Background and History

What is VS?

VS stands for “Vulamasango Singene”, Xhosa for “open the door, so that we can come in”

VS is a social movement based in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. It has more than 40 000 members, making it one of the biggest social movements in the country.

VS began as a campaign in 2002. It was registered as a non-profit company in 2009.

Why was VS established?

VS was initially a single-issue campaign. It sought to pressurise government to re-open land restitution claims for a particular type of forced removal, ironically called “betterment” (see below for more information about betterment).

VS claimed victory when the Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Bill was passed in March 2014. The amendment to the Act allows a five year window in which further land claims can be lodged. The Bill explicitly allows people dispossessed under “betterment” to submit claims.

What is restitution?

Restitution is one of the South African government’s land reform programmes. It applies to people who were dispossessed of land rights in terms of racially-based law or practice after 1913, without receiving just and equitable compensation. The programme provides various forms of redress (restoration of land rights, acquisition of alternative land, developmental assistance and financial compensation) to valid and verified claimants. In order to access the programme, victims of such dispossession were required to lodge claims before 31 December 1998. Potential betterment claimants were ignored during the government’s “stake your claim” information drive prior to the December 1998 deadline. Many of those who did attempt to submit claims were turned away from Commission offices, having been told that betterment claims did not meet the criteria of the Restitution Act. For more information on this, see “Why was the campaign necessary?” below).


By the cut-off date, approximately 70 000 claims were lodged. Since 1995, government has set about processing these claims and attempting to settle valid claims. A large number of claims, however, remain unsettled.  In 2013, 25% per cent of the total land claims registered with the Department had not yet been finalised or the settlement agreement had not been fully implemented.

What was betterment?

Betterment planning (colloquially known as “Trust”) was implemented in the former homelands and other so-called black areas from the 1930s onwards, in an attempt to regulate these areas and control land usage. Under betterment, designated areas were divided into distinct land use zones  -  for residential, arable and grazing usage -  and all people were forced to moved into the demarcated residential zones.  Furthermore, people were also dispossessed of arable and grazing land through the process of betterment.  As Govan Mbeki wrote in the early 1960s:

Those who were being pushed off the land were bitterly resentful.  They forfeited the right to graze stock and had to abandon the one form of security to which they clung  - the occupation of an arable plot with the right to share the common pasturage.

(The Peasants' Revolt, p95)

The most authoritative text on forced removals in South Africa is the Surplus People Project volumes that were published in 1983.  According to these volumes "betterment has forcibly removed more people in more places with greater social consequences and provoking more resistance than any other category of forced removal in South Africa" (Vol 2, p110).   The specific number of people removed under betterment has not been quantified, but it is clear that it affected more than 1 300 000 South Africans (Vol 1, p5). This is a minimum figure, and a conservative one at that  - betterment could have removed up to 2 500 000 South Africans.  Not only are the figures very high, it is also important to stress that betterment impacted exclusively on the most impoverished rural areas.  In other words, betterment resulted in the removal of more people than any other type of apartheid dispossession, and those removed under betterment were the rural poor.

Nyaniso Gxekwa, aged 65, from Tyutyuza, could be speaking for the whole of Ciskei and Transkei when he says:

When the Trust (betterment) came, our lives changed completely. We were living happily before betterment. There was good neighbourliness and mutual support. We helped each other with ploughing, planting and working the land. When the Trust came, we started to experience death, because things that people had worked hard for, were taken from them. People resented that, and as a result, they died. There was hunger because we were forced to use poor, small land and our stock were culled. We are no longer united; now we fight with each other.  

Why was the campaign necessary?

The land policy of the democratic government is spelt out in the DLA's 1997 White Paper on Land Reform.  One of the most fundamental weaknesses of the policy was that it did not address the injustice nor legacy of betterment.  Crucially, the White Paper argued that victims of betterment removals did not have valid restitution claims.  Instead it proposed that

"The claims of those dispos­sessed under 'betterment' poli­cies, which involved forced re­moval and loss of land rights for millions of inhabitants of the for­mer Bantustans, should be ad­dressed through tenure security programmes, land administration reform and land redistribution support programmes."

The Eastern Cape Land Claims Commission acted on the basis of government policy in general and its prejudicial treatment of victims of betterment dispossession specifically. Consequently, it arrived at a firm view that the Restitution of Land Rights Act only applied to former ‘white’ South Africa and not in the former homeland areas. This was communicated clearly to all Eastern Cape NGOs at a meeting arranged by the commission in November 1996. The following is extracted from the minutes of this meeting, which were prepared and distributed by the commission itself.

“the Restitution Act cannot be used in dealing with cases in the homelands. The Act addresses itself to laws that were designed to put people in the homelands, and not about when they were there.”

