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Land for the landless : conflicting images of rural and urban in South Africa’s land reform programme

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South Africa’s land reform programme has been underpinned by ambivalence about land and what it signifies. One set of discourses and practices shows that ownership of or access to rural land is a key part of many African families’ well-being and livelihood. But it is only a part: small-scale agriculture in South – and southern – Africa has been shown over the past decades to have become impossible without inputs from labour migrant remittances. The corollary is that the desire to acquire or retain access to land exists alongside the (real or desired) capacity to earn money in the urban sector. Land represents a series of things – a sense of security, identity and history – rather than being an asset to be used for farming alone (or at all). But despite this, land has featured in the assumptions of some policy-makers (and some academic researchers, closely associated with them) as a key asset in its own right. Reforming its ownership, and redistributing it to poorer sectors of society is thought to provide the key to solving poverty and inequality, and is seen as the starting point in any real debate about redistributing wealth. Ignoring the interplay of rural and urban sources of income and identity, this set of assumptions is one which envisages the worlds of town and country as separate: it reconstitutes Africans either as rural ‘farmers’ or as urban ‘wage earners’. Ironically, there are striking continuities between this discourse and that of apartheid, with its attempts in the 1950s to promote successful African farmers and in the (linked) attempts to divide urban from rural people through such means as the infamous influx control regulations. This paper reviews published academic work, policy statements, and case studies of labour migrancy and land reform to illustrate some of the contradictory impulses behind, and outcomes or, the land reform programme in the new South Africa. It demonstrates that the idea of rural and urban as separate worlds has been strongly entrenched in South Africa’s ‘development discourse’ from long before apartheid’s demise.

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