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Lack of access to land impacts people’s right to dignity

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Picture: David Ritchie/African News Agency (ANA)South Africa – Plettenberg Bay – 30 April 2021 – Pictured right to left, front row, is Thokozile Didiza, Minister of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, Patricia de Lille, Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure, then deputy president, David Mabuza, and Western Cape Premier Alan Winde. at a land handing over ceremony to the Covie Community in Bitou Local Municipality, Western Cape.

By Wisani Baloyi

Access to land, land rights and the subject of land in South Africa is a key topical issue which continues to be debated in many forums. It evokes emotions and reminds the country of the painful past in which black people were deprived of this source of life. Indeed, as many have rightfully put it, land is life.

This year marks 110 years since the historical denial of access to land to the majority of South Africans. The enactment of the Natives Land Act of 1913 (Act) enforced a legal limit to African land ownership. Africans, who constituted the large majority of the population, were relegated to reserves and homelands, and confined to a mere 7 percent of the land. The Act further prohibited Africans from entering into any agreement or transaction for the purchase, hire, or other acquisition of land from a person other than a native.

It was no surprise that when the new democratic dispensation was birthed in 1994 one of the fundamental areas of contention was the issue of land and remedying the injustices of the past. In an effort to provide redress, Section 25 of the Constitution was crafted to affirm that a person or community that was dispossessed of property after June 19, 1913, as a result of past racially discriminatory laws are entitled to either restitution of the property or equitable redress.

To operationalise the Act, a land reform programme was developed that focuses on three critical areas: land redistribution to address the lack of access to land for productive and residential purposes; land restitution to restore land to those who lost land due to previous discriminatory laws; and secure tenure to those whose tenure is insecure. Interestingly, this year also marks 29 years since the start of the democratic dispensation.

As the country reflects on access to land in today’s context, one of the critical questions is how the country has fared in providing redress to the majority of people who were previously denied this critical right. In urban areas, access to land is still reserved for those with financial means. Poor people are forced to break the law and occupy land, build shacks and houses in low-lying areas and uninhabited mining areas in an effort to have a roof over their heads.

Each year, impoverished people are confronted with the horrific, inevitable occurrences of their shacks flooding, and as such losing their little belongings. In other instances, the country is woken by news headlines of people being swept away in their sleep in places like Tsutsumani, an informal settlement which is situated on the riverbanks of Jukskei River in Alexandra, Johannesburg.

Eviction is another phenomenon that is harshly experienced by the poor. In farming and other areas where poor people reside, they are at times evicted by farm owners or municipalities without following court orders or in a inhumane manner and as such impacting negatively on their constitutional right to dignity. Horrific scenes of eviction companies destroying people’s shacks, furniture and other belongings and dragging people out of occupied land have been well documented in the media.

As one of the bodies created to support constitutional democracy in the country, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) has constantly received complaints on access to land or land rights. It identified the right to land as one of the focal human rights areas needing special attention. As a result, the SAHRC has undertaken several key interventions on the subject through public hearings, resolving individual complaints and engagement with relevant state departments.

Some of these activities are highlighted in publications such as the National Inquiry into Human Rights Violations in Farming Communities, Progress made in terms of Land Tenure Security, Safety and Labour Relations in Farming Communities since 2003, Monitoring and Investigating the Systemic Challenges Affecting the Land Restitution Process in South Africa, and Rural Land Use and Ownership Patterns on Human Rights. Throughout the years, the SAHRC’s work generally pointed to several challenges faced by the country regarding land reform.

The SAHRC made key recommendations to the government and other key players involved in the issue of land that: farm owners and the government must interact and address the many issues facing people within farming communities; for the then Department of Land Affairs to enter into an urgent dialogue with its social partners to review, clarify and reform its policy on tenure security for farm workers and occupiers; and capacitating the Commission on the Restitution of Land Rights to effectively and expeditiously process land claims lodged with it. Owing to the challenges listed above, the SAHRC hosted a two-day national conference, last week, titled Marking 110 Years of the Natives Land Act: Reflecting on Measures Taken Towards Redistribution of Land in South Africa to assess the extent to which the state has addressed the legacy of the Act. Further, the discussions interrogated the state’s fulfilment of the land reform goals in line with all the previous recommendations and findings made by various institutions such as the SAHRC and other Chapter 9 bodies, civil society, academia, and the state itself, on land reform.

Wisani Baloyi is acting Communications Co-ordinator at the South African Human Rights Commission