South African families set to benefit from clearer understanding of property law

Families living in South Africa’s former black townships are set to benefit from clearer understanding and fresh consideration of the laws on property and inheritance surrounding apartheid-era ‘family houses’, thanks to new research from the University of Birmingham.

Dr Maxim Bolt worked with South African-based NGO ProBono.Org to develop a toolkit to help guide discussions to develop policy changes to reduce the risk of people living in such properties - particularly women and children - becoming disadvantaged.

The toolkit, which is being discussed by policy makers and legal experts at a special workshop in Johannesburg this month, recommends a number of actions, including:

  • Working with and expanding the remit of existing institutions, to address the impact of current laws on families;
  • Exploring changes to laws around registration of property ownership; and
  • Further developing public education campaigns to help families better understand the law.

Under apartheid, black people were prohibited from owning urban property, instead renting state-owned township dwellings through permits listing all residents. However, as segregation ended, family houses were transferred to private ownership - creating tensions as the requirement for individual owners excluded wider families.

Supported by Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funding, Dr Bolt’s research has created steps to identify a solution to the problem - building ProBono.Org’s capacity to help those with claims to family houses, and assisting policymakers in tackling inequalities in the system.

Dr Bolt, Reader in Anthropology and African Studies at the University of Birmingham, commented: “South Africa has seen a profound gap between law and custom in home inheritance as popular understandings diverged from official ones, deepened by distrust in the administrative process. Today, inheritance adds another layer to the problem.

“We believe that the toolkit developed between the University of Birmingham and ProBono.Org will provide a useful means of moving forward the debate around this issue and helping to create policy changes that help people clarify issues relating to homes their families have occupied for generations.”

This month’s Johannesburg workshop (26 March) is led by Dr Bolt and Tshenolo Masha, Head of Housing at ProBono.Org, who worked together on developing the toolkit.

In their policy toolkit, Dr Bolt and Tshenolo Masha highlight: “Many township dwellers avoid formal processes - conforming to a popular view that inheritance is a private family matter, and recognising the place of ancestors in anchoring lineages. However, this leaves already-marginalised people beyond legal protection and profoundly affects people sidelined by the ensuing family dynamics - especially widows and children.”

Dr Bolt’s research identified a clear need for policy debate to make the law more responsive - prompting his partnership with ProBono.Org, which is the key legal NGO in this area. The knowledge emerged from a project on urban inheritance.

Focusing on Johannesburg, a year’s ethnographic fieldwork examined how the cross-generational transfer of wealth interacts with state systems through legal observations with ProBono.Org; research in mediations, advice meetings and courts; township case studies on property and inheritance; and long-term shadowing of officials.


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