What landmark Kwazulu-Natal court ruling means for land reform in South Africa

June 2021
Ben Cousins (PLAAS, University of the Western Cape)

In a landmark judgement a South African high court has declared that people living on customary land in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, notionally held in trust by the Ingonyama (king) of the Zulu people, are the “true and beneficial owners” of that land. It confirms that the Ingonyama Trust Board is not the real owner of this land. It therefore cannot convert the customary land rights of occupiers to rent-paying leases as it has been doing. The Trust is in fact only a notional owner of this land. It is mandated to administer the land “for the benefit, material welfare and social well-being” of members of the affected rural communities. It administers around 2.8 million hectares, amounting to about one third of the whole of the province. The court also found that the minister in charge of land reform has breached her duty to respect, protect and promote these informal land rights, as required by law. The judgement has massive implications for the government’s land reform programme. Often only the bravest of rural people are willing to stand up and make their voices heard as applicants and witnesses, as in this case. But their courage shows what is possible. In greater numbers, and applying more sustained pressure from below, ordinary South Africans can ensure that the state begins to deliver the promises enshrined in the Constitution.