Woody plant increase in grassy biomes has been widely reported over the last century. Increases have been attributed to local drivers associated with land use change, such as heavy grazing or fire suppression, or, controversially, to global drivers such as increased atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). Here, we report a comparison of woody increase since the 1930s in three neighbouring areas with highly contrasting land use systems to help distinguish between local and global causes of woody increase. Aerial photography was used to measure changes in tree cover for three time intervals (1937, 1960, 2004) for three adjacent 25 km2 sites which remained under radically different tenure (conservation, commercial farms, and communal rangeland) over the study period. From previous studies on drivers affecting savanna dynamics, we predicted a decrease in tree cover for the conservation and communal sites and an increase in tree cover at the commercial site. The analyses showed highly significant increases in tree cover at all sites. Total tree cover increased from 14% in 1937 to 58% in 2004 at the conservation site, 3–50% in the commercial ranching area and 6–25% in the communal farming area. Reconstruction of past land use practices showed large differences in stocking rates, herbivore species, burning practices, human population densities and natural resource harvesting between the three sites. These land use differences are reflected in differences in woody cover among the three sites in 2004. However, despite major differences in land use, tree cover also increased significantly in all three areas. This suggests global drivers favouring woody plant increase in grassy vegetation regardless of land use practises. In our study area the most likely candidates are increased CO2 and/or atmospheric nitrogen deposition.