Lack of communication is an injustice in land restitution

By signing the Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Bill, President Jacob Zuma recently initiated round two of South Africa’s programme of land restitution. Yet, before entering this new phase, the Commission on the Restitution of Land Rights will have to learn from its previous mistakes and build on its successes.

For my new book, We Want What’s Ours, I interviewed 150 land claimants whose families were forcibly removed from urban areas. Through these interviews, we can begin to understand the commission’s successes and failures from the most important vantage point – that of dispossessed individuals and communities.

One of the principal findings in We Want What’s Ours is that good communication between commission officials and claimants is absolutely vital. Stories from former residents of the Luyolo township in Simon’s Town illustrate this point.

The Luyolo claimants were one of the few communities to have had a choice between receiving land or financial compensation. Whereas those who selected financial compensation have been paid out, those who chose land are still waiting – even 16 years after filing their claims.

There is no doubt that locating and transferring land to claimants is a complex task that takes time. But if claimants do not get regular updates on the challenges faced by the commission, they are left waiting in the dark and feeling disrespected, anxious, and frustrated. When I asked a former resident of Luyolo, who was among those waiting for land, if the commission was doing anything well, he angrily replied: “A big no! A big no! [They] are doing an injustice! Yes, it’s an injustice!”

If the commission had mechanisms to keep communities regularly informed about the inevitable challenges it faced, claimants could have taken a ride in the front seat of the process, alongside the commission, as partners in the long journey, instead of being left in the dark.

Although there are several things the commission must do to improve communication in round two, I will provide two specific suggestions.

First, the commission relied heavily on claimant committees under volunteer community leaders to communicate with claimants, but did not provide them with the resources they needed to do this effectively. A member of the claimant committee for the people of Kilnerton said: “We didn’t even get a cent for helping those people … People from the [department of] land affairs didn’t see it in that light, you see. They felt it was our job; it was our obligation to do that … We used our phones, we travel around, you move. It’s all costs. ”

Committee members often did not have the money for airtime to call commission officials for updates or to communicate with other community members. If the commission did provide financial support for these types of activities, many claimant committees would have been able to usher their former neighbours through the restitution process more effectively. Most importantly, the pervasive sense of disappointment and disrespect that came from being uninformed and unheard could have been avoided.

The second suggestion is for the commission to set up mobile offices, something akin to the mobile clinics that have become popular in healthcare. Most claimants are poor and do not have money to go to, or to call, the commission for updates or information, so communication breakdowns happened frequently.

The government should come to the people’s doorstep when the people are unable to come to the government. Mobile offices could be equipped so that project officers spend 80% or more of their time in the communities they are serving.

“Because there [were] so many claims in Paarl,” said one member of a claimant committee in that area, “we actually suggested: set up the office here for six months and you have somebody here on a full-time basis, so people can come to you [instead of people going] from Paarl to Cape Town just to fill in the form.” He is absolutely right.

Whether in South Africa, Europe or the United States, communication is a challenge for all government agencies serving poor constituencies.

Nevertheless, in round two of South Africa’s land restitution programme, the land commission must create a more effective communication strategy so that claimants know exactly what is going on and are not left uninformed, frustrated and feeling like second-class citizens.

If this does not happen, the restitution process could further rip the wounds it was meant to heal.

Bernadette Atuahene is a professor of law at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law and chief executive of Land Solutions International. Her book We Want What’s Ours: Learning from South Africa’s Land Restitution Process is published by Oxford University Press. For more information go to

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Bernadette Atuahene
Bernadette Atuahene works from Chicago, IL. Law professor, author & documentary filmmaker fighting for land justice...and addicted to teenage romance movies (A damn shame, I know!) Bernadette Atuahene has over 1224 followers on Twitter.

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