Home | About Us | News Feeds RSS | Subscribe | Support Us | User Login | Search

Southern Africa Report Archive

The dark side of privatization is highlighted in the account, by Steve Greenberg and Samuel Bonti-Ankomah, of a range of menacing developments on the land right across the southern African region. (jbv)

vol 12 no 4

The menace of the market: Land and labour in Southern Africa
Steve Greenberg and Samuel Bonti-Ankomah

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 12 No 4, September 1997
Page 1
"Southern Africa"



Steve Greenberg and Samuel Bonti-Ankomah are researchers at the Farmworkers' Research & Resource Project (FRRP) based in Johannesburg.

Growing inequalities and the threat of another wave of land dispossession in the southern African region have recently prompted rural organisations to come together for a regional conference on Land, Labour and Food Security. The conference, held in April 1997, was co-hosted by the National Land Committee (NLC), Farmworkers' Research and Resource Project (FRRP), the Environment and Development Agency Trust (EDA) - all from South Africa - and the International South Group Network (ISGN) from Zimbabwe. It is seen as the first step in the crucial process of developing an active regional network of organisations working in land, environmental, rural labour and related issues. Fifty six organisations from the region and 15 other organisations from other parts of Africa and elsewhere participated. Some of the major issues and resolutions that came out of the conference are discussed below.

Around 80 - 90% of the southern African population is based in rural areas, with extreme poverty rife. In most cases there is at best a tenuous connection to the land, with subsistence farming on communally-owned, marginal land and low-paid wage labour forming the bulk of household income. Approximately 60% of those involved in agriculture in the region are self-employed rural workers, with the other 40% engaged in agricultural wage labour for part or all of the year on freehold land dominated by large-scale commercial interests. This situation is the result of the historical dispossession of land and the discriminatory policies that enforced this dispossession, with those having access to land being corralled into certain areas and the rest being forced to work on the land on behalf of commercial farmers for low wages.

Land reform?

Although a limited amount of land reform has taken place in the different countries since independence, growing demands by the World Bank and other Western agencies for privatisation and reduced state support threaten not only to roll back those limited gains but also to push the rural poor further back than they were prior to independence. Those countries that gained independence first (like Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, Angola and Mozambique) instituted land reform mainly via state ownership of the land in the name of the people, allowing peasants to use the land. But with the wave of privatisation sweeping the region, peasants who have been working the land for decades are in danger of losing all access. In Tanzania a proposed Land Act threatens to dispossess over 9 million peasants who will be turned into illegal squatters overnight because land which was formerly vested in the President under ujamaa (villagisation) is due to be privatised by the end of 1997.

A similar Act was passed behind the backs of communities and their organisations in Zambia last year. The same situation is occurring in Angola and Mozambique where liberation ensured access to land by those previously dispossessed. However, this land was never formally registered in their names because it officially belonged to the state. With the end of civil war, large-scale land grabs, often supported (or perpetrated) by corrupt civil servants are preventing returning refugees from regaining the land they had been working on. In such conditions renewed peace is also, unfortunately, renewed exploitation of the rural population.

On the other hand, land reform in those countries that achieved liberation late (like Namibia, South Africa and even Zimbabwe) is constrained by privatisation and market-related approaches even before it has begun. Protection of existing private property rights is already entrenched in the constitutions in some southern African countries.

The World Bank

Now further pressure is being put on these governments from the North, particularly the World Bank, to adopt market-based approaches to land redistribution. Structural Adjustment Programmes put emphasis on privatisation and limited government support. Growing `conditionality' for aid, not only from the World Bank but also increasingly under the Lome Convention - the trade agreement between the European Union (EU) and 70 African-Caribbean-Pacific (ACP) states - means that third world states are being forced to adopt economic adjustment measures determined by the North in exchange for development aid. The European Commission which drew up the so-called `Horizon 2000' development co-operation policy document explicitly states that "although the state is called upon...to drop its role of direct investor, it must not neglect its role in creating the physical and regulatory environment which business needs in order to invest." In Zambia, the Bank last year approved a US$90 million loan for "market liberalization, privatization, and parastatal reform" and in Tanzania US$128.9 million has been granted for reforms including "accelerated privatization of parastatals". These parastatals include farms where the majority of the agricultural workforce is employed.

Although many of these adjustment programmes are "homegrown", they have the Bank's stamp of approval. The Bank's power lies in its ideological hegemony and ability to loan capital, which it wields with far greater effects than direct coercion would have. There is a clear connection between the Bank's arguments for state intervention in the 1960's and its retreat from this position in the 1980's and 1990's and the reality in Africa. By setting the agenda and then loaning only to those that follow the agenda, the global financial institutions are able to intervene significantly in the economies of third world countries.

