In a country grappling with so many different challenges, land reform in South Africa has recently emerged as a dominant and potentially explosive issue – the focus of furious political contestation and increasingly inflammatory rhetoric.
“Africa is for black people. Period. We need our land back and we’re going to take it by force,” said a woman amongst an angry crowd trying to occupy a field on the north-eastern edge of Johannesburg.
She is wearing a red beret indicating her support for the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a small, radical party which advocates the nationalisation of all land in South Africa.
The field was empty, overgrown, unused, and far too much of a temptation.
“This is my boundary,” said 50-year-old Christina Mashaba, striding through the long grass and pointing to a stick she had pushed into the ground, some 15 yards (13m) away.
“It’s going to be my home… if the government will let me have the ground,” she said, looking up, across the sunlit valley.
A little further down the gentle slope, an electrician called Ishmael Motswali was examining an area already littered with homemade flags and markers.
“I came to check if I can get a piece of land, and to see if it is legal,” he said.
“I’m renting a place at the moment. In my beautiful country, after 20 years of democracy, you can understand the frustration. I just want a piece of land where I can put my family.”
A few hundred metres further up the hill, at the entrance to the field, beside a brand-new housing estate, a large and increasingly angry crowd from the nearby township of Alexandra was confronted by a group of South African policemen, who were trying to seal the area, insisting that the land is private, and that “land-grabbers” would be dealt with harshly.
“Democracy?” scoffed a community leader called Mafasi Kubai, after listening to the pleas of a police captain.
“How can we participate when some are super rich and others are poor. Whites should be empathetic… but they are exploiting us.”
‘No longer about willing buyer, willing seller’
Across South Africa, such scenes and confrontations are becoming more common, as frustration with the slow pace of land reform grows.
And with it, frequently, is a growing bitterness about the enduring economic power of the country’s white minority.
Vast amounts of time and money have already been spent trying to address the issue of the land dispossession that occurred under racial apartheid, but the governing African National Congress (ANC) has little to show for it.
A generation after the advent of democracy, black people still own a small fraction of farmland nationwide. The exact statistics are often contested, but its estimated that just 10% of commercial farmland has been redistributed through land reform programmes.
The country’s new President Cyril Ramaphosa – who describes the land dispossession of the black majority during the apartheid era as South Africa’s “original sin” – has promised to accelerate land reform, with an early focus on unused urban land.
But his party, the ANC – responding to pressure from groups like the EFF – is also actively considering the introduction of legislation to allow for the expropriation of land without compensation, a measure assumed by some to be targeting white-owned farm land.
South Africa’s land problem
- The Natives Land Act of 1913 restricted black people from buying or renting land in “white South Africa”, leading to the forced removals of black people
- After the end of apartheid in 1994, the ANC government said it wanted to return 30% of this land to its previous owners by 2014
- It is estimated that 10% of commercial farmland has been redistributed
- Many of the land-reform farms fail because of a lack of skill transference and capital to sustain