Community-led impact for rural land rights in South Africa: A multilingual best practice handbook

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Humanities Research Institute


There is an unending stream of rural land rights cases across South Africa, as the country grapples with land reform. Official documentation of cases is difficult to access, not only for rural communities, but also for the NGOs and legal teams supporting them. Moreover, the decisions taken daily by rural communities, NGOs, and legal teams in response to unfolding land rights cases are not routinely maintained in any collection. As a result, rural communities struggle to preserve and present evidence of ongoing land rights struggles. Nor is there any system or infrastructure for distilling and sharing lessons learned or evidence-based best practice among rural communities and those supporting them. As a result, rural communities struggle to share records and evidence with each other, and thus cannot exploit the wealth of experiential knowledge held by their peers nationwide. These gaps impede the progress of land rights claims and limit access to justice. To better preserve records and evidence, disseminate lessons learned and best practice, improve access to justice, and build capacity in rural communities, there is a need to collect and share reports, evidence, and documentation from unfolding cases nationwide.

This project will stimulate new pathways to impact, to meet independently identified community needs which have emerged from our research. The project will support land rights legal support centres, NGOs, and rural residents to share experience and knowledge of land rights disputes across South Africa; create new networks of practice between stakeholders; co-create and disseminate, with all stakeholders, a series of land rights case summaries and a multilingual best practice handbook for responding to land rights crises; and thus enhance rural communities' abilities to respond effectively when their land rights are threatened. These aims will be achieved through knowledge exchange (KE) workshops with stakeholders using co-production methodology. KE collaborators will include the original AHRC GCRF Land rights project's investigators and partner, including rural community researchers; the University of Sheffield's Digital Humanities Institute (DHI); and key land rights stakeholders. Land rights stakeholder participants will include: four major land rights legal support centres in South Africa; two major rural development NGOs in South Africa, with representatives from rural communities; development and legal researchers from leading South African universities; and postgraduate students from underserved rural areas who have lived experience as intermediaries between rural communities and institutional structures. Participants will select at least 10 land rights cases they have directly experienced, and develop accessible case summaries, with lessons learned, and supporting evidence and documents. A best practice handbook will then be co-produced, based on the case summaries. All resources will be translated into three primary languages in areas with recurring land rights cases, and will be disseminated through a project website and in hard copy in rural areas, where data access or digital literacy are low for some residents. A launch event with stakeholders' extensive existing networks will widen dissemination and support uptake among relevant user groups

The resources will deliver economic and social impact, including improved access to justice (UN Sustainable Development Goal 16), as stakeholders learn from each others' successes and failures; corroborate or refute the national efficacy of approaches and techniques that have proven locally useful; and enhance their abilities to respond effectively to land rights crises.


10 25 50
Description Findings are in progress. Preliminary findings include: emergent themes or 'common denominators' in South African rural land rights cases; crucial legislation in securing land rights; the nature of community consent; importance of local histories; the power of an organised activist community; the nature of bargaining and compensation.
Exploitation Route Findings will be presented as a 'Best Practice Handbook', with case studies of rural land rights legal cases, lessons learned, best practice, key themes, and relevant additional documentation (such as legislation). The handbook will be published online and in hard copies, in English, Xitsonga, and two additional languages that are primary languages in areas with significant rural land rights disputes. The handbook will be distributed at first via a launch event, and in an ongoing way via existing networks of land rights legal support centres, NGOs, and rural communities.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy


Democracy and Justice

Description Non-academic impacts are ongoing. The project has completed 6 of 7 planned Knowledge Exchange (KE) workshops. Attendees at workshops have included legal practitioners from four of the leading legal offices supporting rural land rights in South Africa; representatives from rural land rights NGOs; rural community members and residents; postgraduates from underserved rural areas; and academics specialising in rural land rights. One key impact which has already been realised is the new networks of practice emerging from the collaborative, co-produced KE workshops. These new networks of practice include non-academic practitioners in rural land rights. Concurrently, another key impact is the development of co-production practices unique to the needs, expectations, and personal and disciplinary habits and customs of the diverse team. These co-production practices will allow further impact (as described in the project summary) to be realised.
First Year Of Impact 2023
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Cultural


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
Description Knowledge Exchange Workshops 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This project is holding a series of Knowledge Exchange workshops in 2022 and 2023, which include legal practitioners, third sector organisations, postgraduate students from underserved rural areas, and rural residents with experience of land rights disputes.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022,2023