Abstract was stolen under colonialism, then under imperialism, and


The land
reform issue has long been a focus of policy discussion in South Africa and the
basis for dealing with land issues has changed over time. A number of land
reform policies have been proposed with very little success. The idea of land
in South Africa has little to do with class and everything to do with land,
heritage and reclaiming that which was stolen under colonialism, then under
imperialism, and finally under apartheid which is the civil religion of postwar
South Africa. This paper sheds light on the chieftaincy system and how land
distribution works. Although this land is not much compared to the land in the
hands of minority white farmers, this paper argues that if land redistribution
is to work, it needs to work at all levels of governments. Therefore, through a
literature review, this paper attempts to answer the following questions: 1)
How traditional leaders derive their authority? 2) What methods are traditional
leaders using to distribute land? 3) How effective are these methods?

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Keywords: Land
reform, Traditional leaders, Apartheid, Colonialism




It’s been more than 20 years since
South Africa become a democratic state. However, the land reform issue still
remains a hot and sensitive subject. Land ownership is a thorny issue with the government
claiming that up to 87% of South Africa’s agricultural land is still in the
hands of white farmers (European immigrants). The country’s bitter history
under the colonial rule of apartheid has left an everlasting legacy of racial segregation
and land disposition. This
is the legacy that the ANC (African National Congress) government inherited in
1994 when they took over the country. For many South Africans, the birth
of democracy was a symbol of hope and that most of their problems, if not all
of them, would be solved. Since democracy in 1994, South Africa still has one
of the biggest gaps between the rich and the
poor in the world.

Like many other countries that have undergone a land redistribution
program, South Africans see land redistribution as a means to alleviate
poverty. The Government has put the land redistribution issue high up on the
agenda. However, common South Africans are getting impatient as they feel that
the government is dragging its feet in enacting effective land redistribution
policies. Over the last two decades, several land reform policies have been proposed.
Thus far, these policies have been plagued by poor planning and execution. In
the face of a downward-spiraling economy, the land problem is more pressing
than ever.

The land reform issue has long been a focus of policy discussion in
South Africa and the basis for dealing with land issues has changed over time.
This statement is backed up by Hall (2009) that “as policy is redrawn, it seems that old ideas are being
reinvented or renamed and that failed approaches are being tinkered with rather
than discarded or replaced” (p.17). With the land reform policies, the
government is attempting to redress the injustices of apartheid, while
fostering reconciliation and stability. Also, they seek to improve economic
growth, improve household welfare and alleviate poverty.

Much has been said about the land that
remains in the hands of the minority, but very little has been said about the
land in the hands of traditional leaders (tribal authorities), also known as
village chiefs. These chiefs have many people living under them who are dished
out land at the discretion of the village chief. This method has been
criticized as being a patriarchal approach that lacks a standardized system of
land distribution. This institution of traditional leadership was later integrated
into the government’s structure as an extended arm.

This study
explores the role of traditional leaders in the grand scheme of land
redistribution. It attempts to answer three related questions: 1) how did
traditional leaders derive their power? 2) What methods are traditional leaders
using to distribute land to the people living under them? 3) Are these methods effective?
To answer these questions, it is necessary to look back at the history of South



2.1   History of unequal land redistribution

Land ownership
in South Africa has long been a source of conflict.
South African history of conquest and dispossession, where blacks were
forcefully removed and the racially-skewed distribution of land resources has
left the new South Africa with a complex and difficult legacy. The issue
concerning land in South Africa is deeply rooted in what happened in the past,
where rural exploitation has implied displacement. The Land Act policy
restricted black people from buying or occupying land accept as employees of European
immigrants. This act gave the white minority ownership of 87% of the land,
leaving the black majority to settle in the remaining 13%. This policy also
minimized competition by denying African the right to purchase land and the
opportunity to become shareholders on European owned land. This meant that the
Act also marked the end of the limited independence that African farmers had on
European-owned land (The native land Act 27, 1913).
This process involved stripping Africans of all their productive assets, not
just land. This included the loss of water and cattle rights, human capital,
their communities and important demographic structures (Zimmerman,

1: Bantustan territories in South Africa during the apartheid era. The editors of
encyclopedia Britannica (2017).


