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Urban Land Restitution and the Struggle for Social Citizenship in South Africa


  • Christiaan Beyers

  • This article owes much to the late Kobus Pienaar who urged me to write it, and discussed and debated many of its key points with me. Thanks also to two anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments and corrections of earlier versions of this article.


Reintegrating the city is a priority of social justice and development in many urban centres of the ‘South’ that bear the legacy of forced displacement. In South Africa, much of the land restitution programme has thus far focused on urban areas. In certain large cluster claims involving the transfer and development of significant tracts of well-placed land, restitution has presented the prospect of altering landed property regimes in the heart of the city. The predominantly rural and economic emphasis in scholarship and policy debate on land reform in South Africa — which reflects historical trends in development studies — has led to a narrowed vision of what is at stake in urban land restitution. Complex interventions aimed at redressing urban spatial segregation can potentially alter the relationship between citizens, institutions and urban space in ways that expand the possibilities for social and political agency in sites that are strategically important for influencing the direction of change more broadly. A key, as yet unrealized, challenge is how to articulate such struggles for a ‘right to the city’ with efforts at redressing the spatialization of poverty on the urban periphery.