Unlocking Potential: Vacant Land in South Africa

In South Africa's diverse landscape, vacant or abandoned land poses opportunities and challenges for communities, municipalities, and potential buyers.

April 5, 2024

In the diverse landscape of South Africa, the issue of vacant or abandoned land presents both prospects and hurdles for communities, municipalities, and potential purchasers. Vacant land, often marked by neglect and disuse, holds promise for rejuvenation and growth. However, navigating the legal, social, and economic intricacies of acquiring such land demands careful deliberation. This article explores the opportunities and challenges linked with procuring abandoned land in South Africa.

Defining Abandoned Land:

In the legal context of South Africa, abandoned land typically denotes property or land that has been neglected, unused, or left uninhabited for a prolonged period without any legal assertion or ongoing maintenance1.  As per the Problem Properties By-law2, a problem property is described as a building deserted by the registered owner or responsible party, leading to non-payment of rates or other municipal service charges for more than three months within a year.

The legal concept known as bona vacantia3, originating from Roman law, meaning that property without an owner, such as when an owner dies without a will and heirs or when a company dissolves, becomes the property of the Crown (State). Although this is an English principle, this principle has been in use in South Africa for over a century. In the case of De Villiers & Others v GJN Trust and Others 4 Van der Merwe JA confirmed the principle applicable to bona vacantia, reiterating that such ownerless property automatically passes to the State without any form of delivery.   The definition of abandoned land can be explored further in terms of Section 12(3)(c) of the Expropriation Bill5, which states, for the purposes of expropriation without compensation, property will be regarded as abandoned if the owner simply has failed to exercise control over it6.

Challenges Associated with Abandoned Land:

Legal Complexity: The legal status of abandoned land in South Africa can be intricate, particularly regarding ownership, inheritance, and land tenure rights. Incomplete or missing property titles and overlapping claims may spark disputes and legal battles for potential buyers, necessitating comprehensive due diligence and legal expertise. Without proper documentation, identifying the rightful owner becomes challenging, complicating the purchase process. If the potential buyer cannot locate the owner, they might need to seek recourse through the court under Section 33 of the Deeds Registries Act7, depending on the circumstances. This section allows for title registration through an alternative procedure, where the buyer can apply to the court for the registration of the property in their name.

Informal Settlements: Abandoned land often attracts informal settlements, where marginalised communities occupy vacant spaces due to housing shortages and socio-economic disparities. Managing informal occupants can pose challenges concerning eviction procedures, resettlement plans, and addressing socio-economic vulnerabilities.

Security Issues: Abandoned land is susceptible to vandalism, illegal dumping, and criminal activities, posing security risks for both buyers and neighbouring communities. Implementing security measures and engaging with local stakeholders are crucial for mitigating such risks and fostering a safe environment for development.

Infrastructure Deficiencies: The absence of essential infrastructure such as water, sanitation, and electricity further diminish the potential of vacant land. Municipalities encounter difficulties in providing services to informal settlements, resulting in substandard living conditions and environmental hazards.

However, with every challenge, there is a myriad of opportunities:

Land Redistribution: As found in Section 25 (5) of the Constitution8, the state is under the constitutional duty to take “reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to foster conditions which enable citizens to gain access to land on an equitable bases.”9 Initiatives aimed at addressing historical injustices through land redistribution can transform abandoned or vacant land into productive assets, empowering previously disadvantaged individuals and communities.

Development Potential: Abandoned land offers opportunities for various development projects, including residential housing and commercial ventures, addressing the demand for affordable housing and infrastructure amidst South Africa's population growth and urbanisation.

Social Impact: Redevelopment of abandoned land can yield significant social benefits, including job creation, community empowerment, and improved living conditions, fostering social cohesion and economic growth.

Investment Prospects: Abandoned land often comes at a lower cost compared to developed properties, presenting investment opportunities for individuals, corporations, and government entities, with potential appreciation of land value through strategic development plans.

Urban Renewal: Strategic urban planning and revitalisation efforts can unlock the potential of vacant land, transforming blighted areas into vibrant hubs of economic activity and community engagement through redevelopment projects and public-private partnerships.

In Conclusion:

Acquiring abandoned land in South Africa presents opportunities for development, investment, and social impact, albeit with accompanying challenges. Successfully navigating these challenges requires a nuanced understanding of legal frameworks, socio-economic dynamics, and environmental considerations. By addressing legal ambiguities, engaging with local communities, and embracing sustainable development practices, purchasers of abandoned land can unlock its potential as catalysts for positive change in South Africa's landscape.

Written by: Ayanda Malotana
Moderated and approved by: Clive Smith

1. Understanding Abandoned Land in South Africa: Challenges and Opportunities, in Lexis Nexis. 31 May 2023, viewed on 13 March 2024, https://www.lexisnexis.co.za/lexis-digest/legal/understanding-abandoned-land-in-south-africa-challenges-and-opportunities

2. Problem Properties By-law, 2014

3. Institutiones 2.6.4. Hiemstra and Gonin Trilingual Legal Dictionary 3rd ed at 303. The meaning thereof is: in Afrikaans – goedere sonder aanspraakmaker; in English – goods without a claimant (or owner); referred to as “escheated goods” in English law.

4. 2019 (1) SA 120 (SCA) para 7

5. B23-2020

6. Expropriation Bill B23-2020

7. Deeds registries Act 47 of 1937

8. Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996

9. Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996

The views in this article are personal and not necessarily endorsed by the firm. The content is for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon for any actions without confirmation from a legal practitioner. The firm and author(s) are not liable for any consequences resulting from actions taken without further consultation.

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