Land reform

By Donnelly McCleland (with contribution from Hannes Bosman)

25 years into South Africa’s democracy, land reform in the country seems to be on the brink of commencement. The final report of a Presidential Advisory Panel on Land Reform was released and offers answers about crucial aspects of a land reform issue that has its roots more than 100 years back. The report traces a series of innovative interventions on land reform – including a register for all types of land ownership, a land reform fund and voluntary land donations by businesses, farmers and churches – as well as some controversial proposals. (Daily Maverick)


It has been said that the ‘original sin of apartheid’ was the dispossession of land in 1913 by means of legislation – the Natives Land Act – by the government at the time, which created a system of land ownership that deprived most South Africans of the right to own land. It resulted in the majority of the land being held by the white minority, while the black population – including the coloured and Indian communities – were dispossessed of their land. The Act restricted people of colour from buying or occupying land, and over time, most of these people were relocated to ‘homelands’ and ‘townships’. As a result, breadwinners were often forced to look for work far away from their homes, which led to a range of related socio-economic problems. Despite the Act being repealed in 1991, the land reform process has been slow, and in many cases ineffective, leaving many still landless and living in poverty. Efforts to redress this contentious land question in an equitable manner have been an ongoing exercise ever since.

Countrywide public hearings in 2018 highlighted the state’s failure to redistribute land and implement meaningful land reform since the first free elections in 1994. As a result, in September 2018, President Cyril Ramaphosa appointed an advisory panel on land reform. The 10-member panel comprised those “qualified by virtue of academic background, professional experience, social entrepreneurship or activism related to the agricultural economy and land policy” (the Presidency). The panel was mandated to “review, research and suggest models for government to implement a fair and equitable land reform process that redresses the injustices of the past, increases agricultural output, promotes economic growth and protects food security”.

Final report recommendations

The final land reform report included some key findings and recommendations. Of paramount concern is expediting the process – using all existing powers to deliver land reform – and re-orientating procedures towards meeting the most urgent needs first. In the area of ‘expropriation without compensation’, the report noted that this may be necessary in some situations, but that an amendment to the Constitution would clarify the circumstances under which such actions could be implemented.

A central theme is the equitable redistribution of land, and possible means to achieve this goal. It was concluded that “a proactive, targeted area-based approach is necessary in order to redistribute land”, and that it should no longer be dependent on willing sellers offering their land for sale. Accordingly, all citizens should have access to land on an equitable basis, and those with the most urgent need should take priority. The agreed position is that land acquisition needs to be pursued by means of land donation, negotiated acquisition, or expropriation – in that order.

The report recommends that a ‘donations policy’ be instituted, which encourages landowners to donate properties, or part of their properties, in return for exemptions from donations tax and the conveyance costs of land transfer. A land reform fund would thus be necessary to bring together state and private finance to support land reform.

In terms of who should receive immediate priority, the report mentions that farm dwellers should be able to secure tenure rights in line with the law, and labour tenants and people who by tradition are the occupiers and owners of land need to be recognised as such by the law. Finally, land reform should be extended to urban areas, with the aim of building inclusive towns and cities where all residents have equitable and secure access to land.

An area of critical concern is corruption at various levels of government and society, including within the land reform process. Improved oversight, more investigations and prosecution of those suspected of land-related corruption in all its forms is considered vital. The selection and allocation processes should also be more transparent, allowing a greater openness and accountability on how these decisions were reached.

Responses and concerns

The report has had a mixed response. Even within the panel itself there were disagreements, as is evidenced by AgriSA president Dan Kriek and fellow panellist Nick Serfontein offering an alternative perspective on some of the panel’s recommendations. Some of the main areas of concern include the proposed amendments to the Constitution that could infringe on property rights. The agricultural sector also expressed their concern over the apparent lack of attention given to the “drastic decline” in commercial farmers in South Africa, which could adversely affect the land reform process and national food security. It is also believed that a proper assessment of international ‘best practice’ was not conducted. Some analysts also highlighted the economic impact that the expropriation debate has had on investment, which they feel has not been adequately considered.

Many agree, however, that despite the concerns and reservations over some aspects of the report, it has at least provided some necessary forward momentum.


There appears to be a genuine desire among many South Africans for reconciliation and a united future, but the issue of land reform remains a stumbling block for most. It is here where South African Christians have an opportunity to work towards establishing common ground on which to build, to hear the heart cry of those who have been marginalised, and to offer hope and realistic solutions. It would mean overcoming deep-seated (and sometimes legitimate) fears and pursuing Christ’s heart in the situation.

It will require people with a different spirit, people who know and see the God of ‘the impossible’, rather than the ‘giants’. Just as Joshua and Caleb (in Numbers 13) saw the Promised Land and chose to believe the word of God rather than focusing on the obvious challenges, South African Christians are called to do the same.

Too often we attempt to stay rooted in our own unbelief, eagerly believing those who confirm our fears, instead of heeding those who can encourage our faith. God searches for those with a different spirit: “But because My servant Caleb has a different spirit and follows Me wholeheartedly, I will bring him into the land he went to, and his descendants will inherit it” (Numbers 14:24). If we do not encourage South Africans to behold a sovereign God, we have nothing to offer.

We cannot follow the Lord “wholeheartedly” and still respond like the world; we cannot turn a deaf ear to the cries for justice. Believers need to pursue a “different spirit” at all times – among friends, in the midst of ‘enemies’, on social media, in private and in public. Following Christ “wholeheartedly” will – and must – result in a “different spirit” that challenges others to think and respond differently as well.


  • For continued efforts towards resolution of the land reform debate
  • For hopeful and realistic solutions to critical issues
  • For believers to set aside prejudices and courageously pursue a Christ-like approach to land ownership, justice and righteousness