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'Human rights' or 'property'? State, society, and the landless in South Africa

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This paper explores the interlocking – but sometimes contradictory - efforts of NGOs and the state to safeguard the rights of those who have no land. "The landless" in South Africa, categorised along with "the poor and the dispossessed" by those who advocate their cause in the NGO sector, have come to occupy a contested position. As government policy has come increasingly to favour those who are structurally counterposed to “the landless” - the better-off who are potential commercial farmers - so NGO efforts have been directed, correspondingly, to safeguard the interests of this apparently large, but bewilderingly heterogenous, category. While those in this sector are agreed on the importance of helping "the landless, the poor and the dispossessed" by providing them with access to protected land rights, there has been disagreement over where the members of this category are to be found, and how their security can be best safeguarded. Countering the position that this is best achieved through "tenure reform" in the former homelands, some argue, for example, that those most in need of security are the labourers on white farms, whose residence rights are tied to their employment and for whom dismissal would mean instant homelessness. Recent "land invasions", such as the one at Bredell near Johannesburg, are also incorporated into the discursive universe of "landlessness" although their protagonists appear to belong to a further category: urban-based squatters seeking access to land without the payment of rent or services. This paper highlights the complex interlocking rhetorics emanating from, and protecting the rights of, these different constituencies, as they converged at the recent "Landlessness equals Racism" conference which was held alongside last year’s UN conference on Racism.

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