The land now known as South Africa was colonized in 1652 by the Dutch, who founded Cape Town as a stopover point between the Netherlands and the Far East, where they sourced spices. The English seized the Cape of Good Hope in 1806, prompting the Dutch, known as the Boers and, later, Afrikaners, to found territories to the north. The discovery of resources, including diamonds and gold, in the late 19th century spurred wealth and an English invasion that led to the Second Boer War of 1899 to 1902. The English won, but in 1910 the two sides jointly formed the Union of South Africa, which would be declared a republic in 1961.

The two sides uneasily shared power until 1948, when the Afrikaner National Party (ANP) won a strong majority and, in an effort to control the economy and society, instituted a policy of "apartheid," from the Afrikaans word for "separateness."

Racial segregation had long existed in the region. The 1913 Native Land Act prohibited the sale of white territory to blacks and vice versa. But the ANP cemented that segregation into law through several legislative acts. In 1950, the Population Registration Act classified all South Africans as either Bantu (black), white or "coloured" (mixed race). (A fourth category, Asian -- including Indian and Pakistani people -- was later added.) That same year, the Group Areas Act established in urban areas residential and commercial sections for each race and prohibited other races from living, owning land or operating businesses in any areas but those designated for them. Although whites made up less than 10 percent of the population, they received more than 80 percent of South African land as a result of this and two later acts, collectively known as the Land Acts.

In 1952 the government strengthened existing "pass" laws, which required blacks to carry "pass books" with fingerprints and identification at all times; eventually restricted most social interaction between races; created separate public facilities, education standards and jobs; and forbade non-white labor unions from participating in the national government. In 1959, the Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act created 10 African homelands, or Bantustans; in 1970 the Bantu Homelands Citizenship Act assigned every black South African to one of the 10, making them citizens of their Bantustans and revoking their South African citizenship.

The Public Safety Act and the Criminal Law Amendment Act, passed in 1953, allowed the government to impose strict punishments for protesting a law, including fines, imprisonment and whippings. It also allowed the government to declare "states of emergency"; individuals detained during such periods could be held without a hearing for up to six months. These states of emergency were declared often through 1989 and resulted in thousands dying in custody, frequently as a result of torture. Of those who were tried, many were sentenced to death, banishment or life in prison.

Domestic and international opposition to these policies mounted over the years, with black South African students rioting, for example, in Soweto in 1976 and the United States and United Kingdom imposing some economic sanctions in 1985, which helped lead to the abolishment of the pass laws in 1986.

Apartheid remained officially in effect until 1991, when the South African government under president F.W. de Klerk finished repealing the laws that had made it possible. A new constitution restoring blacks' rights was adopted in 1993, and on April 27, 1994, the first democratic elections were held. Nineteen parties participated: Black parties won the majority, and a government of national unity was formed, with Nelson Mandela as president.

» "Apartheid." Encyclopedia Britannica.
» Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "Apartheid FAQ: When did Apartheid start in South Africa?"
» Chokshi, Monal, Cale Carter, Deepak Gupta, Tove Martin, and Robert Allen. "The History of Apartheid in South Africa." Stanford University, 1995.
» "South Africa." Central Intelligence Agency.

Land Reform in South Africa

By the end of apartheid, 87 percent of South Africa's land was in the hands of whites, who made up less than 10 percent of the population; some 19 million nonwhites, most of them poor, were crowded into the remaining 13 percent. Shortly after taking office in 1994, President Nelson Mandela pledged to return 30 percent of white-owned land to non-whites within 10 years.

The government adopted a three-pronged approach comprised of land restitution, land redistribution and strengthening labor tenancy rights. Under the restitution model, people who felt they'd been unfairly forced off their land after 1913, when the colonial government restricted African land ownership through the Native Land Act, could make a claim for a parcel of land; claims had to be filed by 1998. For redistribution, government-owned land would be transferred to disadvantaged communities.

Both models, however, were predicated on a "willing seller, willing buyer" model, adopted from the World Bank's approach of market-led reform, under which landowners had to volunteer to sell. Ten years after the end of apartheid, only two percent of the land in question had been transferred, and more than nine of every 10 acres of commercial farmland remained in the hands of 50,000 white farmers.

In 2004, Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Mandela and served as president from 1999 to 2008, signed several amendments to the original Restitution of Land Rights Act of 1994, including one that allowed his minister of agriculture, Thoko Didiza, to expropriate farms without going to court, a measure that was to be used only as a last resort. In order for land to be expropriated, black South African claimants had to prove it had been seized unfairly. Current owners were to be compensated fully by the government. Mbeki also set a new deadline for the restitution procedure, saying that all claims, thousands of which had been caught in slow court proceedings, were to be resolved by the end of 2005. That deadline was later extended to 2008, and then to 2011 and again to 2014.

