of making life BETTER for any South African of any age, gender, creed, race and colour, and I will give half a thought to what you say. Have a read. Please supply the stats of what is currently successfully implemented by this wonderful government which was of any benefit to these millions of South Africans that they represent....
About all this land ...Does anybody have an idea how or where can I get contact details of the "new" owners of land that was claimed and redistibuted? I have tried at a couple of government organisations but they don't even reply. 
Even if you take the 25% out it still leaves the figure a lot higher than the 13% politicians use to inflame people with. You also can not disclaim the fact that big farming operations are more effective than small holding farmers in producing food for the urban community and that compromising their security will be extremely detrimental to the country as a whole.
I forgot to add that it just feels very unfair to say that 25% is now in black hands because the government owns this percentage of land. It gives a completely skewed image of the amount of land that is currently owned by black and coloured farmers/people. Also, the fact that it is accepted that eight out of ten land reform projects has failed or is failing and thus call for a hold on further land reform projects is not helpful at all. The conditions that cause these land reform projects to fail should be looked at and improved. Services such as training small and emerging farmers, providing infrastructure and microcredits should be looked at...
I quote: "State-owned land would previously have been regarded as part of the white-owned 87 percent. It follows then that it should now be regarded as black-owned, which means that at least a quarter of the country’s surface area is in black hands." And this comes from the South African Institute of Race Relations? So the South African government is only representing the black population? Of course under the apartheid regime anything owned by the government was regarded 'white' because the South African government during that time was white supremacist and racist. Anything owned by the South African government nowadays (we live under the democratic dispensation mind you) should make it 'transparent', ie colourless. That's at least what I like to believe. Is the South African government not elected by us all and representing South Africans of all ages, gender, creed, race and colour? Yay to the rainbow nation... Shame. There is a lot to say about the state of our so called 'democracy' but your statement above really needs urgent revision.  
Dr Pieter Mulder has courted great controversy with comments that black South Africans have no historical claim to land in the Northern and Western Cape and also that blacks own a greater share of the country’s land than the government admits. His comments come against claims that whites owned 87 percent of South Africa’s land and that little progress has been made in changing this picture. However, some basic arithmetic reveals that a far greater share of the country is in black hands than is often acknowledged. It is also apparent that ensuring the productivity of the portion remaining in white hands is increasingly important to the government in maintaining political stability in urban areas. This has implications for the manner in which future land policy is implemented.

Any discussion on land ownership in South Africa risks generating more heat than light. Part of the reason for this is that few people who enter the discussion bother to do any research into current land ownership patterns. Very few of Dr Mulder’s critics chose to challenge him on points of fact but resorted to all manner of racial taunts and insults. Let us take another approach and do the arithmetic to see who actually owns how much of South Africa’s land.

South Africa has a total surface area of 122 million hectares. As of March 2011, 31 million hectares or 25 percent of that surface area was in the hands of the State. The remaining 91 million hectares or 75 percent of the surface area was privately-owned. The balance of State and privately-owned land varied greatly between provinces. For example, in the great expanses of the Free State and the Northern Cape private owners held 89 percent and 91 percent of the surface area respectively. In both the Western Cape and Gauteng, 55 percent was held by the State.

State-owned land would previously have been regarded as part of the white-owned 87 percent. It follows then that it should now be regarded as black-owned, which means that at least a quarter of the country’s surface area is in black hands. There is nothing preventing the State from handing title to much of that land to black people.

Since 1995, 2.6 million hectares or the equivalent 2.1 percent of all land, has been handed to blacks via land restitution programmes. This figure pushes the amount of land in black hands to at least 27.1 percent. In addition more than R5 billion was paid out to restitution claimants who accepted cash payments instead of having land returned to them. That R5 billion was sufficient to purchase an additional 2.6 million hectares which would have pushed the amount of land in black hands to just onto 30 percent.

The land redistribution programme, which is a distinct programme from the land restitution programme, had by 2010 handed a further 3.1 million hectares, or 2.5 percent of the surface area, to black South Africans pushing up the share of black-owned land to at least 32.5 percent. This figure is more than double that of the 13 percent often cited by government officials.

These calculations have not taken into account land traded in the market between private owners. This is because accurate data on the extent of such trades does not exist. There is significant anecdotal evidence that such trading between former white and new black landowners has taken place. Whether the amounts traded are equivalent to 10 percent or 15 percent or 20 percent of the surface area of the country cannot be known. However, any of these figures would push the figure for black land ownership to between 40 percent and 50 percent of South Africa’s surface area.

If the 49 million hectares of the Western Cape and Northern Cape are subtracted from the total that blacks are entitled, to then their share of ownership would rise even further. However, it is here that Dr Mulder makes a dangerous political miscalculation. Dr Mulder’s history is of course correct that white colonists moving from South to North met black colonists moving from North to South in or around the vicinity of the Little and the Great Fish rivers. However, using that history to imply that blacks have no claim to the Northern and Western Cape, is to imply that whites have no legitimate claim to the northern reaches of the country. This is a position that Dr Mulder’s supporters in the Free State and former Northern and Western Transvaals would have a problem with.

Of course figures about surface areas tell us nothing about the value of the land held by different groups. A hectare in the Cape Winelands may be worth many hundreds of hectares in the Karoo. Likewise, a commercial farm that has benefited from decades of investment in infrastructure will be worth a great deal more than a piece of undeveloped land in the same area with the same soils and the same rainfall.

Hence the numbers that we have calculated are at best a very crude representation of the picture of property ownership in South Africa. They do, however, tell us one important thing and this is that actual patterns of ownership bear little resemblance to the picture presented by many land activists and officials in the government.

It must be expected that many of the proponents of land reform and redistribution would still make the point that having 50 percent of land in the hands of 10 percent of the population is unfair and unjust and must be changed. Here they should tread carefully. The bulk of this 50 percent is in all probability in the hands of commercial farmers. There are only an estimated 30 000 of these farmers left in South Africa down from 60 000, fifteen years ago. This averages out to approximately 1 500 hectares per farming unit in 2010 up from 750 hectares at the time of South Africa’s political transition. This figure would of course vary greatly from one region of the country to the next but it is a plausible average figure.

The increase in the average size of a farming unit indicates that farmers have found it necessary to expand their operations considerably in order to benefit from economies of scale that allow them to remain productive. This is especially so considering that they do not benefit from the protectionist measures that apply to their competitors in Western Europe and North America.

At the same time that farming operations were getting bigger and more efficient their markets in urban areas were also expanding. In 2010, 62 percent of South Africans lived in urban areas up from 52 percent in 1990. However levels of poverty and unemployment in urban areas remain extremely high and poor urban households will find it very difficult to absorb the impact of high levels of food price inflation. In fact, it is quite plausible that steep food price increases could trigger a political reaction in urban areas, that the government would find difficult to contain. This is especially so in an environment that has seen the number of major service delivery protests against the State increase by 1 000 percent over a period of less than a decade. Consider then that it is accepted that eight out of ten land reform projects has failed or is failing and to call for accelerated reform is to court political disaster for the government and the African National Congress (ANC).

People who comment on land reform in South Africa would therefore do well to consider the following points: The first is that the amount of land in black hands is not 13 percent but may be as high as 50 percent. The second is that the 50 percent in white hands is held by South Africa’s food producers and that their numbers are shrinking very quickly as urban markets demand even more cost effective production methods. The third is that any policy that compromises the ability of those farmers to produce food may trigger a series of urban protests that the government may find difficult to control.

- Frans Cronje is deputy CEO at the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR). This article was first published in the Rapport. It is republished here with the permission of SAIRR.
Frans Cronje