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Since 1913, the “land question” in South Africa has revolved around the major inequalities in access to and rights over land between the black majority and the white minority of the population, and how these disparities should best be understood and overcome. The roots of this inequality are commonly traced back to the promulgation of the Natives Land Act in June 1913, which provided the legal framework for the subsequent division of the country into a relatively prosperous white heartland and a cluster of increasingly impoverished black reserves on the periphery. Historians have cautioned against according this legislation undue weight within the much longer history of colonization, capitalist penetration, and agrarian change that has shaped modern South Africa. The spatial divide of white core and black periphery has, however, been central to the political economy of 20th-century South Africa. Beginning in the 1950s, the apartheid government attempted to maintain white hegemony, drive an urban–industrial economy, and deflect political resistance by turning these reserves into the ethnic “homelands” of African people. This involved increasingly repressive policies of urban influx control, population relocation, and the tribalization of local administration in the reserves. Since the transition to democracy in 1994, the post-apartheid state has struggled to develop an effective land reform program that can address the crosscutting demands for land redistribution, local development, and representative government that this history has bequeathed. For many analysts, these ongoing challenges mean that “the land question” remains unresolved; for others it means that the question is itself in need of reformulation. In order to review these developments, a three-part periodization is used to organize the discussion: (1) the segregation era (1910–1948), (2) the apartheid era (1948–1990), and (3) the transition to democracy and the post-apartheid era that began in 1990.

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With the passing of the Bantu Authorities Act in 1951, the apartheid set in motion the creation of ten bantustans, one of South Africa’s most infamous projects of racial ordering. Also known as “homelands” in official parlance, the bantustans were set up in an attempt to legitimize the apartheid project and to deprive black South Africans of their citizenship by creating ten parallel “countries”, corresponding to state designated ethnic group. The bantustan project was controversial and developed slowly, first by consolidating “native” reserve land and later by giving these territories increasing power for self-governance. By the 1980s there were four “independent” bantustans (Transkei, Ciskei, Venda, and Bophuthatswana) and six “self-governing” ones (Lebowa, Gazankulu, KwaNdebele, Qwaqwa, KaNgwane, and KwaZulu). While a few bantustan leaders worked with the anti-apartheid liberation movements, the bantustans were largely rejected as political frauds governed by illegitimately installed chiefs. They acted as dumping grounds for surplus cheap African labor and allowed the apartheid government to justify large-scale forced removals from “white” farmlands and cities. But the bantustans were also incubators of a black middle class and bureaucratic elite. Despite the formal dissolution of the bantustans in 1994 and their reincorporation into a unitary democratic state, the rule of chiefs and the growth of this black middle class have a deep-rooted legacy in the post-1994 era. As several contemporary commentators have noted, South Africa has witnessed the “bantustan-ificaton” of the post-apartheid landscape.