The Drama of the New Commons in Rural and Urban Africa: What we learn from people-driven and state-driven land reforms
While scholars and activists decry the erosion and privatization of the commons, and donors and governments promote continued flawed privatization and formalization models, new commons are being created and under continual construction every day, in rural and urban areas in Africa. These involve diverse processes of generating rules and norms to govern land relations. This roundtable draws together scholars investigating how people access or claim ‘new’ land and constitute ‘new commons’ in urban and rural contexts, via two mechanisms: through collective land occupations and through state-defined land reform projects. We draw from several studies in South Africa’s urban and rural areas, anchored at PLAAS at the University of the Western Cape, and discuss these in relation to theoretical debates and connect to experiences elsewhere, with the aim of generating new research agendas.
This roundtable will debate: how do subjectivities and materialities articulate in the formation and evolution of new commons created through land reforms initiated ‘from above’ by the state and ‘from below’ through land occupations by people themselves? On the basis of ongoing research across diverse contexts of state- and people-driven ‘land reforms’, and the new commons that these create, what can and should we learn about the character of social tenures amidst a crisis of social reproduction? The conversation is inspired in part by debates about Agrawal’s ‘environmentality’; Ribot and Peluso’s (2003) theorization of access; and Ferrando et al’s (2020) notions of re-appropriation and recuperation of territory.
While addressing ‘new’ land commons, simultaneously we are concerned with the antithesis: the ongoing push for formalization and individualization of property across tenure systems particularly in Africa. Yet we see this as a constantly contested and sometimes reversible process, which also provokes counter-movements towards commoning. We pay attention to the kinds of institutions people create, why and how they generate certain rules, and the implications for the durability, democratization, deconcentration and decommodification of land acquired and appropriated by the poor and working class across diverse territories.
In these studies, a common denominator has been attention to the ways people define the content of tenure, the boundaries of the group, and restrictions on transactions.
We debate: what repertoires of experience of common property inform the bottom-up creation of rules, and (when) do formal top-down rules matter? What notions of property and ontologies animate such new commons? Under what conditions do such collectives, amidst pressures to transact, revert to forms of commodified property relations – and when do they not? What constraints and sanctions emerge to defend the new commons? What is their permeability: when do they offer refuge to outsiders or limit claim-making? And how do those in positions of power and authority – private investors, state officials and local elites – respond? In summary, what do we observe, and how do we theorise, dynamics of democratization/centralisation of authority, decommodification/recommodification and deconcentration/reconcentration? What are the implications for the politics of land and the potential for ‘people-driven land reform’ to create new commons amidst crises of social reproduction?
The conversation will tangentially connect to international policy questions, for instance the relevance or not of the SDGs and the marginal status of land in the African Union’s Agenda 2063. It also explores the concept of the commons as a response to climate, socio-economic and social reproduction crises, and lays the basis for future work on ‘sharing a planet in peril’.
Democratisation, Deconcentration, and Decommodification: Questioning the Character of Social Tenures in State and People-Driven Land Reforms
- Ruth Hall (SARChI Chair, PLAAS, University of the Western Cape)
The Politics of Tenure Security: Social Tenure Dynamics and Property Regimes on State Owned Redistributed Farms in South Africa
- Shane Phiri (Ph.D. candidate, PLAAS, University of the Western Cape)
Land, Livelihoods and Belonging: A Gender and Generational Perspective of Agrarian Change on Redistributed Land for Former Labour Tenants in South Africa
- Sithandiwe Yeni (Ph.D. candidate, PLAAS, University of the Western Cape)
A ‘New Urban Revolution’? Socio-spatial dynamics within an Abahlali baseMjondolo land occupation at eKhenana in Durban, South Africa, from 2018 to 2021
- Nduduzo Majozi (Ph.D. candidate, PLAAS, University of the Western Cape)
- Rahma Hassan (Kenya)
- Pranab Choudry (India)
- Liz Alden Wiley (Kenya/UK)
Ruth Hall firstname.lastname@example.org