Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Fighting Fire with a Broken Teacup: A Comparative Analysis of South Africa's Land-Redistribution Program *

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Fighting Fire with a Broken Teacup: A Comparative Analysis of South Africa's Land-Redistribution Program *

Article excerpt


Of all of the cases of unequal land distribution in the world, South Africa is easily one of the starkest examples of inequity relative to population. The statistics on apartheid-era land concentration are widely known as a result of antiapartheid campaigns: 71 percent of the population is confined to roughly 13 percent of the country's total land area (Borras 2003, 384). This lopsided distribution resulted not only from the policies of the Afrikaaner-led nationalist government (1948-1994) but also from centuries of land alienation in favor of white settlers (see, for example, Bundy 1979).

In 1994 the first democratically elected government, led by the African National Congress (ANC), promised fundamental change and announced a goal of redistributing 30 percent of white-controlled agricultural land to the majority black population by 1999 (ANC 1994, 22). Although it enunciated laudable goals, the first attempt at land reform (1994-1999) produced disappointing results. By 2000 little land had actually changed hands, and observers noted that redress proceeded very slowly (Turner and Ibsen 2000). Critics from the left challenged the market-based redistribution mechanism, and those from the right argued that the new black landowners either underutilized or mismanaged their land.

In 1999, under intense pressure from all parties, Thoko Didiza, minister of agriculture and land affairs in the administration of then newly elected President Thabo Mbeki, announced a moratorium on all land-redistribution projects until the government could formulate new guidelines that would both accelerate land redistribution and stay within a market-oriented approach. The department revised its land-reform policy, moving away from a model of land redistribution to alleviate poverty toward one aimed at promoting a class of black commercial farmers. The major vehicle for this effort was the Land Redistribution for Agricultural Development (LRAD) program, which had largely replaced the Settlement / Land Acquisition Grant (SLAG) by late 2000.

In this article we document and analyze the impact of both of these land-redistribution programs in South Africa's Limpopo and Western Cape Provinces. By examining a cross-section of projects we attempt to explain why land redistribution in the two provinces has not fulfilled the overall programmatic goals of broader land-reform policy. We further develop a political ecology of blocked land-reform possibilities to theorize why progress has been so limited to date.


Researchers who employ a political ecology approach to studying human-environment interactions continually demonstrate its flexibility as an analytical framework. We hesitate to describe political ecology as a theory, or even as a coherent and singular concept. For instance, although reviews of political ecology have become prolific and refined (Bryant and Bailey 1997; Blaikie 1999; Zimmerer and Bassett 2003; Moseley and Logan 2004; Peet and Watts 2004; Robbins 2004), debate continues over its definition and practice. Some authors focus on politics and economics (Peet and Watts 2004; Bryant and Bailey 1997; Bassett 2004); others emphasize ecology (Zimmerer and Bassett 2003; Vasquez-Leon and Liverman 2004). Most political ecologists, however, generally agree that this field "combines the concerns of ecology and a broadly defined political economy" (Blaikie and Brookfield 1987, 17).

We wish to avoid "black boxing" change; that is, simply extolling political ecology as a framework that explains everything--and therefore nothing. For us, three key concepts help frame the political ecologies of land reform: discourse, marginalization, and structure/agency. Poststructural political ecologists focus on the power of discourse, and environmental narratives more specifically, to shape environmental policies and programs (Leach and Mearns 1996; Bassett and Koli Bi 2000; Moseley and Laris 2008). …

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