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Back | Programme Area: Gender and Development (2000 - 2009), Social Policy and Development (2000 - 2009)

Agrarian Change, Gender and Land Reform: A South African Case Study

This paper looks at the land reform policies of the ANC government in South Africa from the democratic transition in that country in 1993/1994 until November 2000, and the extent to which women’s rights and interests in land were addressed during that time. It concludes that while a small number of women gained access to land through the programme, land reform did not take place on a sufficiently large scale to benefit the great majority of poor, rural women. Furthermore, poor women are unlikely to benefit from the new direction of land reform policy since 1999, which prioritizes the promotion of a black commercial farming class above other commitments.

The first section of the paper discusses the context for land reform, including the historical, political and economic background, the strength of the women’s movement before and after 1994, and conditions in rural South Africa. The political and economic pressures for land reform grow out of a history of colonial dispossession and the racial pattern of land ownership that was enforced by successive white minority governments after 1910; and the demand for land continues to be fuelled by severe poverty in the rural areas as well as high unemployment in the formal economy. However, despite the political and symbolic significance attached to land and property issues in the constitutional negotiations of the early 1990s, the ANC government has not regarded land and agrarian reform as an important component of economic policy. Its focus has been on urban-industrial strategies and the fashioning of an investor-friendly macro-economic policy, which has set strict limits to its ongoing commitment to the redistribution of resources. The emergence of a small but growing black middle class has also influenced the determination of political and economic priorities.

The women’s movement played a significant role in entrenching gender equity as a basic constitutional principle in the new democratic dispensation in South Africa, to which other constitutional provisions that guarantee freedom of cultural expression and a role in govern-ment for the institutions of traditional leadership are subordinate. However, the movement of gender activists into parliament and the public service after 1994 weakened organization among rural women, and the ability of rural women to utilize the enabling spaces created by the national “gender machinery” is limited.

The second section of the paper looks at the land reform programme after 1994. It analyses developments in what is identified as the first phase of the land reform programme, between 1994 and 1999, and then discusses the policy shifts that have taken place during President Thabo Mbeki’s term of office, since the national elections of mid-1999.

The land reform programme that emerged out of the constitutional negotiations and policy debates of the early 1990s had three main components: restitution for those who had lost land rights as a result of the racially discriminatory policies of the past; redistribution of land to poor and landless or land-hungry black people; and tenure security for black people living on commercial farms and under attenuated forms of communal tenure in the former native reserves or Bantustans. The policies that were formulated attempted to combine a strong commitment to the goals of social justice (including gender equity), redress and poverty alleviation with acceptance of the protection of property rights and the principles of a market-led programme of land redistribution that had been mandated by the compromises of the constitutional negotiations.

By 1999 the achievements of the land reform programme were very modest in relation to both popular expectations and its own, stated goals. Implementation had proved far more complex and resource-demanding than anticipated. While poor people were targeted, very little land had been redistributed and where land had been transferred, evidence of economic develop-ment was minimal. This made the programme and its advocates politically vulnerable. Imple-menters had also struggled to turn high-level commitments to the principle of gender equity into workable project interventions.

The elections of 1999 ushered in a new phase in land reform, in which the redistribution of land has been linked strongly to policies within the national Department of Agriculture to enhance agricultural productivity and promote a black commercial farming class. In early 2000 the new Minister for Land Affairs (who is also the Minister for Agriculture) initiated a major policy review and set ambitious new targets for the restitution and redistribution of land, a process which was accompanied by a substantial turnover in staff among senior management in both the Ministry and the Department of Land Affairs. These developments led to a period of debilitating institutional turmoil and policy uncertainty, which was still having some impact on the land reform programme at the time of writing.

There are serious questions about the viability of the commercial farming strategy, given the hostile global conditions under which South African agriculture is operating. There are also concerns that the new policy direction signals a shift away from the redistribution of resources to the poor—a criticism which the advocates of the new policy strongly deny—and that sufficient cognizance is not being taken of the lessons gained during the first phase of land reform about the challenges of implementation. In the communal areas, the claims of traditional leaders for a larger stake in land administration and land ownership now appear to be more favourably regarded than before, although the announcement of formal policy on the future of these areas continues to be delayed. Ongoing monitoring of the implementation of the new policies will be important in order to assess the validity of these criticisms and the impact of these developments on agrarian change.

The implications of the new policy direction for poor rural women are potentially negative, given the general weakness of their position socially and economically, and the lack of official capacity to implement confirmed gender policy. These are issues for follow-up research.
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  • Pub. Date: 1 Apr 2002
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8208
    From: UNRISD