Plenary panels

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This inter-disciplinary conference aimed to provide a platform for current scholarship across the social, human and environmental sciences on land issues in South Africa, within a regional and comparative frame. Given the significance of the centenary of the 1913 Land Act, reflections on the legacy and meaning of this legislation — one hundred years on — were an important focus. However, the conference also aims to stimulate critical reflection on contemporary and future environmental, agrarian and social dynamics within South Africa and the region. In this way it aims to provide a platform for scholarship that is mindful of the significance of the past and also forward looking.

The conference was organised around four main themes:

  1. The legacy of the 1913 Natives Land Act
  2. Land reform and agrarian policy in southern Africa
  3. The multiple meanings of land: identity, rights, belonging
  4. Ecological challenges

These themes were be explored in plenary sessions, where leading figures in the field from South Africa and abroad identified key issues and opened up the debates, which will then be further examined in parallel sessions.


1. The Legacy of the Natives Land Act of 1913


Prof Brian O'Connell, Vice Chancellor of the University of the Western Cape

Plenary presenters:

  • Prof Peter Delius, University of Witwatersrand and Prof William Beinart, Oxford University: The historical context and legacy of the Natives Land Act of 1913
  • Dr Sipho PityanaCouncil for the Advancement of the South African Constitution: The Constitution, the Land Question, citizenship and redress
  • Dr Mamphela Ramphele, Agang: The 1913 Land Act's dual legacy: Dispossession and subjugation
  • Ms Prisca Shabalala; Rural Women's Movement: Matiwaneskop and the legacy of the 1913 Natives Land Act 

The passage of the 1913 Natives Land Act is widely recognised as a defining moment in the history of South Africa, one that declared that in the post-Union dispensation black people would, to quote Sol Plaatje, be ‘pariahs in the land of their birth.’ The Act provided the legislative basis for subsequent efforts to divide the country into a white core, encompassing 87% and most of the wealth of the country, and a black periphery in the remaining 13%. While analysts have argued over the political and economic forces that produced it, as well as its significance for land ownership at the time, the consequences of this radical blueprint for white domination and black exclusion still reverberate across South Africa and the wider region today.

Yet the iniquitous legacy of the Act is not without contradictions. A foundational piece of legislation in the subsequent balkanisation of South Africa, it also galvanised the formation of a new pan-South African nationalism, leading to the formation of the African National Congress. Complicit in the destruction of an independent African peasantry and the consolidation of large-scale commercial agriculture, it yet provided a bulwark against the total alienation of black communal land and the decline of traditional leadership institutions. Today the Act is a key reference point for the country’s struggling land reform programme, setting a time limit for which acts of land dispossessions qualify for restitution and underscoring the need for a land redistribution programme to overturn the spatial, economic and political consequences of segregation and apartheid.

Yet as South Africa approaches twenty years of democracy, at a time of significant urbanisation and the diminishing importance of agriculture in the livelihood strategies of most rural people, is the above summary of the significance of the Natives Land Act still relevant? Are there other issues requiring equal or more attention in the development of a spatial framework for South Africa and the revitalisation of land reform? How should we assess the legacy of this Act as we mark its centenary?

The opening plenary brought together a distinguished panel to probe these and related issues, propose fresh ways of thinking about the legacy of this Act in the post-apartheid dispensation as well as in the region, and provoke further discussion and debate that was carried forward into the other plenary sessions as well as into a series of panels reflecting on the legacy of the Act over the duration of the conference.  This plenary was open to the general public.


2. Land Reform and Agrarian Policy in Southern Africa


Prof Andries du Toit, Director of the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies, University of the Western Cape

Plenary presenters:

  • Prof Henry Bernstein, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London: Agrarian worlds of 1913 and 2013: Implications for land reform today
  • Prof Ruth Hall, Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies, University of the Western Cape: Who, what, where, how, why? Mapping the many disagreements about land and agrarian reform
  • Prof Mohammed KaraanDean of the Faculty of AgriSciences at the University of Stellenbosch and National Planning Commission member
  • Prof Sam MoyoExecutive Director of the African Institute for Agrarian Studies, Harare: Agrarian change after Fast Track Land Reform: Lessons for South Africa?

Over the past three decades land and agrarian reform has been a key issue for most newly-independent governments across southern Africa, as a response to colonial and apartheid legacies of dispossession, the establishment of overcrowded rural reserves, and the privileging of large-scale commercial farming  by white settlers. In Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa the ‘land question’ was posed in particularly sharp terms. Persistent rural poverty throughout the region has meant that rural development and small-scale agriculture have been key issues. Overall, however, government policies have not been notably successful, and deep rural poverty continues to scar the countries of the region.

