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By Katlego Ramantsima

From 16 to 24 February, the Institute for Poverty Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) joined Tshisimani Centre for Activists, Ntinga Ntaba kaNdoda (Ntinga), Border Rural Committee (BRC), Land and Accountability Research Centre (LARC) and the Trust for Community Outreach Education (TCOE) in co-organising a land tenure school to support marginalised rural communities and land activists in the Eastern Cape. The school was held in Quzini village (near King William’s Town) in the Eastern Cape’s Amathole district and its purpose was to engage with the question of what alternative forms of tenure would make urban and rural space inclusive and just? The objective was to allow space for activists to learn how knowledge can be applied in campaigning around particular tenure issues.

In South Africa, tenure reform is a component of a national land reform programme. South Africa’s land reform also includes the restitution of land to people dispossessed by racially discriminatory laws and practices of colonialism and apartheid. It also embraces land redistribution to the previously disadvantaged South African citizen groups (Blacks, Indians and Coloureds including Khoi-San), who are deprived of the land by the injustices of the past. Since the abolishment of apartheid, new dispensations aim to resolve the complex challenge of land reform, but the results thus far are disappointing. Unequal land ownership patterns persist and tenure insecurity remains prevalent especially in communal areas under customary tenure systems. Mining companies and large agribusiness exploit the precarious land rights in communal areas and dispossess rural people of their land.

As a result, some scholars responded to this social reality through debate and argue that the post-apartheid government’s quest for land reform failed since a majority of South Africans’ land rights have not been restored. There is general consensus among scholars that the government has failed in the land reform project, but much of the debate is about the causes of the slow pace in land reform as some blame it on insufficient budget, poor institutional coordination, the lack of political will and inaction to expropriate. At grassroots level, land activists’ response was to proactively challenge the government through protest, petitions and campaigns to resolve the land question and to ensure that the needs of the poor are met and that their livelihoods and tenure are improved. However, there has been a systematic collapse in land administration as well as control in the former homelands—especially in areas where there are no restitution claims. In the Eastern Cape, many land grabs take place as traditional leaders sell the land for profit to investors. Due to this phenomenon, the land tenure school was initiated in 2019 as many of the participants needed information about South Africa’s different tenure systems in order to aid their activism against land grabs.

Image one: Land activists engaging in land tenure issues.
Image two: Eastern Cape Land Activists and Facilitators on the last day of the school.

The land tenure school saw 65 participants attending from different rural communities in the Eastern Cape. The majority of the participants were marginalised rural women and youths from various backgrounds, but who are united by similar struggles over land. The sessions were mostly conducted in isiXhosa which enabled participants to learn and understand faster, and to fully contribute to the learning activity effectively.

The sessions aimed to provide an understanding of the existing tenure systems in South Africa and to ensure that the participants are able to distinguish between the three pillars of land reform, namely land restitution, land redistribution and tenure reform as well as their functions. This enabled participants to be able to identify issues around land tenure which cuts across communal land, agricultural land and mining. The sessions were also aimed to provide the participants with a regional perspective on land tenure and governance. Discussions at the school were guided by a commitment to bridge the divide between theory and practice, unpacking key land reform policies and laws including their wider implications, and exploring public engagement and social mobilisation strategies to ensure a pro-poor land reform in South Africa.

Each day concluded with a plan of action of how to keep the momentum going and capitalise on progressive court rulings to ensure that these court rulings are implemented, and that they advance rural struggles, seek alternatives and strategy building. Facilitators worked with participants to unravel some contextual realities and also allowed participants to work independently. On the last day participants focused on strategy building in their communities, envisioned alternatives, campaigning implications and shared what communities can do to alter their social realities.

It was a fruitful experience to be part of the land tenure school as we were able to share our own research work, experience in the land sector and also learn from fellow participants of the school. We hope that this initiative can expand to other provinces in the country as tenure insecurity continues to be a threat in securing the livelihoods of rural communities.


Images by Katlego Ramantsima.