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With a focus on questions of rural development, for Chris Tapscott it is the ebb and flow of internal Namibian politic - around questions of emergent class interests and diverse ethnic calculations - that stalls the process of land reform. (jbv)

vol 9 no 3

Land reform in Namibia: Why not?
Chris Tapscott

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 9, No 3, January 1994
Page 12



Chris Tapscott is associated with the Social Sciences Division of the University of Namibia.

From the time of German occupation, land theft has been a central issue in the struggle for national self-determination in Namibia. So it is not surprising that, with the onset of independence, the land question has ranked high on the political agenda.

Dispossession of the indigenous people had been a feature of colonial rule and, at independence, some 45% of the total land area and 74% of the potentially arable land was owned by less than 4,100 people, mainly white, commercial farmers who comprised less than 0.2% of the total population. With the advent of independence, expectations of some form of redistribution were thus widespread, and although SWAPO never proposed full-scale nationalization of land in its 1989 election manifesto, it did commit itself to "transfer some of the land from the few with too much of it to the landless majority." However, nearly four years after the departure of South African colonial forces, no significant steps have been taken towards the formulation, let alone implementation, of a program of land reform in Namibia.

With the indigenous population mostly relegated to the ethnic reserves in the north (and to a much lesser extent in the south), much of the central plateau remains solidly white-owned. Depicted as a swath of green on official maps of Namibia, this "footprint" of colonialism serves as a constant reminder of the inequities of the past and of the fact that the policy of national reconciliation, while a cornerstone of the peace process, has done much to entrench the status quo. Given the fact that the land question remains largely unresolved, serious questions are being asked about the SWAPO government's commitment to land reform and of its political will to challenge the vested interests of a small elite.

Present land policies

In June 1991, a national Lands Conference was held to discuss the land question. The conference, broadly representative in its attendance, reached a measure of consensus on the issue of redistribution. These included the resolutions that any redistribution would be on a compensatory "willing seller/willing buyer" basis, and, significantly, that there could be no recognition of ancestral land claims. The conference, however, was purely consultative in nature. Beyond the establishment of a number of guiding principles, it provided no mandate for future action. In hindsight, the consultative process acted as a public relations exercise to defuse the immediate clamour for reform and to buy time for the government to consolidate its rule.

Since then, the government has taken some steps to purchase farms to resettle farmers from the communal areas. But the program has been far from comprehensive and its impact has been minimal. This is partly due to the fact that some of the farms offered for sale to the government are in marginal agricultural areas and partly to the fact that few black Namibians have been willing or able to buy farms at commercial rates (favourable loan conditions notwithstanding). Following the recommendations of a technical committee on commercial farming, the Cabinet is also set to pass some land reform legislation in early 1994. The criteria being used to determine which land should be appropriated for redistribution include absentee ownership, the underutilization and undercapitalization of land, and the multiple ownership of farms.

Some seven million hectares of land (roughly 10% of suitable farming land) have been identified under these criteria, but the process of redistribution is likely to face a number of constraints over and above those pertaining to the quality of agricultural land made available. In the first instance, the farms identified are scattered throughout the country and this is likely to limit the options for land reform. It will, for example, limit the prospects for extending existing communal areas. In the second instance, following the dictates of the policy of willing seller/willing buyer, the state, which is already suffering fiscal pressures, must find the resources to expropriate the land at market-related prices. As a consequence, the land reform, which is likely to ensue from this redistribution, is likely to benefit a relatively small proportion of the population.

In defending the slow pace of reform, government officials point to the poor endowment of the country as a limiting factor in the reform process. Despite its size, a significant part of Namibia is desert or semi-desert, and ecological conditions in general are harsh. With the exception of certain regions, neither the climate nor the soils are favourable for arable agriculture on any scale. In much of the south and west of the country, the extensive and expensive nature of farming in many commercial farming areas renders them unsuitable in their present form for small scale farming (ten hectares are needed for each head of livestock in certain areas, plus investment in water infrastructure and fence maintenance). In this context, the mere redistribution of land is not likely in itself to resolve the problem of landlessness in Namibia.

Moving small scale subsistence farmers from overcrowded and agriculturally marginal areas in the north to the arid south, ultimately could place them in an even more disadvantaged situation. It is also certain that, for the majority of small scale farmers in the north, access to inputs (credit, extension services, markets, etc.) which could facilitate more intensive utilization of their arable land is a far more pressing issue than the need for more arable land. However, these constraints alone are an insufficient explanation for the government's inaction on the land issue. Other reasons must be sought.

Land is not the question

The lack of urgency in addressing land issues in Namibia leads to the controversial conclusion that, election rhetoric aside, land reform is not a top priority for the SWAPO government at present. Heretical as this perspective might be within party circles, it is, nevertheless, historically grounded. Dispossession of the indigenous population commenced under German rule, when the ethnic groups inhabiting the central Namibian plateau (principally the Herero, Nama, Damara and San) were forceful dispelled to make way for colonial settlers. Ethnic groups to the north were contained in their southerly movement by a cordon of forts that guarded the perimeters of the settler zone. However, while their traditional boundaries were pushed back to an extent, they did not suffer land theft to any significant degree. Unlike their counterparts to the south, ethnic groups in the north, which comprise two thirds of the national population, are not in a position to point to land currently occupied by white commercial farmers and lay claim to it on ancestral grounds.

