Beloved Country

South Africa has embarked on a brave and hazardous land reform programme

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 19th July 1995.

The people of Rust de Winter are in no hurry. Though they’ve been told that the well-watered farmland which surrounds their settlements is once again theirs, they have decided to wait until it is mapped and zoned before anyone moves in. They are hiring agricultural consultants, engineers and town planners to survey it for them. “Otherwise,” a village chief told me, “life won’t be any better than it was before – we’d be living like squatters even though it’s our own land.”

The villagers display a confidence in their government’s land reform programme that, in
any other nation on earth, would be misplaced. But in South Africa, a country whose very nationhood emerged from the repeated seizure of land from its owners, they can afford to relax a little. For the government’s land reform programme is perhaps the most realistic scheme of its kind ever attempted.

In visiting South Africa’s Department of Land Affairs, you are constantly aware that something is missing. If you ask to see the minister or a senior civil servant, no one tells you he’s unavailable for comment or out to lunch till Tuesday. There are no flags, no mahogany desks, no pictures of dignitaries on the wall, no silk shirts or gold watches, no hour-long calls to “friends” in Geneva. Instead, crisp, informal young men and women discuss subjects hitherto the preserve of Oxfam – participation, gender, food security – in terms which show that their implications are wholly understood. The documents they produce are concise, modest and immediately comprehensible. All told, it is hard to believe you have entered a ministry at all for, unlike almost every government department on earth, this one exists not to enrich its employees while intimidating its petitioners, but to fulfil the task it has been given.

It is certainly an urgent assignment. The department estimates that some three and a half million South Africans have been forced off their land this century, while many of those still working in the countryside are treated in much the same way as Britain’s feudal serfs. South Africa’s Land Act of 1913 and apartheid laws of the second half of the century did for the country’s rural population what the Highland Clearances and Parliamentary Enclosures did for ours.

They tore thousands of communities from their land, forcing them to concentrate, underhoused and underfed, in squatter camps and homelands. They destroyed the centuries of local knowledge and cultural engagement which enabled people to put their resources to good use. They allowed the country’s natural wealth to be squandered for the most ephemeral of gains. They ensured that South Africans became dependent for their survival on paid labour, in an economy which can never deliver full employment. And they eliminated the sense of place which lies at the heart of personal identity, without which people are deprived even of the notion that they belong to themselves. Exclusion from the land lies at the heart of South Africa’s crisis. Without reform, promises of a nation made for all of its people, rather than just a lucky few, would be a cruel deceit.

To the people running the programme, land reform is, as it should be, a complex and flexible process. It must, they say, be “demand-driven”: responsive, in other words, less to ministerial directives than to the requests of its beneficiaries. It must attend not only to the needs of those who have lost their land and want it back, but also to those who have no clear historical claim. Above all, it must ensure that, once they are on the land, people have the ability to stay there.

This is where so many land reform programmes – including our own wretchedly ill-conceived Land Settlement Scheme of 1919 – have fallen. Without start-up capital, credit, transport, schooling and healthcare, no rural producer can keep him or herself afloat. Where land reform in South Africa has started, more money has been set aside to meet these needs than for the acquisition of the land itself.

Without security of tenure – the assurance, in other words, that the land will not be arbitrarily snatched back – no one is prepared to make the investment of either labour or cash which ensures that their enterprise survives. South Africa’s land department is among the handful of institutions which recognizes that individual private property is not the manifest destiny of all forms of ownership, and that securing, for instance, common rights is just as important as upholding individual titles.

Without local autonomy, the programme would succumb to disasters like those which attended collectivisation in Eastern Europe or subsidy-driven intensification in the West. In South Africa, as long as they can demonstrate that their efforts are well-planned, sustainable and acceptable to their community, new owners will be able to use the land as they wish.

Importantly, female empowerment has become central to the land reform programme. In many parts of South Africa, it is women who work the land yet men who decide what the work should be. They are, moreover, traditionally barred from owning land of their own. As so many households are now effectively run by women – the men having moved to the towns to find work – these traditions impose a terrible constraint on self-improvement.

But perhaps the programme is most remarkable for attracting so little opposition. Conservationists have expressed some concern, but this seems to be dissipating. In one of the first land reform areas, a biologically-important part of Kwazulu Natal, the settlers have chosen to use their new property for conservation and ecotourism.

Even the agricultural unions – representing the people whose land stands to be redistributed – have so far protested only against a bill enabling their serfs to buy the land they live on. The land reform programme is premised on both handing out the territory which stayed in the government’s hands after expropriation and buying out private owners at the market rate. As many South African farmers are close to bankruptcy, they are only too happy to sell.

This, of course, highlights the programme’s two big problems, only the first of which has been considered by the land department. The government has to decide how to find the money it needs, which, if the programme is to work, will inevitably run into billions of pounds. It must also find the means of protecting small farmers from a distorted and increasingly penetrative global agricultural economy. Were it to do so effectively, it would almost certainly fall foul of the World Trade Agreement and the cartels intent on enforcing it. To succeed, South Africa will need all the international help it can get. It deserves it, for in its earnest attempts to do something real for its people are lessons from which all the world’s governments have much to learn.



– Both countries have had massive dispossessions of rural people
– Both, partly as a result, have long-term housing crises
– Both have high concentrations of land ownership. Britain’s is probably the higher.
– The South African Defence Force and Britain’s Ministry of Defence are both major landowners with uncooperative attitudes
– Both have campaigns called The Land is Ours


– Many of South Africa’s enclosures took place within living memory
– The Trespass and Illegal Squatting Acts were dropped in South Africa at about the same time as the Criminal Justice Bill was first mooted in Britain
– South Africa is drawing up a comprehensive register of landownership. In Britain a census has been successfully resisted by landowners since 1875.
– South Africa recognizes that landlessness and homelessness cannot be solved by market forces alone.