South Africa


A new rural land grab as urban elites build homes on customary farming areas

A new rural land grab as urban elites build homes on customary farming areas
Upmarket houses built by members of the urban elite in Limpopo's Capricorn West district. (Photo Supplied)

All over southern Africa, new urban-to-rural migration and settlement trends are emerging. Far from being abandoned, rural areas are in high demand. This exacerbates the precarity of home and life for those who still live in rural areas, especially on customary land.

A study led by Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (Plaas) senior researcher Dr Phillan Zamchiya and conducted with the Nkuzi Development Association has investigated how land tenure relations and livelihoods for people living on customary land are being reconfigured by the movement of domestic elites in Kwena Moloto and Ceres villages in the Capricorn West district of Limpopo.

The study found that members of the South African urban-based black middle and working classes are investing their life savings not in buying valuable urban property, but in building new homes in former homeland areas.

Driving through the rural village study sites of Moletjie and Ceres, one may wonder whether a whole town has gone on a visit to the countryside. This is a result of the massive movement of urban elites working in the city of Polokwane who have been moving onto customary land to avoid paying rates, and seeking cheaper retirement homes.

The urban elite are building upmarket houses in Limpopo’s Capricorn West district. (Photo: Supplied)

Members of the middle class are building expensive new mansions and multistorey houses on customary land where they do not have formal title. Contrary to the dominant narrative about rural development paradigms, the middle class is not demanding institutional changes in tenure before making significant investments in residential property.

Instead, many of them feel secure on their land, even without formal titling. The only kind of formal documentation they have is a “Permission to Occupy” document issued by the traditional leaders.

Headmen within one traditional authority may sell the same piece of land to two different people, leading to conflict between the two buyers.

This has led to increasing demand for rural land which accelerates the processes of commodification of customary tenure. More than three-quarters (75.25%) of our respondents who acquired customary land in the past 10 years paid for it in cash to the traditional authority or to individuals (which is illegal) rather than acquiring the right to the land through customary social norms. 

The demand for residential stands by urban elites has thus created an opportunity for traditional leaders and local residents to earn an income by selling land to the migrants.

Upmarket houses Capricorn West, Limpopo. (Photo: Supplied)

The growing informal customary land market has been accompanied by the rise of new non-state institutions composed of young men who exercise autocratic power and authority over land by mimicking “stateness”.

These are usually unemployed “young boys” aged between 28 and 36 illegally demarcating and selling land to urban elites. The residents in these areas believe that they are connected to certain political elites which gives them the power to influence how land is distributed. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘It is our land’ – rural residents reject violent dispossession and call for society-wide solidarity

By contrast, the local police believe the predatory informal institutions have the clandestine support of tribal authorities.

The types of land that are targeted for sale by traditional leaders and the “young boys” are communal fields and the land covering common property resources such as grazing land, natural resources and woods. 

In turn, the sales are affecting access to common property resources which are central to the livelihoods of rural women.

The sales have also meant that there has been a change in land use from arable and grazing land to residential. Incomes are upended as locals must now find alternative ways to sustain their livelihoods. People in Moletjie who used to have fields for agricultural purposes have been reduced to wage seekers since their fields have been sold for residential and non-agricultural business purposes.

We found an increase in social and gendered conflicts over land and boundaries. In Moletjie, the traditional leader has private security who reportedly have destroyed people’s houses that were built on land under contestation with another chief. The residents are victims of the fight between the two chieftaincies over land boundaries.

Some of the houses built by members of the urban elite in Limpopo’s Capricorn West district. (Photo: Supplied)

Furthermore, double allocation of land is not uncommon in these informal land markets. Headmen within one traditional authority may sell the same piece of land to two different people, leading to conflict between the two buyers and conflict within the groups who claim authority to sell.

Related to these difficulties is the increasing violence by local “gang” groups who target women who speak out against traditional leaders and against land grabs. The local “gang” groups are usually aligned to traditional leaders.

Balance of power

To protect the land rights and livelihoods of rural women and men, the researchers argue that there should be a shift in the balance of power to individuals, families and members of the community living on customary land.

The current laws vest too much power and authority over land in the hands of the traditional leaders. Common property resources should be securely vested in the hands of members of the community, including women.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Nolundi Luwaya on land and law: Protecting customary rights in South Africa’s former homelands

New and amended land governance laws should ensure that within families, women – in their differentiated nature (married, single, poor and those living with disabilities) – should have secure rights that are legally equivalent to those that men enjoy in “ownership” of residential plots and arable land, along with clearly defined access rights to natural resources that are held in common.

State policing, the judiciary and other independent institutions must penetrate customary territory to assert their authority in order to stop the illegal selling of land and to protect and stop violence against women from local gangs. 

