Can new tech solve SA's persistent land tenure problem?

Insecure land and property rights are linked to many social, economic and environmental concerns, including poverty, hunger and inequality. In South Africa, throw in the history of dispossession under colonisation and apartheid along with rapid urbanisation, and what was already a tricky situation to manage just gets more complex.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that as new technologies arise, they have caught the attention of development agencies and intergovernmental agencies as a possible solution to this entanglement.

Blockchain, drones, and even ChatGPT have the potential to streamline processes and reduce costs for registering land and property ownership. Emerging digital solutions are already being implemented in countries like the UK to support a more transparent, effective, and inclusive land tenure system. But, as Dr Mélani Prinsloo and Cara Bouwer argue in a new white paper published by Henley Business School Africa, when it comes to issues of land tenure, the country can’t afford to simply follow a Western-centric blueprint.

Acknowledging the complexities of land ownership in Africa

In their white paper titled Understanding the land title, tenure tightrope, the two argue that land ownership in Africa is a highly nuanced affair. Any system implemented here needs to consider the complexities in Africa, from formal rental agreements and the right to occupy land in tribal areas or social projects to multi-person ownership, generational family ownership, and community ownership.

“The very concept of titling is based on Western notions of ownership and the assumption that property rights are absolute and exclusive, while in Africa, systems of land tenure respect the relationship that communities have with the land, which is inextricably linked to local customs and culture, beliefs, history and social norms,” explains Dr Prinsloo, who is an executive fellow at Henley Business School Africa.

“African and emerging market countries will have to acknowledge these complexities and historical layers before they start designing digital solutions. If they don’t, even the most technologically advanced systems will likely fail.”

The urban factor

Dr Prinsloo adds that another facet of land ownership in SA is that the country is rapidly urbanising, bringing with it more pressing and complex challenges around occupancy and ownership and aggravating existing challenges associated with apartheid-era spatial planning and inadequate infrastructure.

According to the Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG), around 63% of the population already lives in urban areas, a figure set to rise to 71% by 2030.

“As more Africans move from rural to urban and peri-urban areas, so too will the challenges of informal settlements, non-registered land and property sales and the rise of backyard rentals become a reality that must be incorporated into any attempt to formalise a comprehensive land titling system,” says Dr Prinsloo.

To address these longstanding land reform struggles, the South African government gazetted a new piece of legislation, the Deeds Registries Amendment Bill, that will support an electronic system for registering and recording property transactions in the country. However, the proposed bill does not make changes to the existing mechanisms of the process, which are expensive and complex. It is also not inclusive of all land ownership types in South Africa.

The voice of the people

The Henley white paper agrees that South Africa needs a ‘new’ approach to land tenure and posits that a digital solution could be a game-changer, helping to draw together various resources with multiple touchpoints to provide an efficient and effective way of retaining and updating essential ownership information. However, the authors argue that for such a tool to be successful and fit for purpose, it must be inclusive of the various categories of tenure and be sensitive to the histories and ecologies of local communities. These elements will require more than a binary system to draw them all together.

“Any comprehensive technological tool for land and property registration must start with on-the-ground engagement with communities, municipalities, and provinces to ensure all voices are heard and that both statutory and customary laws are respected, catered for, and honoured,” they argue.

Such a system will also need to be flexible enough to incorporate competing interests as well as being empathetic, cost-effective and accessible to all. “It is not sufficient that a digital tool simply automates the existing formal deed transfer system and expects the likes of customary legal tenure to ‘slot’ into that approach,” comments Dr Prinsloo.

She adds that while it will be hard to achieve, this prize is worth fighting for. “Reform of land administration systems in developing countries is a precondition to achieving the UN Development Goals. Even in its informal manifestations, property rights are a cornerstone for personal and communal prosperity. The recognition and facilitation of land tenure is foundational, helping people generate sustainable income and catalyse livelihood enhancement.”

Download a copy of this white paper here.

Useful resources:
Henley Business School
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