Therefore, communities in the former homeland areas were overlooked and discarded during the lodgement phase of the restitution process. More specifically, they were ignored during the information dissemination campaigns (eg ‘Stake Your Claim’) undertaken during the period. 

Not only did the commission proactively dissuade NGOs from facilitating the lodgement of betterment claims, it was also very quick to reject some of the very few claims that were lodged (well before the cut-off date of 31 December 1998). For example, the Eastern Cape Land Claims Commission rejected the claim of the Keiskammahoek Freeholder Association for the dispossession of rights to various commonages as a result of the implementation of betterment. This also had the effect of suppressing the lodgement of claims for dispossession effected through betterment.

Government’s policy approach (pre-2014) towards betterment dispossession amounted to 'second-class' treatment of betterment claimants, for a number of reasons, the most important of which are:

  1. It denied that rural people in the former homelands held and were dispossessed of land rights in terms of racially-discriminatory law and practice
  2. Consequently, it denied these people their right to restitution
  3. It redirected their claims to programmes that do not offer comparable benefits to restitution and that are hamstrung by conceptual and operational difficulties.

Thus it was necessary to devise and implement an advocacy strategy aimed at ensuring that victims of betterment dispossession are treated fairly and not denied their constitutional right to restitution.

One of the leaders of the campaign in Middledrift, Jongile Kosi from Lower Regu, explains it this like this:

The campaign has broadened our scope of knowledge. Sometimes one is aware of a problem but unable to devise an effective way to resolve it. The campaign has provided the way. Forward!

Why was the campaign important?

The homeland areas of the Eastern Cape are characterised by extreme poverty. The Eastern Cape is the poorest province in the country and the homelands are the poorest parts of the province. Over 70% of people living in these areas are poor. Unfortunately, the trend of worsening poverty was not halted, nevermind reversed, after 1994. Instead, the situation has deteriorated further. Clearly, the efforts that government has made to address the problem have been inadequate. Supplementary programmes and strategies are urgently required.

A government task team estimated that the value of land rights dispossessed through the implementation of betterment in the former homelands of Ciskei and Transkei was R12,8 billion. It is therefore clear that the re-opening of lodgement for these claimants will enable the beginning of a development process in the former homelands that could play a major role in poverty eradication and economic development.

As Macule Vitsha, a 77 year old suvivor of betterment for Debe Marela puts it:

This campaign has united us in action and given us the opportunity to know each other, beyond the boundaries of our small villages. I view this campaign as something that will enable us to speak with one voice, and express our developmental needs collectively, as we strive towards eradicating poverty from our communities.

How did the campaign unfold?

The advocacy strategy aimed at re-claiming the constitutional right to restitution for victims of betterment dispossession began in 1998.

The claim of the village of Cata in the Keiskammahoek District was the first betterment case to be settled under the restitution programme. The settlement agreement was signed on 7 October 2000. The value of the settlement was approximately R12 million. Half of this money was set aside for development, and was administered by Amatole District Municipality for this purpose. (See the Cata story below).

In mid-2000 government revised its policy position toward ‘betterment and restitution’. The key new policy recommendations that were adopted read as follows:

“That government changes its policy approach to betterment removals by acknowledging that some of these claims may satisfy the criteria of the restitution act.

That a standard approach to the resolution of these claims be adopted. Key features of the approach should include:

  • Standard investigation questions, that is to quantify individual’s loss to residential and arable land and to quantify group loss to commonage land.
  • Usage of average loss and standard settlement offer wherever applicable for each claimant family within the claimant community.
  • That a standard approach to restitution awards applies to betterment claims, thus promoting development in the communities.”

The Cata precedent, together with the new policy approach, were used to settle all lodged Keiskammahoek claims (in villages under communal tenure). This was achieved on 16 June 2002, with the signing of agreements for Upper Ngqumeya, Gwili-Gwili, Mtwaku, Ngobozana, Ndlovini, Gxulu (Upper and Lower) and Mnyameni (Upper and Lower). The value of the settlement was approximately R107m. Half of this money was set aside for development.

The progress outlined above had positive consequences for those communities that were dispossessed through betterment, which did lodge claims before the end of 1998. However, because of government prejudice at the time, very few managed to lodge timeously.  It is clear that less than 10% of betterment claims were lodged before 31 December 1998. Hence the advocacy strategy intensified, pressing for a re-opening of the lodgement window for victims of betterment dispossession, so that betterment communities have a fair chance to lodge their claims.

What is the Cata Story?

The purpose of this case study is to demonstrate that developmental restitution can play a key role in eradicating poverty and boosting local economic development.

In 2000 Cata was typical of any village situated in the former homelands of the Eastern Cape. Most people living there were poor; income levels were very low and there were virtually no jobs. Furthermore, the people lacked skills, having been subjected to sub-standard education. Generally speaking, the people received poor service delivery and were marginalised by inadequate infrastructure such as roads.   