Although access to land remains an important factor in the north, the issue lacks the emotive force and political urgency found in communities further south. At the same time, while SWAPO can not be accused of being ethnically biased (it actively recruits among all ethnic groups), it remains a fact, on the evidence of the national election of 1989 and the regional elections of 1992, that the party draws the bulk of its political support from the north, and predominantly from the former Owambo region. In this context, there is at present no groundswell of pressure on the government to effect sweeping changes to existing patterns of land ownership.

This state of affairs is exacerbated by the fact that there is a growing trend among certain farmers in the former Owambo and Kavango regions to fence rangelands, hitherto recognized as communal pasture, for private use. Under this practice, private farms (often several thousand hectares in size) are acquired from the local traditional leaders for a small fee, which seldom exceeds one or two thousand Namibian dollars. Not only is this practice disrupting age-old patterns of transhumance in the region, confining seasons grazing into ever-smaller areas with the concomitant danger of environmental degradation, but it is also relieving pressure on the government to reallocate land in the commercial farming areas. This is because those who are enclosing land comprise a powerful alliance of senior traditional leaders, the local business elite and senior political figures, including some members of the Cabinet. Without the support of this group, calls for land reform from the north are largely muted.

Although the government has indicated that it will take action against this enclosure, there is little likelihood that it will do so. In the first instance, those acquiring private farms are not, strictly speaking, breaking any laws, since unrepealed legislation carried over from the colonial era permits traditional leaders to allocate land at their discretion. In the second instance, it is unlikely to seek a confrontation with such a powerful group of its own supporters. Under these circumstances, the most that might be expected will be a moratorium on all future enclosures of communal land. The practice, nevertheless, is also undermining the government's own efforts to encourage wealthier farmers to leave the communal areas and settle in the commercial farming areas. Since the acquisition of land in the commercial areas in on market-related terms, there is little, if any, incentive for such farmers to move.

At the same time, the process of enclosure runs the risk of accelerating social differentiation within the commercial areas. Farmers who enclose communal rangeland typically graze their stock on the commons and only move them back to their private reserves once this is depleted. Under drought conditions, such as those that occurred in 1991/92, small subsistence farmers who lack the means to fence land suffered higher stock losses than those who had access to private grazing. A progressive decline in assets, in turn, is leading to increasing pressure to move off the land among those who are economically mobile.

At present, the groups most vocal in their claims for restitution of land are those who were forcibly dispossessed of their land during different phases of colonial rule. Unlike communities in the north that practice mixed livestock and grain farming, these farmers in the centre and south of the country are predominantly pasturalists whose immediate need is for additional grazing for overgrazed communal lands and the relatively rich pastures of the private commercial farms is dramatic. Such contrasts, moreover, tend to be accentuated during drought years when the survival of their herds, and hence their primary resource base, is threatened.

Despite the moral and economic legitimacies of their claims, these ethnic groups are numerically small and comprise no more than six per cent of the national population. Perhaps more significantly, however, they also represent a political minority who have predominantly supported Namibia's opposition parties. Falling outside of the mainstream of ruling party politics, it may convincingly be argued, these groups do not represent an important part of the SWAPO constituency and hence their claims are not a matter of immediate concern. For many communities in these areas, there is a growing frustration that their appeals for more land are falling on deaf ears and that other steps must be taken to highlight their demands.

The most explicit demonstration of this disaffection was the spontaneous reoccupation of ancestral land by a community from Au Xaigas in the arid west of the country in late 1992. The Au Xaigas community was forcibly resettled in the then Damaraland homeland during the 1950s in order to make way for a small game reserve on the outskirts of Windhoek. While the reoccupation of their ancestral land was largely symbolic, in that it was accompanied by demands for alternative grazing, it represented the first direct challenge to existing state policy on land. It is also significant that the government's knee-jerk response to the Au Xaigas invasion was to forcefully evict them, an eventuality that was only averted by personal intervention by the Prime Minister. Following protracted negotiations, the community was moved to grazing land on farms bought by the government, amidst statements that this move in no way represented a precedent for future claims on ancestral land. Nevertheless, since then, there have been several more such claims, including one by the Haikom people for restoration of their hunting grounds in the Etosha Game Park, and no doubt these will not be the last.

Government commitment questionable

At present, the government lacks a clear vision of the reform measures it should be pursuing. In particular there is a lack of clarity on whether reforms should redress political and social inequities as well as issues of production or the latter alone. While a major problem relates to a lack of information to explore alternative forms of land reform (hence a reliance on the simplistic willing seller/willing buyer formulation), the government's true commitment to the process remains questionable. In that respect, the reforms currently proposed are unlikely to satisfy the demands of those most disadvantaged. At the same time, they run the risk of closing the book on reform.

It has been the experience in most developing countries that the longer land reform is delayed following a major political change (a revolution, the attainment of national independence, etc.), the more difficult it becomes to implement. This is because new elites, with new vested interests, increasingly replace or reach an accommodation with elites from the old social order. This appears increasingly to be the situation in Namibia. It is certain, nevertheless, that until such time as the land question is systematically and comprehensively addressed it will continue to be a major social and political issue. In that respect, it is perhaps ironic that the land issue could well provide a platform for political forces mobilizing against SWAPO.

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