REPORT BACK: ‘Title and Entitlement: The Land Question in South Africa’

This brief presents some of the main points raised in the HSF roundtable ‘Title and Entitlement: The Land Question in South Africa’

14 October - the Helen Suzman Foundation -- with the support of the Open Society Foundation for South Africa, and GIBS -- held a roundtable discussion on the land question in South Africa. The discussion was to focus on the themes of “title and entitlement”.
This year marks 100 years since the passing of the Natives Land Act of 1913. The Land Act relegated black South Africans to specific geographic areas (‘homelands’) and segregated land acquisition along racial lines, bringing with it massive land dispossession, and effectively sabotaging black ownership. The effects of Apartheid’s land policies are felt by many South Africans to this day, and current land policy and redistribution efforts have failed to untangle the mess.
The HSF brought together:
  • Nomboniso Gasa (A researcher, analyst and public commentator on Gender, Politics and Cultural Issues);
  • Songezo Zibi (Senior associate editor at the Financial Mail);
  • Monty Narsoo (the Governance Specialist for the National Upgrading Support Program); and
  • Leon Louw (Executive director of the Free Market Foundation)
The main theme was land ownership which was discussed from a social and formal perspective.
Gasa, Narsoo, and Zibi emphasized how ownership is linked to identity. Narsoo argued that ‘title deeds’ are not the only way that tenure security can be achieved. He went on to say that social practices and the acknowledgement of these practices can be just as secure. Zibi noted that land is not always used ‘to farm’ but that people need land to create a home.
From a formal perspective, all speakers agreed that the legal recognition of ownership is extremely important. Louw emphasized that, without unambiguous title deeds, citizens cannot participate in the economy as full citizens.
Gasa held that urban, and ‘traditional land’ should be spoken about in the same terms. She raised concern over ‘chiefly power’ in traditional areas, and how government and private interests trump the interests of those citizens living in these areas. She argued that ‘tribal structures’ are reproducing apartheid structures. In reality, Gasa argued, ‘traditional areas’ is only a euphemism for ‘homelands’, and those who occupy these areas are still not liberated from apartheid’s hold. She and Narsoo spoke about ‘new forms of dispossession’ in the form of evictions and land removals.  
Narsoo raised concern over the fact that South Africa, now an ‘urban country’ with growing informal settlements, is still stuck with a labour migrant system. He pointed out that an important step government has taken has been to recognize informal settlements as legitimate areas, and that the challenge now is to upgrade these settlements.
However, as the HSF noted in its opening remarks, the forced land removals and further atrocities recorded in Cato Crest and recently drawn attention to by prominent international scholars and academics, illustrates how vulnerable many citizens are without a way to assert their ownership.
Zibi brought attention to the process of land reform as a ‘bureaucratic program’. The result is a loss of individual and collective agency in the process. Zibi claimed that land reform is a failure of leadership -- if the land issue is to be taken truly seriously, a conscious decision must be taken to place the issue at the top of government’s agenda. According to Zibi, land restoration ought to be founded on human solidarity, and where it is shown that land has been dispossessed, action needs to be taken – but within the framework of the Constitution.
Louw closed the discussion by ‘debunking’ what he considered to be ‘land myths’. These myths included government targets for land distribution, the state of land ownership before and after the 1913 Land Act, and the ‘dangers’ of granting permanent land holders free,  and unambiguous title deeds. Louw pointed out that although RDP housing has been provided by the government, these houses are provided under very strict guidelines that undermine genuine ownership. Occupants are not able to freely trade, rent, or use their property in the same way that private land owners can. Louw held that if politicians are serious about achieving racial equality, they would declare all permanent holders of land to be unambiguous owners of freely tradable, mortgageable and lettable land.
The HSF’s post event publication, including photos and an edited transcript will be available soon on our website.
Wim Louw
Helen Suzman Foundation