2013 is the centenary of South Africa’s notorious Natives Land Act, a foundational piece of legislation in the edifice of twentieth-century segregation and apartheid. Its devastating legacy is still evident in the country’s divided countryside and deeply racialised inequalities. It is also a year before the 2014 deadline that the ANC government set for itself in the mid-1990s, of redistributing 30% of commercial agricultural land into black ownership – a target that most analysts agree cannot be met. Land reform continues to figure in national economic policy (such as the New Growth Path) and in political rhetoric across the ideological spectrum. What does all of this mean for the present and the future?
The answers do not lie in easy slogans and opportunistic politics. The centenary of the Land Act presents a major opportunity for researchers in academia, civil society and the state to reflect on the significance of ‘the land question’ in South African society and what can be learned from other contexts and different ways of thinking about land as a social, economic and natural resource. Land reform cannot be reduced to agricultural policy, nor can the social meaning of land be understood in narrowly economic terms. The complex intersection of issues shaping relationships to land at the start of the twenty-first century demand fresh analyses and new ways of thinking. Much can be learned from addressing the issues in comparative perspective and drawing on theories and insights from other parts of the region and globe.