The Cata Settlement Agreement was signed on 7 October 2000. In terms of the agreement, the monetary value of land rights dispossessed through the implementation of betterment was placed at almost R31 000 per household.

It was agreed that half of this money would be set aside for local development. The Amatole District Municipality (ADM) was tasked to administer the development process. ADM first commissioned a situation analysis, so that the planning could be undertaken in an informed way.

The planning process afforded the people of Cata, at village level, an opportunity to identify and prioritise their needs and decide how to address these priorities, in the knowledge that resources were secured for this purpose. In other words, decisions about the Cata development plan were not taken in Pretoria, in Bhisho, or in East London; they were taken in Cata. And therefore, appropriate decisions were taken.  The plan that emerged through the process demonstrates a number of significant strengths. It was adopted by the community in mid-2003.

The plan was comprehensive in both its coverage and detail, focusing on infrastructure, local economic development, forestry, agriculture, and planning, tenure and institutional arrangements.  Specific projects were outlined for each of these clusters. 

One of the advantages of adopting an integrated approach to local development planning is that there is considerable potential for brokering in resources from different sources. The Cata community managed to broker resources from the following institutions, amongst others: the University of Fort Hare, DFID, the Provincial Department of Education and ADM. The reason that success was achieved in this regard is that the community was able to use its own contribution to the process (accessed through the restitution award) as a bargaining tool in its interactions with outside institutions.

After mid-2003, implementation of the plan commenced in all earnestness. The multi-purpose community hall has been built, as have three new classrooms at the primary school. Most of the already existing buildings at the school were upgraded. The headmaster of the primary school, the late Bethwell Gcilitshana said at the time:

Restitution has definitely raised the standard of living here. We’ve got a R1,2 million community hall now, new classrooms – the most beautiful in the region – and many other improvements on their way. 

Emphasis was placed on initiatives that generate income and resources for the local people. For example, a team of twenty local workers transformed a 75 hectare wattle jungle into a commercially-managed, locally-owned plantation, over twenty five households bolstered their homestead agricultural production through the channelling and storage of run-off rain water, a farmers’ association was set up to make use of repaired flood irrigation infrastructure, a local company was set up to establish a 400ha pine plantation, and various tourism ventures was implemented. For more on tourism at Cata, please click here (link to

All these processes are managed by a local Communal Property Association. Membership of this association is open to all residents of Cata, over eighteen years of age.

Latest figures show that the impact of the restitution process at Cata has been nothing short of phenomenal.  A comparison of 2007 research figures with the 2001 census shows that income levels have increased, employment has risen, education levels are improving and there is better food security.

Bar graph note:  Comparative percentages of households falling into defined income brackets in 2001 and 2007


The percentage of households with a monthly income of more than R1 600 has increased from 7% in 2001 to 31% in 2007. The percentage of households with no income at all has dropped from 43% to 4%. . These percentages are significant because they show that the increase in levels of income is a broad-based phenomenon, benefiting most Cata households. In fact, if one consolidates the percentages, there were a total of 79% of households living on R800 or less in 2001, whereas in 2007 80% were living on more than R800. South Africa has not yet defined an official poverty line, so it is not useful to make a definitive claim here about the precise extent to which poverty has been reduced. However, it is clear that the increase in average household income in Cata has far outstripped inflation.


One of the main reasons that income levels have increased is that there has been a dramatic increase in the percentage of local people that are employed. Employment rates have increased from 4% in 2001 to 26% in 2007. Most of the new jobs have been created in the agriculture, forestry and construction sectors.

Pie graph note:  Shifts in the levels of economic activity amongst people between the ages of 15 and 64, from 2001 to 2007.

The Cata Story challenges the prevailing development paradigm in South Africa, which claims that economic growth can only realistically occur in strategic nodes, and that public investment in rural areas should be limited to welfare hand-outs.  Clearly, the injection of resources into rural areas, if well-supported and well-managed, can have the potential to make far-reaching positive changes in the lives of those that are otherwise marginalised by development policy. The Cata Story shows the potential of the land restitution programme.

What is the current status of betterment restitution?

The National Council of Provinces (NCOP) passed the Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Bill on 27 March 2014. Once signed into law, this will allow for the “window of opportunity” to lodge betterment claims until 2019.

At the time of writing (June 2014), the President has not yet signed the Bill into law, but it is “all systems go” in the Department for Land Reform and Development – information materials have been developed, forms designed and there are plans begin the roll-out of an information campaign.  As soon as the Bill becomes law, VS will set about encouraging its members to submit claims.

There is some opposition to the Bill and it is possible that this is contributing to the delay. VS concurs with some of the some of the reasons motivating those opposing the Bill, but believes that, on balance, the benefits of signing the Bill into law warrant its support.  For more information regarding opposition to the Bill, click here and here. (links to and