In 1997, South Africa’s first democratic government published a White Paper on Land Reform, setting out a radical vision of how to address racial inequality in land tenure and the stark disparities between men and women in access to land.
The South African Constitution attempted to translate this ideal into reality, with Section 25(5) obliging the State to “take, within the limits of its available resources, reasonable legislative and other measures to create conditions enabling citizens to have access to land.” to be obtained on an equal basis”.
In November 2017, what was then the Ministry of Rural Development and Land Reform released a soil audit showing how little progress had been made towards realizing this vision. Seventy-two percent of farmland and arable land is still owned by whites, and only 4 percent is owned by blacks. The audit also revealed that women own only 18% of private land, which drops to 13% for farms and farms. The results of the audit confirmed that the state’s current approach to land redistribution is failing.
This failure is particularly detrimental to women. The right to use and control land is central to the lives of rural women in South Africa, who depend on the land to feed themselves and their families and to earn an income. Access to land creates generational wealth, food security and is a source of empowerment that contributes to women’s social and economic empowerment. Failure to change gender patterns of land ownership is a failure to realize women’s rights to equality and human dignity.
Given the clear constitutional and political mandate for change, why has land redistribution not become a reality for South African women? One of the difficulties in answering this question is the lack of transparency of the government’s redistribution program — policies on land distribution are opaque and data on land reform beneficiaries is rarely released.
A rare exception to this secrecy was a report released in 2018 by the then Land Reform Department that included data on the results of land redistribution. The report revealed that the number of female beneficiaries of the redistribution program had declined rapidly. Between 2009 and 2018, 8 763 women benefited from land redistribution, representing 41% of all beneficiaries in that period. However, this was mainly due to the high number of female beneficiaries between 2009 and 2011. The absolute number of female beneficiaries decreased from 5 795 in 2009-10 to 334 in 2017-18.
In addition to a decline in absolute numbers, female beneficiaries also made up a decreasing percentage of the total: in 2009-10, female beneficiaries made up 51% of beneficiaries, but by 2017-18 this proportion had fallen to 25%. In 2013 only 1% of all beneficiaries of the year were women.
This discrepancy is also reflected in the assessment of individual redistribution programs. In December 2020, in a presentation to the Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, the government provided information on the number of beneficiaries who had benefited from the State Land Lease and Disposal Policy (SLLDP) between February and December 2020.
The SLLDP is the government’s most recent land redistribution policy, passed in 2013. It only provides leaseholds for redistributed land to beneficiaries and not full ownership rights. It gives nominal priority to women, but with the caveat that they must demonstrate basic farming skills or be willing to acquire such skills before being considered.
Of the 544 people who benefited from the program in 2020, only 116 (30.5%) were women. This distribution is even more uneven when the data are broken down by hectare allocation. Male beneficiaries received 82% of the allocated land, while women received only 17.2% of the total hectares allocated.
To fully understand inequality, it is important to understand what rights women have acquired across the country. This is because access to land is not enough to overcome gender inequalities in farming, it is also important that the rights women acquire in the process enable them to use the land to support themselves and strengthen their families. Looking at the nature of the rights granted under the SLLDP, further barriers to women’s access to land become apparent.
In 2020, 83% of the women beneficiaries of the Lease and Divest policy were collective, that is, they did not have individual land leases, but were part of a collective that included men. In comparison, 50% of male beneficiaries received the land as individuals. This means that in most cases women only benefited from land redistribution within the framework of politics if men also benefited from it.
It also means that women cannot use the land without consulting and collaborating with men. This leaves them less empowered and vulnerable to patriarchal land ownership constructs that force women to be perpetual minors, unable to own land in their own name.
This discrepancy is partly explained by the way the policy was implemented in 2020. Instead of redistributing newly acquired land, the ministry redistributed 700,000 hectares of farmland it already owned, mostly through leasing to people who already occupied the land. This is not true redistribution – rather it perpetuates existing patterns of land ownership.
The current redistributive approach also reproduces inequality as it targets proven skills and experience in agriculture. The SLLDP and other national policies target women who either have basic agricultural skills or are willing to acquire such skills. It’s not clear how skill and experience will be valued when deciding who gets land. Rural women are the backbone of subsistence farming, but despite these skills, women are unlikely to own the land they farm on and less likely to have a formal agricultural qualification. Existing patterns of land ownership also mean that women are less likely to have farmed commercially or to be able to demonstrate that they have the skills and experience to run a farm.
This policy approach reflects a shift towards a heavy emphasis on commercial agriculture. Since 2009, fewer beneficiaries have been allocated more land. This is largely due to the need to keep land intact for commercial farming operations. Women will not benefit from this approach. The shift has instead left redistribution vulnerable to corruption and collusion between department officials and wealthy and/or politically-affiliated elites, who have been the preferred beneficiaries.
There are a number of reforms that would improve the redistribution program’s ability to address gender inequality in land tenure. First, the state must analyze the need for land in South Africa through the lens of gender equity. Too little has been done to identify women’s wants and needs in relation to land, and there is limited evidence that can be used to design and implement land redistribution strategies. This results in an approach that sets redistribution goals that do not take into account the specific needs of women.
Second, policies aimed at creating equity in land redistribution must be properly implemented. It is clear that even where goals for gender equality have been set in politics, these will not be achieved. Women benefit less from these programs than men, although they have been identified as a target group.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, the legislature must enact legislation that will frame South Africa’s relocation program and prioritize women. The current situation is largely due to the lack of a guiding legal framework as provided for in Section 25(5) of the Constitution. New legislation must create coherence in the redistribution process, align policy programs and provide guidance on how to prioritize women, taking into account the often hidden inequalities in the current policy framework. It must force the development of an agreed set of equality indicators, as well as a framework that defines how data on gender equality in redistribution programs will be collected, analyzed and presented. This will create more transparency and accountability in land redistribution.
We cannot resolve South Africa’s growing economic injustice without sweeping legislative changes that allow women access to land on essentially the same basis as men.
Monty Fynn is an intern at the Legal Resources Centre.
Cecile van Schalkwyk is a lawyer in the Legal Resources Center’s country program.