Particularly contentious have been the slow pace of land redistribution in South Africa and Namibia, the relative merits of large-scale vs small-scale farming and their implications for food security, the security of private and other forms of property rights, and the governance of land tenure systems derived from ‘customary’ norms and values. Confiscatory land reform in Zimbabwe’s fast track programme, which has radically reconfigured that country’s agricultural sector, has generated major controversies.

Key questions arise: what lessons can be learned from the experience with land reform to date across the region, and internationally? Is there a need to fundamentally re-think land and agrarian reform policies as a result of the global food crisis and linked energy and environmental crises, as well as the recent phenomenon of global ‘land grabs’? Should a key objective of agrarian reform be ‘food sovereignty’? The plenary session on this theme brought together a range of contrasting perspectives on these and related questions and aim to ignite a lively debate.


3. The Multiple Meanings of Land: Identity, Rights, Belonging


Ms Nomboniso Gasa, Centre for Law and Society, University of Cape Town

Plenary presenters: 

  • Dr Jacob Dlamini, Yale University & University of Barcelona: Edward Tsewu and the struggle for African property ownership: Rethinking the prehistory of the 1913 Natives Land Act
  • Prof Antjie Krog, University of the Western Cape: Baas van die Plaas: identities of land-disdain
  • Prof Robert Muponde, University of Witwatersrand: Jambanja?: The politics and aesthetics of land in Zimbabwe
  • Prof Cherryl Walker, Stellenbosch University: Land, meaning and time: Reflections on the making and remaking of Cremin in Northern KwaZulu-Natal, 1912 - 2013

Land as a source of identity links people through claims to shared spaces of belonging and meaning that operate at different scales — the homestead, the farm, the village, the city, the mountain, the national park, the nation, the continent, the globe. Land as a source of identity also divides people through contestations over rights and resources and how membership in the rightful community should be determined and by whom.  In South and southern Africa these issues are infused with assumptions about ‘race’ and ethnicity; the gendered dimensions are less frequently remarked, though no less significant for that.

People’s relationships to land and the environment are also major themes in the art and literature of the region. Here land, nature and landscape are both celebrated as inspirational and critically deconstructed as emblematic of division, dispossession and exploitation. These themes are woven tightly through the contested politics of land and conservation in the region. All these different forms of representation are themselves subject to further scrutiny by analysts debating the symbolism, meanings and political uses accorded the construct ‘land’.

The plenary session on this theme provided a forum for critical reflections on the multiple meanings of ‘land’ and ‘the environment’ in struggles around identity, rights and belonging, and for identifying other emerging themes as South Africa approaches the twentieth anniversary of its transition to democracy.  It also linked to the photographic exhibitions that opened during the Conference.


4. Ecological Challenges: Land Questions and the Environment


Dr Maanda Mulaudzi, Department of HIstorical Studies, University of Cape Town

Plenary presenters: 

  • Prof Jacklyn Cock, University of Witwatersrand: The ‘green economy: a sustainable development path or a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’?
  • Prof Timm Hoffman, University of Cape Town: Changing patterns of rural land use and land cover in South Africa and their implications for land reform
  • Prof Maano Ramutsindela, University of Cape Town: Conservation: A de facto land reform ‘policy’?
  • Prof Phil WoodhouseUniversity of Manchester: Dual trajectories? Property and productivity in African natural resources

Questions of land in South Africa are irreducibly ecological in character. In a largely semi-arid country with limited agricultural potential, scarce water resources and a growing population, a central focus of policy must be the long-term sustainability of all forms of land and natural resource use. The social and economic inequities associated with current systems of large-scale agriculture must be addressed, but so must its contributions to climate change and loss of biodiversity. Similar considerations apply to the mining industry. Does small-scale agriculture offer the prospect of a more sustainable future or are there risks and trade-offs that need to be better understood here as well?

Key challenges include the following. Can alternative food production systems be developed that are both socially and ecologically sustainable? How can water reform and land reform be articulated to best effect? How can biodiversity conservation be integrated into South Africa’s redistributive land reform programme, on farms and in communal areas and nature reserves? Can a shift to a ‘green economy’ help address unemployment, poverty and inequality? To whom do South Africa’s protected areas belong — to those with ancestral claims to them, to the nation at large, or, indeed, to the global ‘community’?

These challenges require us to understand the impacts of changing systems of land use under different economic and land tenure regimes, as well as to project the potential impacts of alternative policy options. The plenary panel on this theme combined different disciplinary perspectives in an attempt to provide a rounded view of the environmental aspects of South Africa’s complex and contested ‘land questions’.


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