Finally, state institutions must intervene to stop the proliferation of predatory institutions that are shaping fortunes in these neo-rural landscapes, and promote legitimate land governance and public authority. DM

Sienne Molepo is an MPhil student in Land and Agrarian Studies at Plaas, University of the Western Cape. This research was conducted in 2021 and 2022 with fieldwork funding from the Austrian Development Agency, with 127 people interviewed for the project.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • JM McGill says:

    And when the SIU comes calling, the mansion belongs to the Ngonyama Trust or the local chief and the
    tenderpreneur is but a tenant, putting the assets beyond the reach of the law.

  • Johan Buys says:

    how does life work on customary land? Somebody needs to receive and approve building plans, having previously laid out an urban area serviced by roads, sewerage, water, electricity, solid waste collection and planned areas falling within spatial planning with regards schools, health care, public open space, traffic impacts, etc.

    Are these cash building projects, what are traditional leaders being paid to allocate space, where are the banks in this, is there an erf number, can SARS and estate executors access title, how is the property inherited or dealt with in a divorce?

    • Matsobane Monama says:

      It’s too late for that Johan, if the economy collapse and grants stop, which we all know is possible poor people esp.
      in Rural areas are going to die of starvation. Mining towns like Mokopane BBEEE consortium consisting of traditional leaders( without consulting
      their subjects), political elites, remember former Minister of Mining and Energy Ngoako Ramatlhodi, tenderpreneurs, worse black business people from the cities and mining companies are ALL in it for themselves. Mapela village outside Mokopane, self sufficient villagers we removed to make way for Anglo-American, moved into NICE HOUSE, 100% unemployment, no land for farming, poorly built houses collapsing. Chief’s Palace was recently burned down, he now lives in Polokwane. His stake in the consortium intact. It’s the second dispossesion. I come from there.

      • Johan Buys says:

        Matsobane : maybe it is time to reboot the entire concept of traditional land? It seems any event to be a hangover from apartheid “homelands”. Imagine if the people had the leverage of home ownership instead of a chief sitting in a trust! I think the Zulu king controls land about double the size of Kruger Park – a massive massive piece of land that seems to be managed at the whim on an unelected traditional leader.

  • Kevin McShannon says:

    Thank you Sienne for raising this issue. It reminds me of stories of land enclosures in Britain in centuries past. This did not mean enclosing land with fences. It meant excluding portions of land from common use. Commons land was for everybody to use, in accordance with sensible and respectful local usage norms. Powerful interests simply took portions of it and made it for their own exclusive use. Vast areas of commons land was stolen in this way, often under some pretext of it being legitimate. One has to ask what made this a desirable thing to do, let alone how it was possible. There is a clue here in this article: “urban elites working in the city of Polokwane who have been moving onto customary land to avoid paying rates, and seeking cheaper retirement homes”
    This points to the fact that it is expensive to buy and own property close to the city. There are two reasons for this: one is that the land cost component of the land and building on it, is probably way too high; the other is that property is being rated on the total value of the property, that is land and building. If the rating was on the land rental value only, there would be less rates to pay, and there would be an encouragement to build well and build optimally, on stands of land close to the city. The cost of land near the city is too high because there is an artificial scarcity.

  • Kevin McShannon says:

    This is because it can make sense to a land owner to not build on it, because that means higher rates payable, and to hold on to it for years without building on it, and sell it for a profit later when the value of it has increased due to the gradual build up of population and provision of municipal services in the area. Thus the move further out on to the margins of the city, because the land is cheaper. That does not make it right of course, especially since those that need to use the communal land, as so well described in the article, are deprived of its use. If municipalities took back there power, which apparently they do have, more so than provinces, and contested the municipal rating act 0f 2004, which prohibited the long time and very successful practise of rating land only, or land more than buildings, they would find that more and more citizens would make better use of the land close to the city, thus more effective use of the municipal services that already exist, and no longer have to find budgets to service far-flung areas (where you land up after leapfrogging the empty stands) This would improve business generally, which would increase the rental value of land close to the city, thus allowing the city an increased revenue stream. When did municipalities start going bankrupt? The answer is after 2004. Yes there is corruption. But there is also a dwindling rating base.

  • Kevin McShannon says:

    There is a link in this article to another artical about LARC and the Traditional Khoi-San Leadership Act. She mentions the Act “gives traditional leaders power over rural land and to enter into agreements without community consultation”

  • Kevin McShannon says:

    Corruption flourishes in ignorance. And those obtaining land in communal areas – they are buying it, not taking it. They probably don’t even realise that it has already been taken from the meek.

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