Land resources in South Africa have enormous economic, social and environmental value. The country covers an area of 121.9 million hectares (ha), of which over 80% (100 million ha) is used for agriculture, but the country’s agricultural potential is low relative to that of North America and Europe.
There are a number of important issues influencing the sustainability of land resources and the services that they provide namely:
• Land use and agricultural productivity;
• Access to land and land rights; and
• Land degradation and desertification.
Agriculture and livelihoods
The agricultural sector is diverse, ranging from an intensive, large-scale commercial agricultural sector to a low-intensity, small-scale, and subsistence farming sector. Its contribution to gross domestic project (GDP) has declined dramatically from 23% in 1920 to only 3.1% in 2003.
The sector’s true importance to the economy is much greater when one considers its upstream and downstream linkages to the manufacturing and marketing of inputs and equipment, on the one hand, and the food processing and manufacturing sectors based on agricultural produce on the other.
Some six million people depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. Close to a million are employed as farm workers, while the smallholder agricultural sector provides employment for approximately 1.3 million households. Further, a large proportion (approximately 43%) of South Africa’s 46 million people lives in rural areas and depends on natural resources for its livelihood.
Access to land and land rights
Land rights and access to land resources make up one of the most important social and political issues in South Africa today. Communal and freehold commercial land ownership constitutes the two main systems of land tenure in South Africa. Pre-1994 land policies of separate development led to the crowding of black people into the so-called ‘bantustans’ or ‘homelands’. High population densities in many of these areas resulted in over-utilization of the land.
Communal areas are used for residence and for producing crops and livestock for subsistence purposes or for sale in local markets. These communal areas have a long history of environmental and political neglect and most are characterised by overgrazing and soil erosion, with livestock numbers 1.85 times higher on average than the estimated carrying capacity.