Using video testimony to formalize land rights in South Africa

Mike Barry

Mike Barry outlines how South Africans are using video and handheld computers to provide testimony on their land rights and responsibilities.

Back in 2000, a group of researchers from the Geomatics Department of the University of Cape Town visited the village of Algeria, some 230 km north of Cape Town. Equipped with a tripod and a digital video camera, the researchers were part of an innovative pilot project to define, adjudicate and record the land rights of forestry workers who were being granted communal ownership of their land under South Africa’s land reform programme.

One by one, the workers were asked to stand in front of their homes and to read aloud, on camera, an affidavit stating their name, house number and what they perceived to be their rights, interests and obligations regarding the land they occupied. They then took additional information from global positioning system (GPS) surveys to produce graphical representations of the location of land parcels. The researchers integrated the video film clips and GPS records into a geographic information system (GIS) database of ‘talking head’ title certificates and parcel identifiers for each resident in the village, thus providing a comprehensive official land administration record for the Algeria communal property association.

The advantages of video were evident from the start. For one, the people who were to benefit from the national land reform and land titling programmes could describe on camera aspects of their land tenure systems that might not normally have been included in written documents, thus improving the completeness of their land records. The video records would be easily understood by all community members, even those with no formal education, and the individuals claiming land rights – and the land they referred to – would be easily recognizable. The process of collecting evidence was relatively cheap and simple. Compared with the cost of hiring skilled personnel to record land tenure information, video cameras are relatively inexpensive and can be operated by the community members themselves after only minimal training.


As part of the project, community members were also asked to provide socio-economic data, such as marital status, family size, etc., using a handheld computer with an icon-based touch-screen interface. The system, known as CyberTracker, is easy to use in the field, even by non-literate users. Originally developed to enable trackers to monitor animal behaviour in game parks, the CyberTracker system has been adapted for land titling purposes, so that the community members can use it to gather spatially referenced data to complement or update their video testimonies.
Following the success of the Algeria project, similar video and data recording techniques have been used by the Geomatics Department to establish rights for individual land parcels in Imizamo Yethu, an informal settlement on the outskirts of Cape Town. Instead of having people prepare affidavits, the researchers conducted structured interviews with their subjects, thus ensuring the consistency of the data and video clips of similar length.

These pilot projects have been of great interest to local policymakers, who are now adapting the Geomatics Department’s research methods to assist NGOs and legal teams in establishing land ownership rights throughout Western Cape province. The project findings have proven especially useful to the authorities in their efforts to put an end to land grabbing and informal settlements – two of the biggest societal problems facing South Africa today. For private developers who want to move illegal squatters off their land and into formally recognized housing areas, it is now common practice to include digital photographs in certificates of land rights. These certificates are displayed by project managers on notice boards outside community administration offices and are regularly updated to ensure that people’s land rights are public and transparent. This procedure also discourages attempts by powerful individuals to manipulate the titling process for their own benefit, to the exclusion of weaker members of society. As digital video hardware and software become more widely available and affordable for use on a large scale, the current digital images may well be replaced or complemented by video in future.

Incorporating video clips as part of official land administration records is still a novel technique that holds great promise for settling land disputes and preventing the manipulation of land tenure rules. Encouraging members of a community to collect and update land tenure data using a handheld computer should ensure that existing information remains accurate and legitimate. Taken together, the two technologies have tremendous potential for enhancing land tenure information systems.

Mike Barry is an associate professor of the Department of Geomatics Engineering at the University of Calgary, Canada, and the Geomatics Department of the University of Cape Town. For further information, visit and .

18 March 2004

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