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The International Interdisciplinary Security of Land Tenure (IISLT) conference brought together professionals, lawyers, academics, government officials and students to emphasise the importance collaboration and interdisciplinary approach in remedying the issue of tenure security.

The conference was held from 6 to 8 May 2024 at the University of Free State with a promise to tackle the pervasive issue of insecure land rights that plagues rural communities in Africa. The papers presented cut across many disciplines and themes from property, environmental law, conservation, customary law and succession, gender and traditional practices, socio-economic rights to agriculture and land reform, as well as governance.

PLAAS PhD candidate Shane Phiri presented a comparative analysis of beneficiaries’ tenure security. His work challenges conventional models of tenure security and underscores subjective perceptions and related power dynamics that make it up. This builds on long-standing work at PLAAS on the outcomes of land reform: state neglect and elite capture, and the constitutional principle of equitable access to land.

Tenure security refers to the legal and social protection of land and property rights. It is a crucial aspect of sustainable development, as it provides individuals and communities with the confidence and stability they need to invest in their homes and livelihoods

Why tenure security matters
Tenure security is essential for a variety of reasons. First, it provides individuals and communities with a sense of ownership and control over their land and property. This could potentially encourage investment in improvements and maintenance, leading to increased productivity, stability and economic growth. The dominant approach to tenure security promotes privatisation and formalisation. This pegged on the assumption that formalised rights are more secured and superior to informal (off register) and customary rights. Throughout the conference the merits and pitfalls of such assumptions were debated and challenged.

Despite its importance, tenure security remains elusive for many people living on the continent. Across different contexts, delegates expressed the following as the challenges to achieving tenure security:

  1. Weak legal frameworks: many African countries lack clear and enforceable laws that protect the land rights of rural communities
  2. Corruption and weak governance undermine efforts to improve tenure security by allowing powerful individuals or groups to seize land or property from vulnerable communities.
  3. The survival of the bifurcated state, which perpetuates dual system of authority in Africa, and insecurity for rural communities
  4. Legal plurality – which substantively undermines and prevents women and marginal groups from accessing, using and inheriting land.
  5. Lack of awareness and education: Many people are unaware of their land and property rights or lack the education and resources to defend them.
  6. Lack of clarification on what constitutes an eviction. This is a pertinent issue with regards to farm dwellers rights to own and graze livestock/ cattle
  7. Conflicting land uses for example, artisanal mining on residential land in Zimbabwe
  8. The costs of litigation, and the law used as baton against disempowered communities
  9. The interweaving of conservation efforts to protect and preserve nature with capitalist interests leading to new forms of enclosures and dispossession

Various Strategies for Improving Tenure Security:

  1. Strengthening legal frameworks: the development of legal systems geared towards eliminating structural inequality
  2. Addressing corruption and improving governance: governments can also address corruption and improve governance by increasing transparency and accountability in land administration.
  3. The promotion of prior informed consent of rural land communities in land decision making, in particular where the land holding structure is being controlled by traditional authorities or state regulatory structures. Succinctly summed up with the quote “nothing about us without us”
  4. Dismantling apartheid’s spatial planning in order to promote more inclusive and secured land rights
  5. Recognising informal rights as inherently legitimate and equated to formalised rights. This is intended to circumvent dispossession of rural communities.
  6. Introducing “land counselling initiatives” in Nigerian schools to increase awareness and education about land and the contents of people’s property rights

The conference created a space to actively engage with broader elements involved in securing access and claims to the land. This called to attention the multiplicity of norms, rights and institutions that shape the struggle for tenure security. Drawing from the presentations, situations of normative and institutional pluralism are prevalent throughout the continent. There are myriad relations, intuitions and social rules that underpin security. These embedded relations are tethered to the material and subjective realities existing in each context. Legalistic approaches to tenure security fail to capture these complexities. Formalisation does not create a haven for tenure security.

On the one hand, constraining tenure security under the guise of formalisation is seen reproducing social inequality and making tenure security an ongoing site of struggle. On the other hand, formalised rights are ripe for appropriation and dispossession, leading to more insecurity. The path towards tenure security lies at the cusp of political, social and legal powers that shape land relations.

Tenure security should be recognised as multidimensional, and reflective of norms, perceptions and practices existing on the ground.