Housing, Land And Property Rights In South Africa And Canada

Yesterday and today, two peoples with a shared housing history.

This is part of a series that looks at housing and homelessness in South Africa and Canada. It might be a source of inspiration/direction for housing efforts in either or both countries. Both countries have made formal commitments to achieve the right to adequate housing. Readers elsewhere who are calling for a right to adequate housing may also find these posts useful.

Both South Africa and Canada share a history of policies and legislation that divided their country’s residents into distinct groups. The architects of Apartheid in South Africa studied Canada’s Indian Act and its reserve system. Both Apartheid and Indian Reserves have been linked with the denial of human rights. Both countries have made efforts to modify their governance systems. This post is about land title and land ownership reforms in South Africa.

South Africa embarked on a democratic system of governance starting in 1994. Apartheid was officially abandoned. The country’s new constitution promised secure tenure for all South Africans.

This affected hundreds of thousands of people who were not allowed to own land in the Apartheid era. In rural areas, there were complex systems of land use which had evolved over multiple generations (for example for farming or grazing). Under Apartheid, they were were not formally recognized.

Similarly, in urban areas many people lived in informal settlements where the ownership of the land was unclear.

In the democratic era, how would the government manage this challenge which affected so many people?

In 1996, The South Africa government passed legislation affirming the rights of unregistered users. With this basic protection, leaders set the stage for a new and more equitable system of property rights to be put in place.

Further evolution of the system has stalled, according to Rosalie Kingswill, who has studied evolution of land ownership in rural areas. Kingswill is based at the University of the Western Cape, in the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies.

Although there is a system of land registration, Kingswill reports that local people are often in conflict with local authorities over land rights. She argues that the conflicts expose weaknesses in the land registration system, which in turn constrain the country’s social and economic development. Among other things, it limits people’s ability to start businesses and to live in housing that is safe and affordable.

In rural areas, Kingswill recommends recognizing and integrating historic land customs and land use practices in the land registration system. She knows that sorting out the weaknesses of the registration system will take time and will be difficult. She also says that ignoring issues about land title and land use won’t make them go away.

Like South Africa, Canada has a democratic system of governance. Unlike South Africa, it retains Indian Reserves, which were created through Treaties. The Treaties apply to some of the area within Canadian borders.

Indigenous people in Canada have also pursued justice through the Canadian court system. Cases have been brought to enforce treaty rights and also to negotiate land claims in areas where there is no treaty. It can take decades before cases get heard.

Kingswill’s recommendations to study traditional land use patterns recall a commission of inquiry in Canada’s Northwest Territories, where there was no treaty or land claim. Thomas Berger, the commissioner, was appointed in 1974 to recommend one of two routes for a proposed natural gas pipeline.

To understand how the land was being used, Berger consulted with Indigenous people about local practices and mapped their use of the land. His 1997 report was instrumental in resuming land claims negotiations between the federal government and Indigenous people. You can read this brief account in the Canadian Encyclopedia: Berger Commission

Today, although South Africa and Canada have followed different paths, day to day experiences of people on the ground haven’t changed all that much.

Black people in South Africa have cleared the barrier of Apartheid but other obstacles remain. Housing in informal urban and rural settlements continues to be in poor condition, with limited access to safe drinking water and other basic necessities1. Much more needs to be done. Further reform to the land title system seems to be key.

In Canada, on a reserve and off, Indigenous people are more likely than non-Indigenous people to live in homes that are in need of major repair, overcrowded and expensive (relative to their income). As in South Africa, much more needs to be done, including  further reform to the land title system.   

You can read more about Rosalie Kingswill’s research in Econ 3×3: Land and property rights: ‘title deeds as usual’ won’t work

Here are titles of the posts in this affordablehousingaction.org series, which are being published this week:


  1. For a recent commentary, try: South Africa: Women’s Experience Of Post-Apartheid Development