Southern Africa is witnessing a surge in urban-to-rural migration and settlement patterns. Contrary to popular belief, rural areas are not being abandoned; they are actually in high demand. However, this surge in demand exacerbates the precarious situation for those who still reside in rural areas, particularly on customary land.

The study found that members of the South African urban-based black middle and working classes are investing their life savings not in buying valuable urban property, but in building new homes in former homeland areas. As a result, rural villages like Moletjie and Ceres may appear to have been abandoned by their residents, when in fact urban elites working in the nearby city of Polokwane have been moving onto customary land to avoid paying rates and seeking cheaper retirement homes.

The urban elite are building upmarket houses in Limpopo’s Capricorn West district. (Photo: Supplied)

Middle-class individuals are constructing costly mansions and multistory houses on customary land without formal title, increasing the demand for rural land and the commodification of customary tenure. Surprisingly, they are not demanding tenure institutional changes before investing in residential property, as many feel secure with only a “Permission to Occupy” document from traditional leaders.

However, this informal documentation has led to conflicts between buyers, as headmen within traditional authorities may sell the same land to multiple people. In the past decade, more than three-quarters of respondents who acquired customary land paid for it in cash to traditional authorities or individuals, bypassing customary social norms.

This demand for rural land by urban elites has created a profitable opportunity for traditional leaders and local residents to sell land to migrants, accelerating the commodification of customary tenure.

Upmarket houses Capricorn West, Limpopo. (Photo: Supplied)

The rise of non-state institutions in the growing informal customary land market has resulted in young men exercising autocratic power and authority over land by mimicking “stateness”. These “young boys”, typically aged 28-36 and unemployed, illegally demarcate and sell communal fields and land covering common property resources to urban elites. This is affecting access to common property resources, which are central to the livelihoods of rural women.

Moreover, the sales have led to a change in land use from arable and grazing land to residential, impacting the livelihoods of locals who must now find alternative ways to sustain themselves. Social and gendered conflicts over land and boundaries have also increased, with traditional leaders and private security reportedly destroying people’s houses built on contested land.

It is believed that these informal institutions have the clandestine support of tribal authorities, while residents in these areas perceive them as connected to certain political elites. The types of land targeted for sale are communal fields and land covering common property resources, such as grazing land, natural resources, and woods.

Overall, the rise of non-state institutions and the illegal sale of communal land have far-reaching consequences for rural communities, impacting their livelihoods and sparking social and gendered conflicts over land ownership.

Some of the houses built by members of the urban elite in Limpopo’s Capricorn West district. (Photo: Supplied)

Double Allocation in Informal Land Markets

Informal land markets are a common feature in many developing countries, where traditional authority often plays a key role in land allocation. However, these markets are not without their challenges. One of the most significant is the issue of double allocation, where headmen within one traditional authority sell the same piece of land to two different people. This can lead to conflict between the two buyers and conflict within the groups who claim authority to sell.

Violence by Local Gangs

Another difficulty related to informal land markets is the increasing violence by local “gang” groups who target women who speak out against traditional leaders and against land grabs. These groups are usually aligned with traditional leaders and use intimidation and violence to maintain their power and control over the land. This creates a hostile environment for women who are trying to assert their rights and can have serious consequences for their safety and well-being.

By addressing these challenges and promoting greater transparency and accountability in land allocation, it may be possible to create a more equitable and just system that benefits all members of the community.

Balance of power

To protect the land rights and livelihoods of rural women and men, it is recommended that there be a shift in the balance of power to individuals, families, and community members living on customary land. Current laws concentrate too much power over land in the hands of traditional leaders, but common property resources should be securely vested in the hands of community members, including women.

To ensure gender equality in land ownership, new and amended land governance laws should grant women secure rights legally equivalent to those of men for ownership of residential plots and arable land. Access to natural resources held in common should also be clearly defined for women with different backgrounds, including those who are married, single, poor, or disabled.

To prevent the illegal sale of land and protect women from violence by local gangs, state policing, the judiciary, and other independent institutions should extend their authority into customary territory. Additionally, state institutions must intervene to curb the proliferation of predatory institutions that are shaping fortunes in rural areas and promote legitimate land governance and public authority.

Sienne Molepo is an MPhil student in Land and Agrarian Studies at Plaas, University of the Western Cape. This research was conducted in 2021 and 2022 with fieldwork funding from the Austrian Development Agency, with 127 people interviewed for the project.