Picture: THE TIMES
Picture: THE TIMES

As the government plans to expropriate land from white farmers, slum dwellers are also hungry for land reform, experts say, as protests, illegal invasions and evictions signal rising inequality in rapidly growing cities.

Towns and cities remain racially divided more than 20 years after the end of apartheid.

Although black people have since migrated to cities for jobs and better opportunities, economic inequality has worsened, said Geoff Bickford, a programme manager at think-tank South African Cities Network, which promotes urban development.

"The most lucrative urban land is still in the hands of the minority — be it the state or previously advantaged white individuals or black individuals who are now moving into the middle class," he said.

The government aims to accelerate rural land reform before next year’s parliamentary elections, as Julius Malema’s EFF has pushed for land expropriation from the white minority without compensation.

However, urban conflicts over land also need to be addressed, experts say, with better planning to create more affordable housing and better access to jobs, schools and hospitals. SA is one of the continent’s most urbanised countries, with two-thirds of people living in towns and cities, UN data show, with a projection that this could rise to 80% by 2050.

The 1913 Land Act banned blacks from owning or renting land outside native reserves, to which those without jobs in urban white households and businesses were deported. Passes were required to enter urban areas in search of work.

After the repeal of segregation laws in 1991, large cities like Johannesburg and Pretoria have grown and become more racially mixed, but different races continue to occupy separate spaces, according to Statistics SA.

"There is a big demand in SA’s cities for affordable housing close to work," said Elmien du Plessis, an urban land expert at North West University.

Almost 350,000 families are on a waiting list for state-owned rental homes in Cape Town against a supply of about 15,000 units a year, city data show. Inequality greets tourists as they leave Cape Town International Airport and pass the informal settlement of Khayelitsha.

Musa Gwebani of the Social Justice Coalition, a campaign group based in Khayelitsha, said people living there wanted to be included in the land reform debate. "The declaration ... that there will be expropriation without compensation fuelled a hunger for land and brought to the fore the levels of desperation of the dispossessed black majority living in informal settlements," she said.

"There is a lot of frustration on the ground and people there don’t understand why they can’t go out and build their structures in empty spaces."

Khayelitsha was established in the 1980s during apartheid as a vast dormitory for the thousands of workers who moved to Cape Town in search of jobs. According to the 2011 census, it is home to nearly 400,000 residents, 99% of them black.

"Something as simple as a clothing line can generate a lot of conflict," Gwebani said, also highlighting protests over a lack of toilets, which has led to children being raped while relieving themselves in dark fields and bushes.

Data from the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform shows that 7% of registered property in towns and cities belongs to blacks, who make up nearly 80% of the population. Meanwhile, 11% is in the hands of whites, who account for 9%.

About 80% of urban land belongs to companies, such as mining firms, or is held in trusts by the government on behalf of black communities.

The remaining 2% is owned by other races, including Indians, and foreigners.

Fed up with living in squalor, many poor urban residents have invaded vacant private and state-owned land, where they build temporary houses, which led Cape Town authorities in 2009 to set up an anti-land invasion unit.

"The City of Cape Town officers come in the middle of the night and in the middle of the rain and demolish people’s structures without notice, without an eviction order, with nothing, and so people become homeless overnight," said Gwebani.

Protests and court battles have been generated by the sale of publicly owned land to upmarket developers.

"We say they are land grabbing but what they are actually doing is ... taking it upon themselves to get to a point that they can actually access resources in cities," said Bickford.