Recently, we have witnessed a number of illegal and violent evictions around the country.
This follows an increasing number of urban land occupations in Cape Town and around South Africa.
Despite rising land and housing occupations in the past decade, the state has failed to address the root causes thereof.
Instead, it has tiptoed around them with empty promises, instead of addressing the consequences of those empty promises (land occupations) with violence adept of responsibility.
The omnipresent question of land and socio-economic justice, which are underlying influences of land and housing occupations, remains unanswered in South Africa, some 25 years after liberation.
To understand occupations better we have to revisit land reform.
From the outset, discourse and policy on land reform has been agriculturally biased.
When land reform became a hot topic again after the call for the amendment of Section 25 of the Constitution, we still missed the mark when it came to urban land. In land reform discourse, the reform of agricultural land is seen as the key to achieving some degree of socio-economic distributive justice to reduce inequality symptomatic of our past.
In 1994, despite white people making up less than 10% of the population, they unjustly acquired 87% of agricultural land. Black people – more than 75% of the population, only owned around 15% of land, located in the former homelands, which in many cases, was not even agriculturally viable (Makhado, 2012:3).
Land reform scholars such as Pithall and Mkhize agree that the agricultural bias in land reform policy is evident in redistribution programmes since 1994.
None of them address urban land reform except in terms of restitution.
The opening statement of the Land Reform section in the RDP framework even states that “land is the most basic need for rural dwellers” (1994:23).
Land redistribution policy began with the Settlement and Land Acquisition Grant (SLAG) from 1995 – 1999, a grant specifically for farm and rural dwellers to acquire land, followed by the Land Redistribution for Agricultural Development (LRAD) in 2000, which aimed to create a generation of emerging black farmers.
Land redistribution has focused on the redistribution of agricultural land as a means of providing both sustainable labour and capital to the previously disadvantaged. If the question of land is seen as an agrarian question of capital and livelihood, this is where the land reform must be revisited.
It avoids looking at how cities are governed, spatially planned, how land was obtained under apartheid and how it continues to be protected by the elite. It has failed to acknowledge the engineering of an urban property market which allowed for white buyers to digest the most well-located land at below market value, at the expense of black people, and that a large amount of that accumulated wealth and land still lays unaccounted for. It also fails to acknowledge the engineering of an urban wage labour economy/migrant labour system under apartheid.
This caused a migration of native black people to urban areas, creating a dependence on an urban economy.
Ruth Hall (2007:12) states that the land question – whether rural or urban – is a singular question of how land has been accessed, used, and how labour is sourced for capital to be produced.
The urban aspect of this is not, however, addressed in discourse or policy. Considering the failure of land reform, combined with high levels of unemployment and a deep housing crisis, it should come as no surprise that we see an increase in urban land and housing occupations.
South Africa is no longer primarily an agrarian society. Some 65% of our population lives and works in urban areas – or seek work in urban areas, and this continues to increase (UN, 2018).
Agriculture only makes up 3% of the GDP, and only 13% of agricultural land is classified as arable (Stats SA:2017). Of this, over one third is located in the arid Northern Cape, where just 2% of the population resides (Walker and Dubb: 2014).
Considering this, one must question whether the redistribution of agricultural land would truly achieve broad-based socio-economic justice.
Instead, we must explore socio-economic justice through the lens of urban land reform.
However, the question of urban land reform has been mixed up with the question of housing, and further controlled by spatial planning policy.
This is problematic because the right to housing is not approached with the same principles of distributive justice based on past redress, with which agricultural land is approached through the lens of land reform.
Scholars thus agree that land reform discourse overestimates the demand for land, which could be confused with a demand for urban housing.
We must begin to see housing and urban land as a question of capital accumulation and redress.
In our context, the provision of a well-located house, and/or land is arguably an equal or better capital asset in comparison to agricultural land. When half of our population lives below the poverty line, and the scarcity of work is only increasing, having no security of tenure pushes one deeper into poverty.
While the working class is needed to sustain urban economies of the elite, they are given minimal to no well-located urban housing options for their participation in upholding that economy.
Furthermore, they are robbed of opportunities of ever accumulating capital beyond month to month expenses. Considering that the urban poor and working class are still living on urban peripheries, they spend a large portion of income on transport as well as rent.
Without an asset like a house or/on well-located land, the opportunity to accumulate wealth or assets becomes negative, maintaining cycles of poverty. In terms of housing programmes, the resale value of poorly located houses allocated to the previously disadvantaged can create depreciating assets, and only reinforces an unjust status quo.
While white landowners continue to make exponential profits off well-located, unjustly obtained urban land, with no wealth or related type of redress tax, the long evaded question about these lands must be addressed.
Consideration for the appropriate expropriation or distribution of urban land for the purposes of land reform should be applied just as fairly to urban land as agricultural land, with due regard for consequences, of course.
The failure of the state to address both land reform and housing sufficiently is clear. When the state promises land, housing, or land for housing for over two decades, and nothing materialises, people begin to take ownership because they have lost trust.
It is, therefore, no surprise that urban land and housing occupations are increasing. While the core purpose of justice remains, the dynamics of the land question in South Africa has evolved from its roots. We cannot continue to avoid the question of stolen urban land and the socio-economic consequences which are related to it, nor that urban land issues are wholly intertwined with housing.
Land, and, equally housing, is about dignity; and directly related to the poverty and inequality symptomatic of our past.