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Who Owns South Africa?

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Who Owns South Africa?

A fiercely debated program of land reform could address racial injustice – or cause chaos.

The New Yorker,

5 min read
5 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

Land reform is a key issue in addressing South Africa’s vast economic disparities between black and whites. 

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In South Africa today, 72% of the country’s arable land belongs to whites, who account for only 9% of the total population. In this in-depth essay, Ariel Levy aptly navigates current political debates around land reform. The vast disparity in land ownership between blacks and whites has become a hotly contested political issue, she reports. While the radical left calls for the nationalization of the country’s farmlands, far-right groups warn of the impending mass expropriation of white farmers. Meanwhile, moderates look for alternative ways to lift the country’s millions of poor blacks out of poverty.


The 1894 Glen Grey Act and the 1913 Natives Land Act codified territorial segregation by partitioning South Africa’s arable land between whites and nonwhites. Only 13% of the land went to the black majority, and blacks were forbidden to purchase land in white areas. In 1948, the apartheid regime further marginalized non-whites by moving them to the outskirts of cities and remote rural areas. Over 3.5 million blacks lost their land to whites in the process, without receiving compensation. 85% of South African land was designated for whites, despite them making up only 17% of South Africa’s total population at the time. Today, whites make up only 9% of the population and still own 72% of privately-held land in the country. The discrepancy in land ownership continues to perpetuate racial inequality in South Africa.

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About the Author

Ariel Levy is an American author and staff writer at The New Yorker magazine. 

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