1; depict how the Native land act policy was used by the apartheid regime to
forcefully remove Africans from their homeland. 87% of Africans were placed in
small designated and confined land known as the Bantustans while 13% of the
European settlers occupied the remaining land. According to The Editors
of Encyclopædia Britannica (2017), Bantustans were structured and placed based
on ethnic and linguistic groupings defined by white ethnographers. KwaZulu was
the designated homeland of the Zulu people,
Transkei and Ciskei for Xhosa people and the other
arbitrarily defined groups were the North Sotho, South Sotho, Venda, Tsonga, and Swazi. Freedom of movement for Africans was restricted outside
their designated area. “The poor, at least, need to be systematically triaged
and regulated at the point of entry to the wealthiest territories” (Balibar, 2010).  Traditional leaders of different ethnic
groups managed and were in charge of the Bantustan territories.


2.2   The Origins of the Traditional leaders

institution of traditional leadership represents an early form of societal organization.
It embodies the protection of culture, traditions, customs and value (“The role of traditional”, 2014). This
institution has always been a natural and common form of supremacy within African
societies. A traditional leader is a person appointed in accordance with
traditions and customs of the area or tribe by virtue of his or her ancestry.
He or she has traditional authority over the people who live in that area (“Chieftaincy and Kingship”, 2012) Steinmoen, (n.d.), explains that the status of
authority is passed onto the next generation by kin, mainly to the son of the
chief. In this case is dominantly a patriarchal society with some anomalies
where women became chiefs. Therefore traditional leadership is based on
governance of the people, where a traditional leader is accountable to his

institution of traditional leadership existed even before the colonial era.
However, in this period, traditional leaders were accountable to their
communities and were the highest form of political power. When the apartheid
regime came into power, they confined Africans to small homelands or Bantustans
under the rule of chiefs. According to Ntebeza
(2005), the apartheid government created the tribal authorities which
were highly authoritarian and despotic. It was during this time that the
loyalty of traditional leaders shifted from their communities to the apartheid
regime (Khunou, 2010). Before the current
ANC government came into power in 1994, they promised to abolish the
chieftaincy system. However, towards the first democratic elections, the ANC
changed their views on the chieftaincy system to extend their support in rural
communities. Kadt and Arbesu. (2014), states
that in many rural areas electoral polling stations are local tribal courts,
potentially magnifying the salience and power of traditional leaders when
citizens vote.


2.3   Traditional leaders in democracy

Before the ANC
government came into power, they saw the chieftaincy system as a way to extend
their support in rural areas. As a result, traditional leaders were recognized
as the fourth arm of government along national, provincial and municipal
governments. Figure 2, shows how the institution of traditional leaders has
penetrated and is positioned in all level of government (national, provincial
and local) to remain in power. It is evident that this institution is going
nowhere in south Africa. Chapter 12 of the South
constitution (1996) recognizes the institution of traditional leaders’
authority roles and status. But not the authority to give people land. The traditional leaders quickly aligned themselves with the
ANC government to remain relevant.

2: Traditional
leadership and independent Bantustans of South Africa. Khunou, (2010).

To this day,
traditional leaders continue to exercise their authority over people living
under them. The institution of traditional leadership is in contradiction with
what democracy is. This is due to the fact that traditional leaders are elected
based on lineage and not by the masses. This method contradicts the values of
democracy and promotes the patriarchal authority of the chiefs (“Chieftaincy and Kingship”, 2012). The key question that remains to be answered is how the
land under traditional leaders is distributed to the people living under them.

several policies have been proposed to address the land question at the
national level, little has been said about how the land redistribution issue
will be addressed at the lowest level of government. In the view of Branson (2016), traditional leaders have a
paternalistic approach to land distribution. Under the
ANC government, traditional leaders have the responsibility to rally support
for the ANC by wielding their discretionary power over land distribution. This clientelist approach undermines rural
development and further exacerbates the poverty situation of those living under
village chiefs.

It is clear
that the discretionary distribution of land under traditional leaders has not
benefited the majority. However, to win rural area support and to stay in
power, the ANC government has courted the chieftaincy system at the expense of
the people. At the national level; however, several policies have been proposed
with very little success. As a result, new political parties have attempted to
gain support by using the failure of the ANC to return land to the people.