The case of Mozambique is an excellent example. In the late 1980's, debates around agriculture within the ruling Frente de Libertacao de Mocambique (Frelimo) centred around what was to be done with the state farms. Although not universally accepted, the privatization of state farms and their transfer to large-scale agribusinesses for virtually free was strengthened by donor pressure. The divestiture of the Cabo Delgado State Cotton Enterprise to Lonrho Mozambique, where the state contributed $6 million in infrastructure and land and gave Lonrho a 20 year lease on the land to produce cotton, and the granting of entry of South African sugar giants into the local market have been strengthened by World Bank loans in what is being hailed as (yet another) `miracle'. Meanwhile, peasants are being turned into serfs by the large companies, where communities are tied into a dependent relationship with the companies, experience tenure difficulties and are severely constrained in the long term by relations with the companies. The privatization drive also cost 90,000 workers their jobs in 1996.

The World Bank is not necessarily interested in transforming systems of tenure from communal to individually owned, but it certainly is seeking to build an adherence to "the introduction of modern agricultural technology and market-oriented agriculture." Thus in a presentation to the World Food Summit in Rome last year, the World Bank stated that its' vision for rural development is that "rural growth is widely-shared, with private and competitive agriculture and agribusiness as the main engine of growth" and one way in which this would be achieved is by "involving the private sector in delivering infrastructure and other services wherever possible".

The Bank's position is also fundamentally hostile to indigenous forms of agriculture, which are by no means less efficient than `modern agricultural technology'. Efficiency arguments are being presented alongside seemingly politically neutral technical issues, for example that "improved variety/fertilization/farm mechanisation technologies will also be necessary. Increased utilisation of fertilizers will be especially important to raise yields and maintain soil fertility." There is a great, and often justified, suspicion - not only in southern Africa but also elsewhere in the Third World - that the introduction of modern agricultural technology, side by side with the imposition of trade related intellectual property rights (TRIPs), is a mechanism being used by multinationals to undermine the capability of indigenous farmers to produce independently of the North.

At the regional conference, for example, Professor Nanjundaswamy - president of the 10 million strong Karnataka State Farmers' Association (KRRS), a militant peasant movement in India - related how seed varieties being promoted by multinationals produce crops that require chemicals produced by the same multinationals. Cropping patterns have been substantially altered by international demands which have their own specific commodity structure (e.g. a strong market for cotton or flowers), resulting in food insecurity for the local population as cash crops are produced to remain in the "market." Thus "improved" seed varieties and fertilization often mean a step backwards in the third world.


The World Bank recognises the threat felt by many Africans that economic liberalisation will merely result in recolonisation. The only argument put forward by the Bank on this score is that "in almost all African countries, a large proportion of processing and trade geared to the domestic food market is undertaken by `indigenous' firms and individuals." However, recolonisation is not only a question of direct investment in an economy but also of the expansion of markets in which cheap, subsidised produce can be dumped. While the short term result of cheaper, imported food dampens opposition to liberalisation, it has critical implications for agricultural production and the levels of employment in southern Africa in the long term.

For it situates the `indigenous' producers within a global context of exchange in which a handful of giants have the ability to manipulate markets in their own interests. The local producer is forced to compete in this unequal system or go to the wall. Entire industries are under threat in the region - not least of all agriculture - because they do not have the power or the advantages necessary to compete. This sets the scene for the rapid purchase of land and infrastructure (or what remains of it) by multinationals once the local industry has collapsed. Reports of land and assets being sold for a fraction of their value are widespread in Mozambique, Zambia, Tanzania, Angola and the Congo. Thus, under the guise of reconstruction and development, multinationals are spearheading the process of recolonization.

The market-based approach adopted by many southern African countries concentrates on efficiency and therefore does not effectively address the equity question, which was high on the agenda of the liberation struggle. In most cases, there is what is known as a "willing buyer-willing seller" approach which is a straight-forward market transaction. Apart from the fact that this approach completely ignores the history of forced dispossession in the region, demand is high, thereby pushing the market price of land above the productive value. The rural poor are therefore unable to access land. Although in some countries the government provides financial support, this is far below the market price of land. For example in South Africa, where the land price can be as high as R15,000/ha for arable land, the government subsidy of R15,000 per household would only purchase one hectare of land.

