The background to this whole debate is the history of colonial and apartheid era land dispossession. In 1996 white people still owned and controlled over 80 percent of farm land, despite being only 11 percent of the population.
Meanwhile the 77 percent of the population that are African had access to less than 15 percent of farm land. An estimated 5.3 million black South Africans lived with almost no security on commercial farms owned by white farmers.
In 1955 the ANC’s Freedom Charter promised, “The land shall be shared among those who work it.” There is a crying need for change.
Today around three million black South Africans live on farms owned by others, mostly white, and face human rights abuses including evictions. From 1984-93 (the final decade of apartheid) 737,000 people were evicted from farms. From 1994-2004 there were 942,000 evictions.
The fact that the policy of forced removals and evictions continues must make us ask questions about the processes that are going on.
Almost half of those evicted are children and another 30 percent are women. Women and children are treated by landowners and the courts as secondary occupiers and are allowed on the farm only due to a link with a male household member.
If the man dies or is sacked his family is thrown off the land. One woman told us, “My husband was killed and I had to leave because the farmer did not want women without husbands or fathers that could work on the farm.”
Another woman said, “The white farmer wanted my kids to look after his goats and sheep and I refused so he beat me and said I had to get off the farm.”
The farmer often sees workers as factors of production, means to a profit, not as people. If they can’t make him money then they have to go.
Only 1 percent of evictions involve a legal process. In most cases people are told to go and feel they have no alternative. In some cases there is violence and destruction of property to force people out.
The people evicted are very poor. The average monthly income for a male farm employee is 529 Rand (£46) and for a woman 332 Rand (£29).
Those evicted are not transient workers. Many that are uprooted are families with a long history on the land.
The effect of the evictions has been to undermine the limited gains of land reforms. They have contributed to consolidating ownership of farm land into fewer hands.
There is no effective programme to limit the scale of evictions or to ensure viable settlements for those displaced.
Urgent policy steps are needed to reverse the trend and establish new relations in farming areas.
There are measures such as providing stronger laws which give people more powerful rights against eviction and the means to implement those laws.
But there are more fundamental questions. The government must be pro-active and seek to transform land ownership.
There will be no real security while so much of the land is owned by a few and the majority have no land. This is the real challenge for the future.
Marc Wegerif is the programme manager for policy and research at Nkuzi Development Association. Go to www.nkuzi.org.za