2.4   Previous policies and why they failed

When the ANC
government took over power in 1994, it inherited a highly divided country in
terms of wealth and land ownership. However, the ANC government had to quickly assure
the minority white farmers that it would respect the (land rights) market-led
approach, i.e. willing-seller willing-buyer (WS-WB). In the same light, the ANC
also used the chieftaincy system to their benefit. However, courting the
interests of minority white framers and traditional leaders has been heavily criticized.
Bromley (1995), questions the morality of
the market-based (WS-WB) approach. Expecting s to buy land that was forcefully
taken seems to build on the legacy of apartheid instead of redressing the

To address the
land issue, a series of distinct policy responses within the context of the
wider national land reform programs (May and
Lahiff, 2007), have been put in place. The government attempted to
redress the injustices of apartheid, while fostering reconciliation and
stability with the land reform policies. The land reform process focused on
three areas: restitution, redistribution and land tenure reform. As stated on
the White Paper on South Land Policy (1997),
the purposes of these programs are as follows:

Restitution involves returning land (or otherwise compensating victims) lost
since 19 June 1913 because of racially discriminatory laws. Qalam and Lumet (2012), advocate the view that this process was a sham. People were
unaware of the deadline closing date for lodging restitution claims at the end
of 1996. Those (vast majority of forced removal victims) who registered after
1996 were not considered for restitution. Only few claims were settled, the
rest are yet to be settled.  


b.    Land Redistribution makes it possible
for poor and disadvantaged people to buy land with the help of a
Settlement/Land Acquisition Grant. This done in order to redistribute 30% of o
agricultural land to the rural poor. However,
According Bailey (2010), the 30% of agricultural
land that was supposed to be given to previously disadvantaged people has not
been achieved.


c.    Land Tenure reform aims to bring all
people occupying land under a unitary, legally validated system of landholding.
It will devise secure forms of land tenure, help
resolve tenure disputes and provide alternatives for people who are displaced
in the process

The land
reform policy coupled with poor resource allocation, programs implementation
and agricultural support are the primary reasons for the failure of land reform
(Bailey, 2010). According to Cronje (2015), the land reform policy has been
poorly implemented and has caused more harm than good. Firstly, it
overstressed the degree of land need whereas only about 8% of South Africans
want land to farm. Secondly, it restricts black South Africans from gaining
individual ownership of farming land. Approximately all transferred land goes
to the state, the chiefs or community trusts. Thirdly, it neglects the most
essential land reform requirement which is giving individual ownership to
people with insecure customary land-use rights in the former homelands.


3.         Current debate

The South
political atmosphere is currently dominated by discussions and debates
regarding land. A new rhetoric that the ANC government has long been trying to
avoid has sprung forth; land expropriation without compensation. This is contrary to the initial rhetoric of maintaining
confidence in the market value of land. According to Conway-Smith (2017), the move toward
expropriation without compensation is a populist move that seeks boost
dwindling ANC support ahead of the next elections.

In spite of
all the developments regarding the land in the hands of the minority white
population, little remains said about the land under traditional leaders.
Instead of progress being made towards fair distribution of land, traditional
leaders seek to expand their power and influence. In fact, some traditional
leaders are lodging claims for more land at a time when the majority is hungry
for land. Given this trend, it is clear that the institution of traditional
leaders is not about to be phased out anytime soon. On the contrary, the
institution of traditional leadership seems to overcomplicate an already
complex situation.


4.         Conclusion

Africans are crying for land restitution and not for land reform. Land in
South Africa has little to do with class and everything to do with land,
heritage and reclaiming what was stolen under colonialism, then under
imperialism, and finally under apartheid. This paper argues that if
redistribution is to work at all, it needs to work at the grass-root level
first. The land under traditional leaders is just as important as the land
under the white minority population. Furthermore, current debates on land redistribution
shy away from discussing the issue on rural land. Rather, discussions rotate
around the land under the white minority population.

It remains to
be seen how exactly land redistribution is going to transform the lives of the majority.
Studies have been conducted on the impact of land reform on the lives of
beneficiaries. Most of these studies conclude that land reform contributes very
little towards helping beneficiaries earn a source of revenue. The basis for this is often due to poor planning, lack of
agreement within communities, lack of skills and inadequate post-settlement
support. The issue of land in South
Africa has the potential of further destabilizing the country if not handled
properly. It seems that the issue of land will continue to dominate South African
politics for years to come.