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Peri-Urban Land Tenure in the age of AIDS: Report on the KwaNyuswa Case Studies

It's often assumed that land is the key resource for rural AIDS-affected households in Africa. Following from this central point, it is often further assumed that if the landholdings of African households hit by the shock of AIDS can be protected, then the households will be able to use the land to support themselves, and their members will also be protected from destitution. While this proposition is often likely to be accurate as it stands, there are probably areas of the continent where it doesn't hold - at least, not as simply stated.

As the work of Bryceson and the Leiden University Africa group shows (1999, 2000), Africa as a continent is turning away from its agrarian past, and household livelihoods are becoming more complex. As international markets and overall terms of trade move against the rural household farming sector, households are relying increasingly on mobilizing cash income from all members - women and children included - and not only on agricultural income produced by the male head.

In South Africa's rural sector, this trend to demoting home farming and turning to multiple cash income sources is already well known to research, because the southern tip of the continent is where it has advanced the furthest. Compared to other African countries, South Africa's history of powerful urban labour markets and massive industrial labour absorption has built a different kind of rural economy dating from the beginnings of industrialization.

Under late colonialism and then under apartheid, the strictly limited rural area assigned to African occupation under tribal-style institutions was treated by government as dormitory accommodation for the families of urban workers. For the majority African population, the acute rural overcrowding produced by apartheid land planning was sustainable only because the rural household economy was driven to depend on urban wage earnings: under labour migrancy, rural densities could rise past the point where household farming for livelihoods stopped being viable, and could continue rising as long as wages still came back from the cities. Well before the transition to labour migrancy was complete, market production for Africans had been more or less systematically strangled by denial of markets to African producers, who were highly efficient and competitive with white farmers up to the end of the last century (cf Keegan 1984, Bundy 1979). Home farming became a sideline to most rural African households in South Africa.

Urban wage dependency become highly dangerous for the precarious balance of the rural economy of the former 'homelands' - the old African reserves of colonial times - in the early 1980s, as South Africa's urban industrial economy began to falter. By the late 1990s, rural wage earning was in free fall, and rural livelihoods were collapsing. The urban township populations had a lock on the remaining urban jobs, not so much through higher education levels as through closer proximity to job opportunities, more efficient networks and better access to information. Urban jobs for the unskilled had also fallen away as South Africa's move to an information economy began to accelerate.

Rural households faced unsustainable levels of unemployment with only weak fallback options in the household production economy, and rural workers moved more and more into locally available jobs where there were any. Many of these jobs were in the farming sector, which was itself declining, and therefore paid below poverty levels. Rural communities in the old homelands began to split at household level into haves and have-nots, dividing on the point of whether anyone in the household was working for wages or whether the household had to find other income sources.

In relation to cultivation, natural surface water was drying up as the climate changed and more and more wetlands sponge areas came under unsound cultivation and washed away. In the dry provinces of the interior, by the early 1990s home farming had almost stopped. Household garden cultivation began to take over from full-scale arable fields in many areas of the coastal provinces (cf Andrew 1991).

The full emergence of HIV/AIDS as a continent-wide pandemic came against this background. In South Africa, younger adults supporting households of children and other dependents began to sicken and die in large numbers. By 2001, newspaper reports had HIV/AIDS prevalence reaching 36 percent or more in women covered by ante-natal data in parts of KwaZulu Natal, and it was thought to be higher yet in some areas. In spite of some care programmes and support measures, little that was done had any direct effect on livelihoods for the individuals and households that were hit by AIDS. In an economy that was increasingly cut off from the urban sector, rural poverty associated with the effects of AIDS was growing as a problem.

The rationale for this part of the report is to start to develop an analysis that explores vulnerability to AIDS at the household level, and also how land options relate to this vulnerability, against the background of the trends already present in the land system. KwaZulu Natal is the single South African province which is worst hit by the pandemic. It is also the single province with the most rain and the most agricultural potential across its former homelands. It needs to be asked what the effects are of AIDS on poor rural households in KwaZulu Natal under these conditions.

It is indisputable that land is an important resource for AIDS-affected households, but it is not automatically clear how the household makes use of land under these conditions. It is assumed here for a start that widows and orphans are particularly vulnerable to the effects of AIDS, and that poverty is both a cause and a result of vulnerability to the effects of AIDS on the household. It is also assumed that land is a resource which can be used against the impoverishing effects of AIDS, and that because of the scale of the AIDS crisis, that the pandemic will have a massive reciprocal effect on land practice and tenure. But can these propositions be broken down further? Which widows and which orphans within those groups? How poor? How do AIDS and the associated chronic disease conditions hit different kinds of households? How do these groups stand in regard to land and tenure? In a rural economy that is not agrarian, how does AIDS affect the household's options to hold and use land? And, are any kinds of households particularly vulnerable to the effects of AIDS specifically in regard to land?

In this light, issues that need to be unpacked include these:
  • What is the nature of the AIDS event for the household and for its land?
  • What are the preconditions that determine how it hits?
  • What exactly happens when AIDS hits the household?
  • How does the household respond, and is land a part of this response?
  • What outcomes follow?
  • What are the implications?
And, what trends are already in the tenure system at the point where it meets AIDS?

One of the critical factors here is the human and managerial capacity of the household to respond to the attack of AIDS, since it is households that make decisions around using land resources. To make sense, these capabilities have to be seen in the light of the local nature and capacity of the tenure system, which is not the same in all parts of the old homelands even within KwaZulu Natal.

The twenty case studies which are considered here have been compiled for the FAO's inquiry into the effects of the South African HIV/AIDS pandemic on the rural tenure system, with a view to helping the most vulnerable and least known victims. They were written by community interviewers led by Mathilde Thokozile Nzama in early 2002, in KwaNyuswa, a metro peri-urban district inside the former African reserves of KwaZulu Natal. The approach taken to identifying AIDS-affected victims and households was developed along the lines of the Bangui protocols, in asking not only about known AIDS cases, who are reluctant to be identified, but also about other chronic diseases that are associated with HIV/AIDS or parallel its effects. TB is the most important of these. In this sample of 20 qualitative cases, 15 have either been diagnosed HIV positive or appear to be consistent with AIDS symptoms and etiology, while five are probably better attributed to other conditions, with or without HIV/AIDS infection accompanying.

The analysis pursued is based on the Sahlins recension of the Chayanov model of labour commitment as a limit on accumulation in Russian peasant households of the 19th century (Sahlins 1972). In this classical anthropological analysis, a model of household survival activities was developed around a non-maximization economic theory which provides an alternative to neoclassical economic views. The underlying rationale is to find measures that can assess how the household's actual performance departs from an equilibrium level of labour commitment that would be necessary to feed and provide for the household members, and this aspect of the analysis is not yet complete.

Issues which this approach highlights include labour mobilization in AIDS-affected households in relation to the tenure system, tenure security for women and unqualified male heirs under peri-urban conditions, and the distribution of vulnerability to land snatching among households and people affected by AIDS and other chronic diseases associated with AIDS.

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