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By Farai Mtero

In spite of progressive constitutional provisions and policy rhetoric in support of pro-poor land reform in South Africa, equitable access to land has remained elusive for the poor majority in both urban and rural areas.

In an effort to address this problem, PLAAS launched a project on Equitable access to land for social justice in South Africa in 2019 – and has now produced a report on this work.

The report combines insights from empirical research, inclusive dialogues and in-depth interviews to analyse the extent to which laws and policies have actually promoted equitable access to land as provided for in the Constitution. 

In particular, it describes the outcomes of a series of workshops at which different societal groups, including policymakers, land-reform beneficiaries and civil-society activists, articulated diverse and often contested ideas of what constitutes “success” in land reform in South Africa.

These meetings facilitated an in-depth interrogation of the at times entrenched assumptions which have shaped the trajectory of land reform, development and, indeed, transformation nationally.

In particular, the engaged-research methodology identified the dominance of a “productionist” framing of “viability” as a major impediment to a more democratic vision of land reform.

“Productionism” is the approach adopted by policymakers who prioritise profitability and other crude indicators of economic practicability as the measures of success for their initiatives, while sidelining the broader non-monetary benefits of land reform.

The approach provides a key justification for the continuing parochial focus on replicating large-scale commercial farming in rural land redistribution while neglecting the role of this land in sustaining multiple and diverse livelihoods for the landless poor.

“Productionism” is also evident in the narrow focus of present land reform efforts on agriculture and their neglect of the complex and differentiated land needs associated with continuous urbanisation.

However, the adoption of this approach undermines the principle of equitable access to land at the most fundamental level – that is, in relation to the capacity of the poor, the marginalised and the landless to access land for their own needs. 

For example, in rural areas, large farmers tend to benefit at the expense of smallholders. Meanwhile in the cities, large firms and property developers enjoy privileged access to prime central land under a modernist vision of these spaces as growth engines, while vulnerable residents are pushed out to informal settlements on the urban edge.

In an effort to address the inequitable nature of present land redistribution efforts, the report posits a framework for broadening access to land based on the establishment of a more inclusive understanding of what “success” means in both the urban and rural spheres.

In particular, the report argues that equitable land reform should account for the diverse land needs associated with a rapidly changing agrarian landscape and rapid urbanisation, as farming livelihoods decline, unemployment spreads and patterns of rural-urban migration continue to evolve.