Land in SA: 3 FAQs answered

Individuals own close to a third of total land.
Individuals own close to a third of total land.

What does the state land audit tell us about land ownership? What are its flaws? Who wants land, and why? We answer three frequently asked questions about land in South Africa.

1. Who owns the land in South Africa? 

The department of rural development and land reform has released two land audits. The first, published in 2013, covered state-owned land. 

It found that 14% of South Africa’s land was owned by the state.

The second audit, published in 2017, provides 2015 data on privately owned land.

South Africa’s total land area is 121.9 million hectares, but not all of it is registered at the deeds office. The second audit found 7.7 million hectares of unregistered land in the Eastern Cape and Limpopo, held in trust by the state.

This report looks at South Africa’s 114.2 million hectares of registered land – 94% of the total.

Just over 77% (94 million hectares) of the total land is privately owned.

The rest is unregistered land, registered state land and “other” land. “Incomplete owner names that made it impossible to determine if the owner is state or private were classified as ‘other’,” the audit report explains.

Private land is owned by individuals, trusts, companies and community-based organisations such as community property associations and churches. It includes land co-owned by more than one of these, such as both individuals and a trust.

Individuals own close to a third (30% or 37 million hectares) of total land.

The audit only provided a breakdown by race and sex for private land owned by individuals. 

Farms and agricultural holdings

The audit found that white people own most of this land held by individuals – close to 26.7 million hectares, or 22% of South Africa’s total land.

The department said “other” meant the race of the owner could not be identified “due to incomplete or incorrect information or where information was not available”. Co-owned land is owned by people of different races, including “other”.

Women own 4.9 million hectares of farms and agricultural holdings – or 13% – and men own 71%. (The rest is either co-owned, or the sex of the owner could not be determined.) 

Erven

White people own almost half the land made up of erven (any piece of land registered as an erf, lot, plot or stand in a deeds registry). African, coloured and Indian people own a combined 46%.

Women own 125 327 hectares of erven – or 17% – and men own 46%.

Sectional title units

White people own 45% of the land made up of sectional title units such as those in townhouse complexes. African, coloured and Indian people own a combined 43%.

Women own 3 668 hectares (32%) of sectional title property, and men own 23%.

Why some numbers don’t add up

The audit report provides two different numbers for land owned by individuals: 37 031 283 hectares and 37 800 986 hectares. This is a difference of 769 703 hectares.

The department explained that the larger number includes land individuals co-own with other categories of land owner, such as trusts. “The small number is the total extent of land that is exclusively owned by individuals.”

Another apparent discrepancy is that farm and other agricultural land owned by individuals (37 078 289 hectares) exceeds the total land exclusively owned by individuals (37 031 283 hectares).

The department told Africa Check/City Press co-ownership with other land owner categories was again the cause.

It added that sectional title units were not included in the total land owned by individuals “as they include units in high-rise buildings such as flats, office buildings and so forth, which may distort the numbers”. 

According to the department, the 37 million hectares owned by individuals was calculated as follows:

2. What are the limitations of the state land audit?

The deeds registry does not record the race or sex of land owners, and the population register contains people’s sex but not their race. “Stats SA is the only institution that officially collects and keeps a database that has the race of individuals,” according to the audit report.

The land audit therefore used a combination of these sources to determine the race and sex of land owners.

Where race couldn’t be determined, names and surnames were used. This made the results less reliable. “The indirect extraction of race data through a combination of names, surname and ID number or date of birth exposed the land audit to the risk of under- or over-reporting,” the authors of the report concede.

The audit also only reports the race of individual owners of land, and not for land owned by companies, trusts and organisations.

As a result, “we do not know the precise racial pattern of ownership of [all] farmland,” said Professor Ben Cousins of the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape. 

3. Who wants land, and for what purpose?

Since 1994, a number of surveys have investigated the demand for land in South Africa. The findings include:

  • Close to one in 10 Africans who were not farmers wanted land where they could live and farm full time “even if I struggled”, according to a 2001 study commissioned by the Centre for Development and Enterprise. Some 23% said they would like the land “if I could earn well”.
  • A Human Sciences Research Council study conducted in 2004 and 2005 in Limpopo, the Free State and Eastern Cape found that 42% of residents wanted or needed additional land. Most people wanted the land to grow food.
  • In 2006 and 2007, a Western Cape study of African and coloured residents of five rural towns, and farmworkers, found that 75% of the households needed land. Most wanted a hectare or less.
  • A 2015 survey commissioned by the South African Institute of Race Relations estimated that 37% of adults would prefer to get farmland from the government. Most of the respondents (58%) said they would prefer to get urban land. 

  • This FAQ was produced as part of a journalism partnership with Africa Check, the continent’s leading fact-checking organisation. The project aims to ensure that claims made by those in charge of state resources and delivering essential services are factually correct. In the run-up to this year’s national and provincial elections it is increasingly important that voters are able to make informed decisions. This series aims to provide voters with the tools to do that. The Raith Foundation contributed to the cost of reporting. 

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