Community-led impact for rural land rights in South Africa

A multilingual best practice handbook

There is an unending stream of rural land rights cases across South Africa, as the country grapples with land reform.

Official documentation of cases is difficult to access, not only for rural communities, but also for the NGOs and legal teams supporting them. Moreover, the decisions taken daily by rural communities, NGOs, and legal teams in response to unfolding land rights cases are not routinely maintained in any collection. As a result, rural communities struggle to preserve and present evidence of ongoing land rights struggles. Nor is there any system or infrastructure for distilling and sharing lessons learned or evidence-based best practice among rural communities and those supporting them. As a result, rural communities struggle to share records and evidence with each other, and thus cannot exploit the wealth of experiential knowledge held by their peers nationwide. These gaps impede the progress of land rights claims and limit access to justice. To better preserve records and evidence, disseminate lessons learned and best practice, improve access to justice, and build capacity in rural communities, there is a need to collect and share reports, evidence, and documentation from unfolding cases nationwide.

This project will stimulate new pathways to impact, to meet independently identified community needs which have emerged from our research.

The project will:

  • support land rights legal support centres, NGOs, and rural residents to share experience and knowledge of land rights disputes across South Africa;
  • create new networks of practice between stakeholders;
  • co-create and disseminate, with all stakeholders, a series of land rights case summaries and a multilingual best practice handbook for responding to land rights crises;
  • and thus enhance rural communities’ abilities to respond effectively when their land rights are threatened.

These aims will be achieved through knowledge exchange (KE) workshops with stakeholders using co-production methodology. KE collaborators will include the original AHRC GCRF Land rights project’s investigators and partner, including rural community researchers; the University of Sheffield’s Digital Humanities Institute (DHI); and key land rights stakeholders.

Land rights stakeholder participants will include:

  • four major land rights legal support centres in South Africa;
  • two major rural development NGOs in South Africa, with representatives from rural communities;
  • development and legal researchers from leading South African universities;
  • and postgraduate students from underserved rural areas who have lived experience as intermediaries between rural communities and institutional structures.

Participants will select at least 10 land rights cases they have directly experienced, and develop accessible case summaries, with lessons learned, and supporting evidence and documents. A best practice handbook will then be co-produced, based on the case summaries. All resources will be translated into three primary languages in areas with recurring land rights cases, and will be disseminated through a project website and in hard copy in rural areas, where data access or digital literacy are low for some residents.

The resources will deliver economic and social impact, including improved access to justice (UN Sustainable Development Goal 16), as stakeholders learn from each others’ successes and failures; corroborate or refute the national efficacy of approaches and techniques that have proven locally useful; and enhance their abilities to respond effectively to land rights crises.

Project team

  • Dr Seth Mehl (Principal investigator — Digital Humanities Institute, University of Sheffield)
  • Dr Glen Ncube (Co-Investigator – Department of Historical and Heritage Studies, University of Pretoria)
  • Prof. Patricia Cowell (Co-Investigator — Health Sciences School, University of Sheffield)
  • Prof. Susan Fitzmaurice (Co-Investigator — School of English, University of Sheffield)

Project partners

  • Paul De Bruyn (Director – Pala Forerunners)