Issue 24, January - March 2003

Traditional lands: the case of nature divided

Erosion gullies in one of the most degraded areas of South Africa: the Herschel disctrict of the north-eastern Cape. Cattle in the mid ground of the picture show just how large and dangerous these gullies can become

Erosion gullies in one of the most degraded areas of South Africa: the Herschel disctrict of the north-eastern Cape. Cattle in the mid ground of the picture show just how large and dangerous these gullies can become. Photo: Susanne Vetter

South Africa’s savanna and rangeland landscapes have much in common with Australia, including hot spots of land degradation and debate over land tenure, especially for indigenous people. But with a population of 45 million, the case is more pressing in South Africa—where a century of dispossession and overcrowding in former black homelands has left its mark. Kate O’Donnell writes.

Research in the homelands | Communal grazing in Herschel District | Land reform in South Africa and Australia | References | More information |

When Nelson Mandela swept to power in 1994, a process of rebalancing the power structures of the country began that continues today. Inequitable legislation that forced much of the country’s black population into native reserves that eventually became the ‘homelands’ was thrown out, and legislation enacted to help redress unbalanced land ownership.

Legislation that included the Native Lands Act of 1913 and Group Areas Act of 1951 in effect shuffled millions of black Africans, from urban centres and white-owned farms, into locations outside of white areas and, eventually, out of the Republic of South Africa. However, only a small percentage of the country’s land area was given over to the homelands (7 per cent in 1913, increasing to 13 per cent in 1936), despite an ever-increasing population of those who lived there. 1 Today, it is estimated that 13 million South Africans still live in the former homelands, facing poverty and continued tenure insecurity. 2

Many programs to improve land management in communal lands have taken place over the past century, the most influential being the betterment programs of the 1930s, which concentrated scattered rural settlements into villages with prescribed grazing regimes and stocking rates. However, the reasons underpinning traditional land-management practices were often ignored, the communities became alienated, and the problems remained.

Research in the homelands

So what is the extent of land degradation on communal lands? In the past decade there has been an explosion of research into these regions. Prof. Timm Hoffman, director of South Africa’s Institute for Plant Conservation, says communal lands were poorly researched and understood.

"We know people are very poor, we know they use medicinal plants," he explained. "We know they are reliant on fire, even though there is a shift to electrification, and we know livestock play an integral part. But, how many herds are in a particular area, what the daily livestock herding practices are, how many animals, who owns the animals, the herd structure, its production coefficients, stock routes—this we didn’t know.

"We also don’t know the effects on the landscape, other than to say it’s heavily grazed, nor what species were being affected or the long-term implications."

Two years ago Timm helped produce South Africa’s first national land degradation survey which has contributed to the development of South Africa’s recent National Action Programme under the Convention to Combat Desertification. Timm’s conclusion was that just as South Africa’s population had been divided along racial lines in the past, so too had its landscapes.

"The country was divided into black homelands on the one hand and the Republic of South Africa on the other, and there hadn’t been a national survey of land degradation," he says.

The team used workshops, a major literature review and the results of seven case studies and historical data to produce the survey. Overall, 34 workshops were held with 450 people who worked in resource and environmental management. Local farmers and community leaders were consulted about their perceptions of land degradation in the areas they managed. The workshops produced soil and veld degradation indexes, and a combined (soil and veld) degradation index for each of the 367 ‘magisterial districts’ in South Africa. These districts range from the 10s to the 1000s of square kilometres, and are well-understood geographical units within South Africa.

"We had to develop a methodology that could straddle deserts, savannas, tropical woodlands, fynbos, as well as different technological standards. These units were meaningful to people across all these areas," explained Timm.

The survey found that both socio-political and environmental factors had a significant impact on South African land and that the communal lands face the greatest problems. Increases in land degradation, combined with the country’s propensity for drought, can only mean less productive land in these areas with the likelihood of increased urbanisation and attendant social problems.