In a separate program launched in 2000, South Africa said it would purchase and redistribute 30 percent of the country's agricultural land by 2015 in order to promote commercial farming by blacks. In 2009, however, land reform official Tozi Gwanya said that more than $9.6 billion would be needed to buy up the remaining land, and that the deadline was being pushed back to 2025 due to the global financial crisis. At that time, about 5 million hectares had been redistributed and that 20 million had yet to be purchased, let alone redistributed.

» "Land Claims faces R10-billion debt." The Times, 18 Nov. 2009.
» Moore, Jessica. "Key Dates in South African Land History." Online NewsHour, 14 Apr. 2004.
» "SA 'to miss land reform deadline'."BBC News, 4 Nov. 2009.

Implications of Land Reform

Economic Issues

The land reform process, predictably, has met widespread criticism and protest. Among the most vocal opponents are white commercial farmers, particularly as food production has slowed and import costs have increased in recent years.

A spokesperson for the Transvaal Agricultural Union said in 2008 that increasing food production required proper infrastructure and experienced farmers, and that redistributing prime land to the previously disadvantaged -- who might have neither experience nor any interest in farming -- would likely result in reduced production.

A report released by IRIN (Integrated Regional Information Networks) in 2008 found several studies showing that beneficiaries of land "experience severe problems accessing services such as credit, training, extension advice, transport and plowing services, veterinary services and access to input and produce markets." It also found that South Africa had only a third as many staff as required to support the land reform, and that 80 percent of that staff was not adequately trained. In a November 2005 report submitted to Parliament, the agricultural ministry reported that 70 percent of land reform projects in Limpopo Province were dysfunctional, as a result of poor design, negative group dynamics and lack of post-settlement support.

In September 2009, rural development and land reform minister Gugile Nkwinti told parliament that more than half of the thousands of farms the government had acquired had failed or were failing.

» "South Africa: Land redistribution back on the front burner." Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), 23 Oct. 2008.
» "Land Reform Programme Unsustainable." Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), 2 Sept. 2009.

Social Issues

Opponents of land reform fear that restitution laws, and expropriation in particular, could lead to the sort of violence and land invasions seen in Zimbabwe after President Robert Mugabe's ruling party began seizing white-owned farms in 2000. In fact, since the end of apartheid South Africa has seen a rise in what are known as "farm attacks," which the South African Police Service defines as, "...acts aimed at the person of residents, workers and visitors to farms and smallholdings, whether with the intent to murder, rape, rob or inflict bodily harm. In addition, all actions aimed at disrupting farming activities as a commercial concern, whether for motives related to ideology, labor disputes, land issues, revenge, grievances, racist concerns or intimidation, should be included."

Reports vary on the number of such crimes, but the South African Human Rights Commission claims there have been 9,400, with 2,500 deaths. Attacks are generally believed to be directed at whites most often; in 2001, 39 percent were directed at blacks.

Meanwhile, while South Africa formerly suffered from a gulf between white "haves" and black "have nots," according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, land redistribution has contributed to inequality within the black population, which is increasing, while inequality between races is falling slowly.

» "Land Redistribution in Southern Africa." Online NewsHour, 14 Apr. 2004.
» "Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Farm Attacks." Criminal Justice Monitor, 31 Jul. 2003.
» "South Africa: Inequality not so black and white." Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), 8 Feb. 2010.

Political Issues

South Africa has had four presidents since the end of apartheid: Nelson Mandela (May 1994-June 1999), Thabo Mbeki (June 1999-September 2008), Kgalema Motlanthe (September 2008-May 2009) and Jacob Zuma (May 2009-present). Each has had to grapple with land reform policy.

When Mbeki resigned in 2008 after being declared unfit to lead by his African National Congress (ANC) party and was replaced by Motlanthe it was believed that the ANC had moved to the left and that the ruling party's partners, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party, would soon wield greater influence over government policy and accelerate land reform.

Karen Kleinbooi of the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at the University of the Western Cape said in late 2009 that there were indications of "a shift away from chasing targets . . . and a shift towards more efficient land reform" by the administration of new president Jacob Zuma.

In PLAAS's June 2009 quarterly report, director Ben Cousins said that policy decisions reached at the ANC congress in 2007, when Mbeki was deposed as the party's leader, placed a "new focus on agrarian reform, including the restructuring of value chains, [that] is appropriate and much needed, given the complete neglect of these aspects in the past."

One step Zuma has taken during his first year in office is dividing responsibilities for land and agriculture administration between two entities: the Ministry of Rural Development and Land Reform and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

» "South Africa: Analysis: Land reform -- same problem, different approach." Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), 21 Aug. 2009.
» "South Africa: Land redistribution back on the front burner." Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), 23 Oct. 2008.
» "South Africa: Land reform programme unsustainable." Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), 2 Sept. 2009.