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Navigating South Africa’s Land Reform: Challenges and Paths to Progress

Written by Cameron Fischer for the Africa Section.

There is an extricable link between land ownership and wealth. Yet, the efforts made by South Africa's land reform in deracialising land ownership via restitution, redistribution, and tenure has shown that land ownership does not necessarily lead to more wealth in the long-term. This article examines and answers what can be done to solve this issue.

Land reform has long been a pivotal issue in South Africa, deeply entrenched in a history of dispossession and Apartheid policies. Despite concerted efforts to rectify injustices from the colonial and Apartheid era, the journey has been marked by numerous challenges and complexities. This piece explores the key aspects of South Africa’s land reform, diving into its historical context and the key problems faced in implementation. Additionally, comparison will be drawn between South African land reform and that of other African countries to evaluate potential strategies for a more effective and inclusive approach.


Historical Context of Land Reform

The cynical grip of the Apartheid government has left a profound mark on contemporary South Africa, with the widespread dispossession of land representing one of its greatest sins.[1] South Africa’s land reform dates back to the 1913 Natives Land Act, a legislative move that forcibly displaced thousands of black families from their ancestral lands.[2]According to a report published by contemporary South Africa, this Act limited African land ownership to a mere 7 percent, which the introduction of the 1936 Native Trust and Land Act[3] later minimally increased to 13 percent.


These legislative shackles restricted black South Africans from purchasing and occupying land, perpetuating socio-economic challenges such as landlessness, poverty, and inequality. The apartheid government's mass relocation of black communities exacerbated these issues, leaving a legacy that modern South Africa strives to overcome.[4] The Land Act was finally repealed when the Abolition of Racially Based Land Measures Act, 1991 came into force on 30th June 1991.[5] 


Legislative Framework and National Development Plan

To address the enduring consequences of Apartheid, the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa provides a framework for land reform, emphasizing restitution, redistribution, and tenure reform.[6] The National Development Plan (NDP) outlines principles for generating a dynamic, employment-generating agricultural sector,[7] addressing three key elements of the land reform programme: restitution, redistribution, and tenure reform.[8] However, the translation of these principles into effective policies has encountered obstacles, requiring a closer examination of the legislative landscape.


Challenges under the Current Reform Program

Despite the benevolent intentions behind South Africa's land reform program, certain aspects have faced criticism and encountered roadblocks. Chimhowu criticises the reform, arguing that ‘although there is political appetite for deracialising land holding, there is little evidence to show a commitment to link this process to poverty reduction.’[9] Lahiff extends this argument, alleging that, ‘[a]lthough some poor people have had their lives transformed by access to more land in the short term, there is no systematic linkage between the programmes for land reform in the region and poverty reduction.’[10] Seekings and Nattrass made a similar assertion, contending that the agricultural land reforms have even worsened the economy,[11] a stark contrast to the programme’s progressive intentions to give back to the people and help the poverty line. However, the reality falls far short of this.


Moreover, in 2012, South Africa set a target to redistribute or restore 30% of all freehold agricultural land to black South Africans by 2030 as part of the NDP. Statistically, about 24.7% of such land has since been transferred away from white ownership through various means, including state acquisition and financial compensation.[12] Johann Kirsten says that the state's acquisition strategy aimed to integrate black farmers into the commercial agricultural sector. However, the program has faced challenges, including insecure land tenure, bureaucratic red tape, limited access to finance, and beneficiary selection issues. [13] 


Strategies for improvement

Addressing the challenges in South Africa's land reform program requires strategic interventions. This fact is illuminated when looking at steps taken by other countries in Africa to the same end. Malawi’s land reform program offers a promising model, which has been especially praised by the World Bank. Their program decentralized the country’s land reform, providing poor farmers with land rights and funds for farming supplies.[14] The results of this approach are commendable, significantly increasing income for rural households and improving food security. Now 15,000 rural Malawian household own land as part of a community and income has increased by 40%.[15] 


Contrastingly, South Africa could consider recommendations from the World Bank. This includes increasing land access and tenure for the poor by redistributing rural land, providing ownership rights for urban squatters, removing restrictions on rental land, and promoting gender equity in land rights documentation. The report underscores the need for improved land governance to unlock Africa's economic potential, reduce poverty, and ensure shared prosperity.[16] However, this approach is optimistic, and the suggested amendments are easier said than done.


Alternatively, Johann Kirsten proposes practical roadmap to support the government, who currently lacks both the resources and capacity to manage land assets and generate any return in the form of rents.[17] These suggestions include transferral of land assets to an institution with the capacity to provide oversight and finance, establishment of a Land Reform Agency, and prioritisation of beneficiaries with successful enterprises on leased farms for land acquisition. He additionally recommends deducting lease amounts from the purchase price with a preferential interest rate for financing over 25 years, pegging the purchase price at half the productive value and allowing moratoriums on reselling for 10 years.


The proposed solutions have the potential to align the South African approach more closely with that of Malawi. However, the failure of the Zimbabwean, Namibian and South African policies to recognise land as a poverty-reducing asset has not been followed with a serious commitment of resources.[18] This underscores the urgent need for a thorough re-evaluation of policies, and the adoption of a more inclusive and comprehensive approach that involves the active participation of the rural poor and landless.



There is no prize to be won for knowing what has happened to the South African economy in recent years. What was once boasted as being a place where everything that was touched turned to gold has faced a sudden but brutal decline, and sadly the land reform programme has suffered a similar fate. The South African government is still playing catch-up after hundreds of years of injustice. Nevertheless, the government remains committed to redressing the longstanding wounds of Apartheid, albeit imperfectly. By addressing the flaws in the current system and adopting strategic improvements, the nation can move closer to achieving the goals outlined in the NDP. The path forward involves empowering successful entrepreneurs, providing financial support, and ensuring secure land tenure, through which South Africa can navigate the complexities of land reform and forge a path towards greater equity and prosperity.


[1] / Official Information and Services, ‘Land reform’ (2019)

[2] Native Land Act 1913

[3] Native Trust Act 1936

[4] Ibid.

[5] Abolition of Racially Based Land Measures Act 1991

[6] The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa

[7] National Planning Commission, The National Development Plan 2030

[8] White Paper on South African Land Policy 1997

[9] A O Chimhowu, ‘Tinkering on the Fringes? Redistributive Land Reforms and Chronic Poverty in Southern Africa’ (University of Manchester: Chronic Poverty Research Centre 2006) 2

[10] E Lahiff, Redistributive Land Reform and Poverty Reduction in South Africa (Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies, University of the Western Cape 2016) 38

[11]J Seekings N Nattrass, ‘Class, Race, And Inequality In South Africa’ (Yale University Press 2005)

[12] J Kirsten, ‘South Africa’s government has been buying land and leasing it to black farmers. Why it’s gone wrong and how to fix it’ (The Conversation 2023)

[13] ibid

[14] The World Bank, ‘Africa's Land Reform Policies Can Boost Agricultural Productivity, Create Food Security and Eradicate Poverty’ ( 2013)

[15] ibid

[16] ibid

[17] ibid

[18] Ibid

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