Land reform in South Africa: a long-term challenge

Chris Simoens
18 July 2019
For 25 years, South Africa has been striving for fair land redistribution, including with Belgian support. However, the country still has a lot of work to do if it wants to get all disadvantaged groups - blacks, women, young people, rural inhabitants - on board. 

Triple burden

In 1994, Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa, starting the transition from 46 years of apartheid to democracy. The apartheid regime, instituted by the white minority, had introduced strict racial segregation by establishing separate 'homelands' for the black population. This was in fact only the continuation of three centuries of colonisation, a period which involved gross racial discrimination and land expropriation. All this time, the rural population was completely neglected.

Nelson Mandela inherited a country facing the heavy triple burden of a towering poverty, unemployment and inequality rate. While blacks accounted for 80 percent of South Africa's population, their homelands comprised just 13 percent of the land. They had very little means of subsistence (no job, no land). South Africa had a dual economy: there was the flourishing, subsidised large-scale agriculture industry dominated by the white population, while the small-scale black farmers struggled to survive in their mostly infertile homelands. 


Nelson Mandela inherited a country facing the heavy triple burden of a towering poverty, unemployment and inequality rate.

Colossal task

It was clear that fair land reform was crucial to help the country in its recovery. One of the first laws of the black majority government elected in 1994 focused on this problem. Families and communities that had lost their land rights could apply for restitution of these rights. Shortly afterwards, this restitution programme was followed by initiatives to redistribute one third of white-owned farmland to emerging black farmers, and to strengthen individual land rights in the former homelands as well as the rights of black farmworkers on white farms.

But the task turned out to be colossal and much more complicated than expected. Who is entitled to how much land and what land? And who are the original and current 'owners'? The government had no idea at all. Moreover, reallocating land in itself was not enough, as the neglected countryside needed infrastructure such as roads, houses and irrigation systems. Farmers had to be trained and supported, not only technically to increase production, but also with regard to entrepreneurship and marketing skills.


The task turned out to be colossal. Who is entitled to how much land and what land? And who are the original and current 'owners'?

A South African woman looks at a map in KwaZulu-Natal
© Enabel

Belgium contributes

As soon as Belgium started its development cooperation with South Africa in 1998, it was involved in the land reform and rural development programmes. In addition to providing scholarships and setting up a few small NGO projects on land access, Belgium invested a total of 13.75 million euros in direct aid for land reform between 1998 and 2017, through its former development agency BTC, which later became Enabel.

Among other things, Belgium contributed to the following activities:

  • spreading information about the restitution programme
  • validating and verifying people claiming land
  • developing good practices to better inform beneficiaries
  • elaborating databases on claimed land
  • developing verification tools and processes that were used in different regions
  • developing a comprehensive strategy enabling the South African government to better support the land reform beneficiaries before and after the allocation of land
  • steering local rural development and land reform plans
  • elaborating a strategy for better coordination between the ministry responsible for land reform and all other actors at national, provincial and municipal level
  • developing internal rules and control systems to follow up the different services provided to the beneficiaries of land reform and rural development
  • strengthening municipal structures allowing closer involvement of citizens in land reform
  • providing input and training moments on various new policy instruments
  • organizing specific training and exchange trips on market and rural development in the EU and China meant for starting small-scale and young farmers and rural entrepreneurs.


Belgium invested a total of 13.75 million euros in direct aid for land reform between 1998 and 2017.

A woman talks to two men in the shade of a tree.
© Enabel

Not finished yet

25 years of democratic transition have clearly not been enough to redress the deep-seated inequalities. So far, only 10 percent of the 80 million hectares of white-owned land could be redistributed among the black population. Evidently, the South African state apparatus does not have sufficient financial resources, technical skills, control processes and political consensus to ensure a sustainable economic transition.

Yet, South Africa can only make real sustainable progress if all historically disadvantaged groups, such as blacks, women, young people and rural inhabitants, are given more full rights and opportunities. Even though South Africa is an upper middle-income country nowadays, the country’s very high income inequality means that large parts of the population do not benefit from this wealth increase. Fair land reform remains crucial for a further transformation of the economy and society.


Other forms of cooperation

In June 2019, Belgium officially ended its governmental cooperation with South Africa. Our country will nevertheless maintain close ties with the country and recognises the need to continue to support land reform and rural development. Belgium’s years-long support for the land reform programme has shown that the strengthening of South African institutions can indeed contribute to the slow transformation of the rural economy.

That is why it is important to maintain other forms of cooperation, including through universities and research institutes, NGOs and companies, or regional, municipal or multilateral support. Needs remain high and challenges become more complex. At the same time, the South African authorities continue to look for more effective solutions to redress gross inequalities through land reform and rural development, which remains a long-term challenge.


Would you like to know more about Belgian support for land reform? Take a look at Enabel's report: Rural Transformation in South Africa and International Development Assistance



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