There is also nothing left to provide for infrastructure or to purchase necessary inputs to farm, because most rural households have very meagre savings at best. The result is that the balance of power remains with the current land owners, because it is up to them to decide whether they want to sell their land, how much they are willing to sell it for, they retain their ability to manipulate land markets and hence prices by dint of their ownership etc. It is therefore difficult, using market-based mechanisms, to dislodge land barons and large corporate owners and this is done almost entirely on their terms, and consequently in their interests.

Farm workers

Due to the market-based approaches to land reform and the skewed land tenure systems, the majority continue either to occupy a small piece of land or to be completely landless and used as a pool of cheap labour for commercial farmers. Historically, farm workers have been little more than slave labour for white-owned farms. Denied independent access to land, they were also made to pay taxes in cash which forced them into wage labour. Movement was impeded, unless with the permission of the farm owner, who was thus able to regulate the supply of labour in the rural areas. So, for many, farm work was the only option.

However, virtually none of the farm workers in the region can rely exclusively on wages for survival, which has led to talk about the creation of `multiple livelihoods'. But this over-estimates the extent to which rural people, and especially women - who are hardest hit by SAPs at the household level, can compensate for low wages, rising prices and declining employment opportunities. In the rural context, `multiple income generating activities' is often a euphemism for forcing people to find their own means of survival with no help from the state or large capital.

Rural trade unions are unlikely to be of any real assistance in the near future. There are those that have been allowed to exist but have played a subordinate role in relation to the state, for example in Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique. These unions are now faced with a situation where rapid liberalisation of trade and land laws means adapting to private ownership and collective bargaining procedures without forewarning. The cozy relationship they had with government also meant a lack of independence that has undermined their ability to mobilise and organise their members. On the other hand, newly formed agricultural trade unions - like those in Namibia, South Africa and Malawi - face massive capacity constraints and continued difficulties in accessing workers and therefore in translating legal into actual rights for workers. The entrenchment of the right to private property through various Trespass Acts makes it virtually impossible for unionists to gain access to farms, and vast distances between farms and financial constraints make matters worse.

Most farm workers in the region have tenure tied to their employment. The privatisation of the agricultural sector is resulting in retrenchments, leading to evictions from farms. A broad demand which is emerging across the region is for secure tenure rights for farm workers. In South Africa, where legislation on tenure security in rural areas is presently being debated, an NLC led coalition of individual trade unions and their federations (COSATU and NACTU), NGOs, civic organisations (South African National Civic Organisation), church groups (South African Council of Churches) and political parties (including the ruling ANC, the SACP and the Pan Africanist Congress), have launched a Farm Worker Tenure Campaign. The aim of the campaign has been to strengthen the demand for security of tenure and access to land and to counter the arguments and activities of the South African Agricultural Union (the conservative, white farmers' union) who oppose the proposed legislation.

The charter

The southern African regional conference also unanimously passed a charter on rural labour which, amongst other issues, called for "security of tenure and an end to the threat of evictions for farm workers, and independent access to productive land and other resources enabling farm workers to exercise the option of a healthy and happy existence, independent of commercial land owners" (see the "Southern African Charter on Land, Labour and Food Security, 1997"). It has been agreed amongst participating organisations that practical joint activities in support of the regional charter and resolutions will be the next step.

Independent land access for the rural poor is a necessity in the face of cut-backs and the increasing marginalisation of those working on the land. In particular women, who generally have no right to land ownership under the patriarchal traditional systems in the region, must be granted the right to independent and equal access to and ownership of land. The need to ensure that workers and peasants gain title deeds for land acquired under any new law is also essential. There is also the need to protect the rights of farm workers who are the most marginalised in the region. The regional conference has set a base for activities around these and other issues. Specific resolutions that demand immediate attention were made around the tracking of multinationals in the region, regional minimum standards for farm workers linked to poverty datum lines, a specific focus on women in rural areas, ultimate abolition of child labour, equal participation of farm workers in local government where this right has not yet been established (e.g. in Zimbabwe), and a focus on land reform and food security policy.

In sum, it was agreed by participants at the April conference that governments were not doing enough to address the plight of the rural population in particular. Although by no means an easy task, participating organisations are preparing themselves to rebuild grassroots structures of civil society to take up these issues on a regional basis.

- 30 -
Printable Version

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer(s) and not do necessarily reflect the views of the AfricaFiles' editors and network members. They are included in our material as a reflection of a diversity of views and a variety of issues. Material written specifically for AfricaFiles may be edited for length, clarity or inaccuracies.

     top of page