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Land and Justice in South Africa: Exploring the Ambiguous Role of the State in the Land Claims Process

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image of African and Asian Studies
For more content, see Journal of Asian and African Studies.

AbstractIn addition to challenges facing South Africa’s overall post-apartheid land reform, group rural land claims have particularly proven difficult to resolve. This paper explores the role that the state plays in shaping the outcomes of rural group land claims. It analyzes policy statements, including from policy documents, guidelines and speeches made by politicians during ceremonies to hand over land rights to rural claimants; seeking to understand the possible motives, factual correctness, as well as impact, of these statements on the trajectory of the settled land claims. The paper concludes that land reform as practiced in South Africa is functionally and discursively disembedded from socio-political histories of dispossession, because land has come to be treated more as a commodity, rather than as something that represents multiple meanings for different segments of society. Like many processes leading up to a resolution of a rural claim, subsequent statements by government concerning particular ‘successful’ land claims convey an assumption that local claimants have received just redress; that there was local consensus on what form of land claim redress people wanted, and that the state’s lead role in suggesting commercial farming or tourism as land use options for the new land rights holders is welcome. The paper shows that previous in-depth research on rural land claims proves that the state’s role in the success or failure of rural land claims is controversial at best.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Geography, University of Toronto 1265 Military Trail, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M1C 1A4, Email:, URL:


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