Monash University
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Customary land governance in post-apartheid South Africa: a Gumbi case study

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posted on 2017-02-23, 01:06 authored by Hlabisa, Sibongiseni Blessing
Land governance is a politically charged and emotionally laden concept. This is particularly so in post-colonial countries with grossly inequitable land ownership patterns and fragmented institutions of governance. The often conflicting roles of the various institutions of land governance and their contestations for land control authority means that land governance processes of the post-colony are infused with tensions. The South African post-Apartheid state has attempted to manage these tensions by reforming customary land tenure and reconciling customary governance with democratic values. This reform attempt has generated much controversy and debate. Various interest groups, including traditional leaders (chiefs) have contested the state's reform policy initiatives. This thesis examines the encounter between the South African post-Apartheid state and the customary land governance structures over land rights, and the ensuing effect on rural people’s access to land. Data for this thesis was collected in the Gumbi Traditional Authority area in northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. This community successfully claimed about 26 000 hectares of farmland under the Land Restitution programme in 2005. The land is held under a community trust that coexists with a traditional authority that was re-introduced in 2005 and has jurisdiction over the same area. The thesis employed a triangulated case study research design (Yin, 2009; Teddlie & Tashakori, 2009). Sixty one participants (n=61) from the Gumbi Traditional Authority area (that is, 6.1% of the population) were surveyed. To gain depth and clarify certain key issues emanating from the survey, eight community members from the Gumbi Traditional Authority Area, two officials from the Department of Land Reform and Rural Development and the uPhongolo Local Municipality were interviewed. The researcher attended several community meetings to observe some of the community dynamics arising from these discussions. The results indicated that the chieftaincy is a central player in land governance in the area and it is also regarded as the principal institution with the authority to control land access and use. Despite its lack of official land ownership status, in this area, the chieftaincy’s subjects and local state officials regard the chieftaincy as the original, ultimate land proprietor and final authority on land and community issues. In a sense, the chieftaincy is the bearer of local households’ sovereign rights over the land. This thesis demonstrates the formidable strength of the customary institutions of governance, and unveils the weaknesses of the post-Apartheid state. It argues that the regional particularism of the customary institutions does not bode well for the state formation and post-Apartheid state’s nation-building initiatives. The thesis also demonstrates the implications that this has on the experiences of land tenure rights by the rural poor.


Principal supervisor

Michelle Duffy (Michelle Elizabeth)

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Applied Media and Social Sciences


Master of Arts

Degree Type


Campus location



Faculty of Arts