Reclaiming land in South Africa is about symbolism and fairness, not just compensation

A ‘No entry sign’ is seen at an entrance of a farm outside Witbank, Mpumalanga province, South Africa
A ‘No entry sign’ is seen at an entrance of a farm outside Witbank, Mpumalanga province, South Africa
Image: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko
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Land distribution and people’s access to land have always been high on the political agenda in South Africa. Colonization and land dispossession have been a strong feature of the country’s history, even more so during apartheid when land ownership became firmly concentrated in the hands of the white minority.

After the first democratic elections in 1994, two key pieces of legislation were developed to address these. They were: the 1994 Restitution of Land Rights Act and the 1997 Land Reform White Paper. Together they provided a framework that had three aims: land restitution, that is making it possible for people who were evicted from their land to get it back; land redistribution to address the racial inequality in land ownership; and redress.

One area that’s been particularly challenging has been cases of land restitution in areas deemed to be important for conservation. During apartheid, communities across the country were systematically evicted so that protected areas could be established—a feature of conservation practices in other parts of the world too.

But settling land claims in protected areas is unlike any other claims, because South African law says that land that’s been declared a conservation area must retain that status forever.

This has put land claimants who have won back their land rights in a difficult position. In other land claims, people are given a choice: they can have their land rights restored, they can elect to be given financial compensation, the equivalent of the land in another area or a combination of the three. But claimants who win a land restitution on land that falls in a protected area, and the claimant community chose restoration of land rights, they aren’t allowed to move back.

Communities have no option but to enter into a collaborative management—or co-management—agreement with the conservation agency in charge of the land. These partnership agreements between the state and local communities vary quite a bit, but all involved share responsibility for decision-making through power-sharing to varying degrees.

Our research looked at a successful land claimant community negotiating a co-management agreement. What we learnt was that during the negotiations little attention was given to how claimants felt about the land they had claimed back. The negotiations focused on the potential material benefits of the land, rather than on non-material benefits, such as access to visit burial sites.

This, we believe, raised a red flag, and should be revisited.


Co-management is often favored because it can reconcile biodiversity conservation and land reform. But experiences on the ground have faced challenges. Instead of empowering communities, co-management arrangement can marginalize communities further.

The main focus of the arrangement is usually economic gain. The focus is on financial gains, access to resources and employment. These are, of course, important, but to only focus on these drivers in negotiations paints an incomplete picture.

Land is much more than a resource. It also has a strong symbolic value. People develop bonds to land, known as place attachment. A person’s life experiences happen in a particular place. These experiences – the type of event, the people that were there, the meaning of it to the person – shape the connection with a place.

We looked at these elements in our research on a successful land claim in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province. What we found was that land is culturally and historically important to people and this is often ignored in the co-management arrangements put in place after a claim has been settled.

This concept of place attachment can be broken down to two components:

  • place identity – drawing on identity, history, community life, understanding, behavior, and
  • place dependence – the opportunities a person had there, the functional quality of the place, and livelihoods.

These bonds are very unique to a specific place and cannot be replaced.

Values attached to a particular place and natural resources shape how people use them.

The land is important for the community for its cultural and historical value and it is important for the conservation agency for its conservation value. Both have a place in co-management, but they need to be acknowledged and considered by all involved. If the cultural and historical importance of the land aren’t taken into account, communities might not be fully committed to conservation measures. In some cases, conservation agencies used co-management agreement to reach conservation goals which, at times, were at the expense of communities’ needs.

Frustration over co-management negotiations can reach tipping points, as was the case in a nature reserve in the Eastern Cape in 2013 when the land claimant community closed down access to the reserve.


Despite these challenges, co-management can work as examples in other countries show. For example, research in Colombia covering 10 protected areas showed that co-management initiatives can be successful if certain conditions are respected. This includes effective community participation in the process.

There is still hope in South Africa, but the existing co-management arrangements need to be revisited. They must ensure effective community participation as well as access to non-material benefits. For example, communities can negotiate access rights which would enable them to perform ceremonies and speak to their ancestors, therefore benefiting from the cultural value of their land. Place attachment reveals the symbolic value of the land, which is the first step in the process of including these in co-management arrangements.

Taking this approach could play a crucial role in the success of land reform policies.

Joana Bezerra, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Rhodes University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.