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Inclusive Urban Land Reform in South Africa

Equitable land reform remains elusive in the post-apartheid era, and in the urban context, growing spatial inequalities have become a key defining socio-economic feature of South Africa’s contemporary cities. It is important to understand the key drivers of land and spatial inequalities in urban spaces, and the extent to which urban land reform can contribute to equitable socio-economic change and democratic citizenship in contemporary South Africa.

This action-research interrogates the policy blind spots in urban land reform and the adverse impacts of these policy failures on the urban poor. The research project also documents struggles from below by the poor as the basis for envisioning equitable alternatives in urban land reform.

The Presidential Advisory Panel on Land Reform and Agriculture notes that land reform policy in South Africa has largely focused on rural and commercial farming contexts and not much attention has been paid to urban land questions. Despite the narrow policy focus on agrarian land reform, urbanization proceeds apace and South Africa is one of the most urbanized countries in Sub-Saharan Africa with an estimated 67% of its population living in urban areas. This means that urban land reform can reach many people in terms of scale and impact. Yet agricultural land reform should not be neglected more so considering that it is inextricably linked to urban land reform.

However, some key challenges continue to define urban land reform. Most urban dwellers have weak tenure rights and tend to occupy marginal land far away from centres of economic activity. Current models of urban development are yet to fully integrate principles of equitable land reform espoused in the Constitution and often replicate or entrench historical patterns of inequality. A 2020 landmark judgement by the Cape High Court (The Tafelberg judgement) demonstrates how, among other things, urban development has proceeded without adequately considering the right to equitable access to land espoused in section 25 of the Constitution. Although inextricably linked, the right to housing and the right to equitable access to land have in practice not been enforced in an integrated manner.

Within urban areas, intense struggles for land, housing and economic opportunity are manifest in the rising evictions, and the proliferation of informal settlements. Widespread land occupations are evidence of the failure of both the state and market to produce pro-poor land reform outcomes. The failure of legislation and policy has seen the prevalence of land occupations by the urban poor. This action-research project will create space to amplify marginal voices and promote alternatives to entrenched and exclusionary mainstream land reform and urban development policies.

The overarching research question informing this project is: What are the key drivers of land and spatial inequalities in urban spaces and to what extent can urban land reform contribute to equitable socio-economic change and democratic citizenship in contemporary South Africa?

The ‘Inclusive Urban Land Reform in South Africa’ action-research seeks to amplify the voices of the landless and land-poor in urban areas and identify key elements of a pro-poor and equitable urban land reform.

Project team

farai mtero

Farai Mtero

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Nkanyiso Gumede

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This project is supported by the Claude Leon Foundation.