August 2012 - For almost 350 years, beginning with the first European settlements in the Cape of Good Hope in the 1650s, indigenous South Africans were displaced to make way for European settlers. At the time of South Africa’s transition to a democracy, thirteen million black South Africans were confined to “Native Reserves” which accounted for 13 percent of the South African territory.
To redress this race-based dispossession, the democratic government introduced three legal instruments including the Land Restitution Act. The Act seeks to return historical lands to those dispossessed under racially discriminatory laws and practices. Restitution, however, only applies to lands that were dispossessed after the enactment of the Native Land Act (1913), and excludes a significant number of people dispossessed during the nineteenth century.
While the Restitution Act defines potential claimants broadly and the courts accept a wide range of evidence to substantiate claims to land, less than 10 percent of those estimated to have been evicted during apartheid filed claims before the December 1998 deadline. Where claimants successfully filed claims and opted for in-kind compensation, settlement was reached in a limited number of cases, and compensation generally failed to match the value of lost property. At the same time, the cash compensation alternative undermined the ultimate goal of achieving racial parity in landholdings.
Studies indicate that only 3.4 percent of farm lands previously owned by whites were transferred to black claimants. Though the government successfully returned large State-owned properties to the historical owners, its decision not to expropriate land from the current white owners severely limited its ability to acquire privately owned land to settle verified claims, and limited the budget available for the land acquisition process. Moreover, the conservation significance, strategic importance, and the economic value of the properties in question also influenced the land acquisition process.
In an attempt to improve the program’s outcome and counter negative public perception, the government began supporting “strategic partnerships” with private actors, especially in high-value agriculture areas and environmentally protected zones. But with a few exceptions, the majority of strategic partnerships generated few immediate benefits for claimants.
In light of the small number of claimants to date under the Land Restitution Act, in 2013 the government of South Africa proposed extending the claim window for another 20 years. As of May 2013, this proposal was available for public comment.