However, while the survey concludes that communal areas are in the greatest need of government support, it warns sustainable land-use programs in commercial farming districts must continue because it is these areas that produce most of South Africa’s food. 3

Communal grazing in Herschel District

One of the key questions is traditional land-use grazing practices. One researcher interested in pinning down the cost of degradation in terms of land-use objectives is Susanne Vetter, an ecologist at Cape Town University. Susanne is about to complete her PhD on communal grazing in the communal lands of the Herschel District, which is located in the north-eastern Cape.

Communal grazing works on the principle that while people own livestock individually, the land is held in common, and people have free access to grazing land. The Herschel District has a population base of almost 100 people per square kilometre, and with such high human densities, average herd size is small, with most people running 10 animals or less.

Yet despite severe degradation, livestock numbers had not shown any decline in the past 100 years. Susanne wanted to find out just what were the motivations for keeping stock, how the graziers had managed to keep up such high numbers over the years, and what the implications were for future impacts on the land.

"You can see that people are not really going to make a living from farming in that kind of situation," she said. "Traditionally every household has some arable land allocated to them, but already in the early 1900s there was a strain on that, so now there are many households that don’t have any arable land at all," she said.

Animals kept in this district are sheep, goats and cattle, with owners’ objectives differing between each species. Besides keeping cattle for milk and ploughing, their most important function was as a store of wealth.

"Most people don’t have easy access to facilities like banking," she explained. "The Herschel District is 170,000 hectares and there is one small town with a bank. If there is any kind of expense, people will sell a cow or an ox to get a few thousand rand; it’s like having money in the bank."

Sheep and goats however, were primarily kept for production, slaughter and sale. However, even with these animals farmers still tried to maximise stock numbers, and a regulated stocking regime was far down on the list of priorities. Grazing patterns had changed from seasonal to all-year round, and as stock were generally in poor condition, there was increased dependence on feed supplements. Replacement stock were usually purchased as the calving rate is only about one calf every three years. The costs of degradation, Susanne concluded, were both the expense to maintain less productive stock, and the environmental costs of severe soil loss.

Land reform in South Africa and Australia

There are substantial differences in the history of Australian and South African land rights legislation. Colonisation of Australia progressed on the basis of terra nullius : an empty land that belonged to no one. The High Court’s Mabo decision in 1992 overturned that concept and Australia’s Native Titles Act 1993 recognised that indigenous Australians had a system of law and ownership of their lands before European settlement. Continuous connection with the land under claim has to be proved, and it cannot take away others’ rights to land, including holding a pastoral lease or mining licence.

In South Africa there are three processes of land reform: restitution, redistribution and tenure reform, the aim of which is to redress imbalance in land ownership, develop the agricultural sector and improve the livelihoods of the poor. 4 However, there is significant criticism of the program’s performance with the Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) recomm­ending far-reaching revisions of all three processes. It says that the Government’s approach, which relies on market mechan­isms, tight public spending and minimal intervention in the economy is unlikely to achieve the scale of reform needed.

The Restitution of Land Rights Act, 1994, applies to those dispossessed of rights in land between June 1913 and 1994 in terms of racially based law or practice. The Act provides for either restoration of the land, granting alternative land or financial compensation. Land Redistribution for Agricultural Development (a reworked version of the original program) draws on experience in Brazil, Columbia and The Philippines, and aims to produce an entire class of full-time black farmers. Tenure reform addresses a number of challenging areas including a chaotic system of tenure on communal lands and long-term security of tenure for residents on privately owned farms. Almost all communal lands are still owned by the state, and administration is spread between tribal authorities and provincial departments of agriculture. Development initiatives are often put on hold because of disputes around land ownership. Since the Zimbabwe farm invasions of 2000, however, PLAAS notes an increased awareness of land reforms, with a number of groups across the political and social spectrum calling for accelerated pace of reform.


1., 3. Hoffmann, T., Ashwell, A., Nature divided, land degradation in South Africa , University of Cape Town Press, South Africa, 2001.

2., 4. Lahiff, E. Land Reform in South Africa: is it meeting the challenge?, Policy brief, debating land reform and rural development, September, 2001, Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies .


Prof. Timm Hoffman

Private Bag, Rondebosch, 7700
Cape Town, South Africa

Susanne Vetter