During the era of apartheid in South Africa millions of black South Africans were displaced from their homes and removed from land that has been theirs for generations. These native South Africans were put into areas characterized by low income, high rates of infant mortality, malnutrition, and illiteracy. South African wealth distribution is of the most unequal among developed countries; to improve the economic landscape, many black South Africans are calling for land reform that will redistribute areas that once were theirs. The hope is to increase economic opportunity.

Land ownership by race has been blatantly skewed in South Africa since the apartheid era. According to South African newspaper The Mercury, “only 13 percent of the black population owns land.” The lack of land ownership within the black community leads to problems such as food scarcity due to lack of access to agriculture practices. Neil Gopal, Chief executive of the South African Property Owners Association (Sapoa) argues, “South Africa must adopt a process to increase land ownership by the formerly disenfranchised that continues to support food security with effective agricultural structures”. The availability of land could lead to more self-sustaining practices for black South Africans and boost their economic standing.

The redistribution of land could mean growing involvement in agricultural and rural development for black South Africans. According to the Daily Dispatch, the South African government has “committed to distributing 4.5 million hectares of land to disadvantaged black South Africans, largely dispossessed under apartheid. This figure includes redistribution of about 30 percent of the country’s commercial farms”. But whom this land should go to has become increasingly disputed. In the opening session of the National House of Traditional Leaders, President Zuma urged traditional leaders to actively engage with the matter of land reform on behalf of the communities they lead, but some argue that land should be given to ordinary citizens while others argue it should remain in the hands of white commercial farmers capable of effectively using the land for agriculture and livestock . Overall, land redistribution will be difficult with the possibility that apartheid sentiments still lurk throughout the country.

Policy makers and those who are pushing for land reform see the re-distribution of land as an imperative step in shrinking economic disparity. Reformers are advocating for what they call “the social function of land,” according to South African newspaper The Star. Program co-coordinator for Development Action Group, Mercy Brown-Luthango, has called for “robust public engagement and dialogue on the social function of land and on the use of expropriation as a tool to achieve this.” The “social function of land” would create land accessibility for all South Africans, making natural resources more available to those in poverty and who have had little access in the past.

With a majority of impoverished South Africans living in rural areas, land re-distribution and its use seem to be one of the first steps towards leveling the economic field within the country.

Written by Jonas Heidenreich, recent graduate of Political Science with a concentration in International and Comparative Politics from Appalachian State (Dec. 2015)