Back to Africa Check

FACTSHEET: Demand for land in South Africa, in numbers

This article is more than 5 years old

The roles were somewhat reversed when national spokesman of the Economic Freedom Fighters party Mbuyiseni Ndlozi recently questioned former Business Day editor Peter Bruce – on live TV.

Ndlozi was a guest host of eNCA’s As It Happens. He asked Bruce for the source of his claim in a column that “a tiny minority of black people actually want to farm”. Bruce answered that he didn’t necessarily have to back up the claim with a source and that he could “also back it up with experience”.

It turns out Ndlozi misquoted Bruce. What he did in fact write was: “But only a tiny fraction of our population wants to farm.”

In a column Bruce wrote after the interview with Ndlozi, he said: “I still believe that's just too obvious to have to ‘source’. I'm writing an opinion column here, not a PhD dissertation.

But five surveys done in democratic South Africa show that pinning down demand for land is less obvious than one might imagine.

1994-95: Land and Agriculture Policy Centre

In 1994-95, the Land Reform Research Programme of the Land and Agriculture Policy Centre (LAPC), found that 67.7% of South African black rural households wanted farmland.

However, in the book Down to Earth: Land Demand in the New South Africa, the LAPC warned that this finding “needs to be viewed with caution as it reflects problems in the way questions were posed and how the data was collected and analysed”.

These problems include the fact that farming was not defined and that the national sample of 2,098 was not representative. As a result, the findings cannot be generalised – “at best it offers an indication of trends”.

2001: Centre for Development and Enterprise

In 2001, market research company MarkData conducted research on land demand among a racially representative sample of 2,144 South Africans, 16 years and older.

The study, commissioned by the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE), found that 9% of Africans who were not farmers wanted land where they could live and farm full time “even if I struggled”. A further 23% said they would like to have this if they could earn well.

‘How much would you like to have land of your own to live on and farm full time?’
Would like it even if I struggled 9%
Would like it if I could earn well 23%
Would like it later in life 14%
Uncertain about it 16%
Would prefer a job and housing in an urban area (and other negatives*) 38%

*Numerous requests for the CDE to clarify the meaning of “and other negatives” went unanswered.

The CDE concluded that “among South Africa’s African population, access to rural land and agricultural opportunity are not keynote expectations. Crucially, the research assembled by CDE indicates that most South Africans now see land – both rural and urban land – mainly in terms of its significance as ‘a place to stay’ rather than a ‘place to farm’.”

Ruth Hall, a professor at the University of the Western Cape’s Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (Plaas), told Africa Check that wanting land for settlement and housing and wanting access to land for farming are not mutually exclusive.

“It’s important to point out that a lot of people are wanting access to land for a secure place to live plus a little bit more. That doesn’t mean that they want to be full-time farmers. And I think that the options that have been provided to date – which is basically either you become a full-time commercial farmer or you leave with nothing – has been such a false choice set up for people.”

2004-05: Human Sciences Research Council

A 2004-05 Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) study surveyed between 1,260 and 1,279 black (mostly African) respondents in Limpopo, the Free State and Eastern Cape. These people were drawn from four groups:
  • farm dwellers;

  • communal dwellers (living in former homeland areas);

  • urban formal dwellers (who lived in urban areas with formal housing); and

  • urban informal dwellers (who typically stayed in shacks).

More than a third of the people in each group said they wanted or needed additional land.
% who want land by segment    
Farm dwellers Communal Urban formal Urban informal All
53.2% 36.6% 46.9% 50.4% 41.7%

Close to 60% of those who wanted land indicated that the main reason they wanted it was to grow food, said Prof Michael Aliber, an agricultural economist from the University of Fort Hare and a co-author of the study.

“A far smaller share – about 14% – wanted land mainly for generating an income.”

‘What is the main reason you want/need this land?’
  Farm dwellers Communal Urban formal Urban informal
 To grow food 57.5% 69.1% 50.7% 54.1%
 To generate income 16.5% 12.1% 13.9% 13.4%
 To have a secure place to stay 14.3% 12.2% 32.1% 31.9%
 To use as collateral 0.0% 0.7% 0.0% 0.0%
 To get back what was taken from us 0.6% 4.3% 1.2% 0.0%
 Other 11.0% 1.5% 2.1% 0.6%

As for the amount of land, three-quarters of those who wanted land were after 5 hectares or less, Aliber said.

He pointed out that a “significant minority – about 16%”, expressed a wish for larger amounts of land (20 hectares and more). “These were mainly the same people who wanted land mainly for income purposes.”

2006-07: Trust for Community Outreach and Education, plus others

A study conducted in 2006 and 2007 in five rural Western Cape towns found that 75% of participating households needed land.

The research was the result of a collaboration between the Trust for Community Outreach and Education, the Mawubuye Land Rights Forum, Plaas and the University of the Western Cape’s department of economics.

The sample of 2,668 households was made up of African and coloured people who lived in townships around Robertson, Ashton, McGregor, Bonnievale and Montagu, as well as farm workers.

Among those who said they or their households needed land or more land, the main reason for wanting land was for housing, followed by the need to grow food for the household and to generate income.

“It is striking that most people who want land want it for more than one purpose,” the authors of the study said.

Reasons for wanting land
Housing 56%
Cultivating food for my household 53%
Cultivating food for sale 39%
Running a business 30%
Grazing livestock 28%
Cultivating other crops for sale* 25%

*Asked to clarify the meaning of ‘other crops’, Hall said: “There is always an ‘other’ option in questionnaires. We cannot say but from qualitative answers, it seems it is mostly food crops -  vegetables - for household consumption or local sale.”

The majority of households who said they needed land wanted a hectare or less.

Said Hall, one of the co-authors of the study: “Most people don’t want to co-own with 30 other families a big farm far away. What they want is a smallholding right next to the town.”

2015: Institute of Race Relations

A 2015 survey, commissioned by the Institute of Race Relations, asked a nationally representative sample of 2,245 people, 16 years and older, to choose between getting rural land for farming from government or getting land for housing in towns and cities.

It found that about 37% of the population preferred farmland.

‘If given land, do you prefer farm (land) or city (land)?’
  African Coloured Indian White Total
Farmland 39.5% 24.5% 21.8% 33.4% 37.1%
Urban land 55.2% 73.7% 78.2% 63.2% 58.3%
No choice 5.3% 1.9% 0% 3.4% 4.7%

This question seemed to disregard the demand for land for small-scale farming in urban areas. But the IRR’s head of policy research, Anthea Jeffery, declined an opportunity to answer this and other questions about the institute’s research on land demand.

Said Hall: “The distinction between settlement and agriculture is often a false distinction for people who are poor, who have a history in farming – they might have been farm workers or might have lived in communal areas – but now they are needing to be close to the city. So we’re needing hybrid models.”

Edited by Anim van Wyk

Republish our content for free

Please complete this form to receive the HTML sharing code.

Add new comment

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
limit: 600 characters

Want to keep reading our fact-checks?

We will never charge you for verified, reliable information. Help us keep it that way by supporting our work.

Become a newsletter subscriber

Support independent fact-checking in Africa.