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Land Reform and Poverty in South Africa

by Edward Lahiff in 2007

This is a discussion paper that attempts to situate the debate on land reform and poverty in South Africa within its historical, socio-economic and political context. It begins with a brief historical sketch of land dispossession in South Africa and summarises some key indicators of poverty since the transition to democracy in 1994. This is followed by a discussion of the links between land reform and poverty alleviation within the international and South African literature, arguing that while these links are frequently asserted, the theoretical basis is rarely articulated in any detail. Particular attention is paid to the official discourse around the South African land reform programme, showing the shift from an emphasis on poverty reduction in the years immediately after 1994 to economic growth after 1999. Next are considered the political and ideological factors
shaping land reform policy since 1994, with three main tendencies being identified, referred to as modernist-conservative, neo-liberal and radical-populist.

The influence of these tendencies is discussed with reference to four main aspects elements of the land reform programme – land acquisition, beneficiary targeting, farm planning and post-settlement support – leading to the conclusion that current policy is a messy compromise between these tendencies, with many unintended (and unacknowledged) outcomes. This is followed by a brief discussion of the achievements of land reform to date, highlighting the very limited impact it has had on poverty. Finally, some recently proposals for new directions in policy are briefly considered.