Land rights in rural South Africa: Creating a record of practice in an ongoing crisis

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: English


This project addresses the human dimensions and socio-cultural consequences of a regional experience of forced displacement, Apartheid policies, service delivery delays, and economic inequality - within the context of an unfolding contest over prime property land in the underserved rural community of Dixie, in Mpumalanga Province, South Africa. Dixie includes land adjacent to the extremely profitable public-private enterprises of the Kruger National Park; for this reason, Dixie land has been the object of disputes between community members, local authorities, and private developers for decades. One dispute culminated in a landmark case in the Constitutional Court. Nonetheless, land rights once again came under contention in late 2019, when community members, local authorities, and private developers came into conflict over rights and access.

This is a microcosmic case, occurring at a time when the country is grappling with the complex broader issue of land reform. Conflicts like this, unfolding across South Africa (with parallels across the Global South), remain largely undocumented: the decisions taken by individuals and communities within particular historical, social, cultural, and economic circumstances, day by day, are not maintained in any archive. This, in turn, means that there can be no systematic short or long-term reflection on or assessment of these struggles and their outcomes. The consequences are that individual communities cannot effectively learn from their own past actions, and communities cannot learn from each other. Nor can they aggregate their knowledge to understand the scope of the problem and consider the most effective solutions. And communities cannot reflect on how these struggles are influenced by - and in turn influence - social facts such as gender, ability, age, language, or familial relations. As a result, essential human knowledge and learning around such crises are at best fragmented and at worst disappearing.

Working directly with Dixie residents and local grassroots development organisation Pala Forerunners, we will apply methods of community-led co-production to manage, monitor, record, analyse and evaluate this extraordinarily complex economic, political, social, and cultural dispute as it happens. We will produce an in-depth, community-designed archive of the lived experiences of this struggle, including notes and journals, documenting key decisions, milestones, personal reflections, local histories of dispossession and displacement. The archive will inform the design of new, practical instructional materials for rural residents in land disputes, and will constitute a case study for current practice and potential best practice, in just one instantiation of a much broader problem of property rights and disputes across South Africa and the Global South.

Planned Impact

The primary impact of this research is in supporting hard-to-reach, underserved rural residents in conducting a critical and reflective process of monitoring, recording, analysing, and evaluating an extraordinarily complex economic, political, social, and cultural conflict over territory, rights, and services, as it happens. In addition, further impact of this research will be in sharing examples of current and best practices, successes and failures, challenges and opportunities, in community-led land rights and land restitution processes in South Africa.

The first beneficiaries of this impact will be residents of underserved rural Dixie community. As community-led co-production, the heart of this research, and the project's timeline of activities, are themselves impact activities, constituting a pathway to impact and benefits beyond academia. The project is built around an independently identified need in an underserved rural community: to monitor and record responses to an unfolding urgent land rights crisis, in order to preserve collective memory of more or less successful practice, and lessons learned, so that learning may be applied effectively to future challenges. The community will design and own the archive. The project is expected to meet the community-defined need in the short term, and also to build research capacity locally for meeting development needs in similar ways in the future, whether related to land disputes or other development issues.

The second beneficiaries of impact will be residents of Mpumalanga province as a whole. Our team will translate key court judgements and the laws relevant to land rights into local languages used across Mpumalanga province, including XiTsonga and XiTswana, in consultation with Legal Resources Centre. The texts will be curated as accessible narratives and key principles, and presented as instructional materials for residents. The translations will be distributed by partner Pala Forerunners to local hereditary leaders and local councils; regional libraries; and external organisations such as legal support centres.

The third beneficiaries will be local grassroots development organisation and partner Pala Forerunners, which has a longstanding aim of disseminating its practices and sharing its methods for the benefit of other grassroots development organisations worldwide.

The fourth beneficiaries will be rural residents across South Africa addressing land rights disputes, and organisations supporting them. The newly created archive of the current dispute will be shared as a report of current and best practice. To do this, we will liaise with a range of external organisations who work directly with people involved in land rights disputes. Each organisation will be given copies of the report, and asked to store the report and share it with their network of stakeholders.


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Description Pala Forerunners Partnership 
Organisation Pala Forerunners
Country South Africa 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution The research team supported Pala Forerunners in documenting an ongoing land rights dispute.
Collaborator Contribution Pala Forerunners and its team of community researchers in Dixie Community are co-designing and co-producing the living archive of the unfolding battle over land rights.
Impact The collaboration is producing the archive of the unfolding land rights dispute.
Start Year 2020
Description University of Pretoria Partnership 
Organisation University of Pretoria
Country South Africa 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution The research team collaborated with the University of Pretoria to support local grassroots development organisation Pala Forerunners, and the Dixie Community, in creating an archive of an ongoing land rights dispute.
Collaborator Contribution Co-Investigator Glen Ncube is based at the University of Pretoria. Ncube has supported community researchers with his knowledge of history, heritage, rural studies, and archiving; and is a member of the project management team.
Impact The collaboration encompasses historical and heritage studies, development studies, language and linguistics, and psychology.
Start Year 2020