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Back | Programme Area: The Social Effects of Globalization

Land Reform and Gender in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Post-apartheid South Africa has embarked on a market-driven programme of land reform that can be described both as very ambitious, when measured against existing constraints, and as very modest, when measured against popular demand and need. But regardless of one’s assessment of the actual programme that has been put together over the last few years, its goals are certainly impressive: to redress the injustices of a grossly skewed land distribution system, to reduce poverty, to contribute to sustainable land use and economic development, and to establish tenure security for all.

Perhaps the most radical component of the programme is the explicit policy commitment to gender equality as a long-term goal, which involves targeting women as a major category of beneficiaries in the short to medium term. Gender issues are addressed in all three components of the land reform programme: (i) land redistribution, (ii) land restitution, and (iii) tenure reform. The commitment to gender equality grows out of the recognition that rural women have been systematically marginalized from access to and control over land, as a result of past land and labour policies based on race, combined with patriarchal structures of authority. Designing and implementing the land reform strategy remains a difficult task for a number of reasons, three of which are highlighted below.

Lack of Capacity
Perhaps the greatest constraint is summed up in a South African catch phrase of the 1990s — “lack of capacity” on the part of government. The seriousness of the problem is illustrated by the fact that the Department of Land Affairs (DLA) is not able to spend all the funds allocated for acquisition of land (which, according to a DLA official in 1995, amounted to only one third of one per cent of the government’s entire budget). In the field of land restitution alone, there are over 23,000 claims, each of which must go through a complex process of registration, verification and negotiation. The systems required to handle these tasks must be created from scratch, with most personnel training on the job (and on the run). Implementation is further complicated by the fragmentation of the programme, distributed across different bureaucratic structures within the DLA. The pressure to get cases to the Land Claims Court is enormous, and this pushes officials to seek a quick resolution of claims.

Government employees are often not well prepared to engage in awareness raising and organizational development in sensitive areas. For example, there are no detailed guidelines on how to ensure that women are not marginalized in land reform processes. Moreover, the climate on the ground may be hostile to well-intentioned interventions. Community dynamics are usually quite complex, with counter claims and internal struggles which often erupt into serious, deeply debilitating conflicts, or are left to simmer in less dramatic but also destructive ways. Lack of policy direction and training — as well as trainers — is aggravated by low levels of sensitivity to gender dynamics among many officials, all of which weakens capacity to fulfil the gender goals of the land reform programme.

Traditional Power Structures
The second key constraint is associated with the strength of patriarchal attitudes, as well as the government’s reluctance to intervene actively to curb the powers of traditional authorities at the local level. The institutions of rural local government are still transitional, with a low-level — but from a gender point of view, crucial — political struggle under way over the extent to which traditional leaders (i.e., chiefs) will continue to exercise real power over the allocation of resources, including land. There is serious tension between the government’s commitment to gender equality, on the one hand, and its reluctance to alienate these neotraditionalist structures of rural local government, on the other. Although less monolithic than in the past, these patriarchal power relations are deeply entrenched in rural society. Many women uphold “tradition” as a cornerstone of orderly society and support the traditional institutions of power, such as the chieftaincy. Such support, however, is not incompatible with a real — if not strongly articulated — interest in securing improved land rights for themselves. Women may approve of the chieftaincy as an institution, but disapprove the claims of the chief to control the allocation of additional land acquired by the community.

Women’s Organization
The third constraint is created by the absence of a strong lobby campaigning for women’s land rights in rural areas. Most rural women, like most rural men, see land primarily as a social rather than an economic resource, and look to urban jobs as the route to household economic survival and advancement. Farming is very often one element in the array of strategies that women deploy to ensure their survival and that of their children. It is not, however, one which they regard as the most rewarding in terms of income generation, nor does farming define their interest in land. The extent to which women can benefit from land reform is also limited by their lack of knowledge of the formal structures and legal opportunities being put in place. Without this, the broad policy objective of greater gender equality through land reform is likely to remain stronger at the level of principle than practice.

Given the limitations on the government’s role in community development, the NGO sector has a major responsibility to educate rural women about the opportunities opening up to them and to help build women’s organizations at the local level. While there are some encouraging initiatives, the overall level of organization is weak; and NGOs are themselves battling to redefine their role in the post-apartheid era in the face of reduced funding. There is also a real disjuncture between the demand for rapid land reform and the time needed to build women’s capacity to maximize the opportunities that land reform undoubtedly holds for them.

It is too early to judge the success of the land reform programme, but not too early to state that there is absolutely no basis for complacency. The chances that far greater resources and political importance will be granted to the programme in the next few years are minimal, although one can anticipate an increase in the rhetoric of land reform as the elections of 1999 approach and government programmes attract closer attention.

What has already been achieved is progressive in terms of its emphasis on gender equality as a basic principle of government policy. There are real opportunities for women to improve and protect their land rights, although not enough champions to assist them in this process. While the constraints on implementation are very real, they are not new and should be regarded positively, as developmental challenges, rather than negatively, as intractable problems. The challenge now is to build upon what is in place.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Oct 1998
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1012-6511
    From: UNRISD