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Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS)

From 'willing seller, willing buyer' to a people-driven land reform

PLAAS Policy Brief No 117 - September 2005

Dr. Edward Lahiff

Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS)

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The concept of ‘willing seller, willing buyer’ has dominated the discourse on land reform in South Africa since 1994. Now, following the national Land Summit of July 2005, it appears that government is willing to abandon this approach, but there is little indication of what this might mean in practice. This paper explores the origins and meaning of the concept of ‘willing seller, willing buyer’ and the alternatives that might take its place.


The concept of ‘willing seller, willing buyer’ (WSWB) has dominated the discourse on land reform in South Africa since 1994 – indeed, it can be described as one of the defining characteristics of the programme, distinguishing if from most other land reforms around the world. This simple-sounding concept has not just been central to government thinking on land reform, but has also become a key ideological battleground, assuming the status of a ‘non-negotiable’ among landowners and an object of contempt for landless people and their supporters. Yet, despite its prominence, this so-called principle has received remarkably little critical analysis, from either its supporters or its critics.

The concept of WSWB is widely attributed to the influence of the World Bank, but this is inaccurate in a number of respects. Since the early 1990s, the World Bank has indeed advocated what it calls market-assisted (or market-led, or market-based, or, more recently, ‘negotiated’) land reform in countries around the world, and was a key influence on the thinking of the African National Congress (ANC) during the transition to democracy. The approach advocated by the World Bank, however, has generally been part of a wider strategy that includes selective expropriation, land taxes, subdivision of landholdings, and negotiated ‘exit strategies’ for current landowners. Such an approach was set out in the key 1994 World Bank document, South African agriculture: Structure, performance and options for the future. In practice, the South African model has diverged considerably from the World Bank prescriptions, particularly in its reliance upon WSWB mechanisms.

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