Ramblings and shared thoughts on land redistribution in Namibia

Progress Namibia - Ramblings and shared thoughts on land redistribution in Namibia
21 May 2018

"A conference on the land suggested that those who have plenty of land they should sell it to the government. And we tried to get the land from them, but unfortunately there is reluctance. Something else has to be tried. We are not talking about confiscation, we are talking about them to sell the land to the government in order for the government to distribute the land to - I don't like to use the word black - but to those who were formerly disadvantaged by the situation.
For the last 20 years, we have been appealing to them, that please let's consider ourselves irrespective of colour. As one people, as Namibians and if a Namibian is suffering, let's all sympathise with him. Here we have hundreds if not thousands of Namibian people who have no land and therefore are suffering....
We have the policy of willing seller, willing buyer, that has not been working for the last 22 years and I think something has to be done to amend the constitution so that the government is allowed to buy the land for the people. Otherwise, if we don't do it we will face a revolution. And if the revolution comes, the land will be taken over by the revolutionaries." Hifikepunye Pohamba, 2012 Interview with Al Jazeera

As you know, last week I wrote about white privilege and racism and how these are impeding progress in Namibia. This issue has been linked to land redistribution in many ways, but I would like to make the argument that land alone is not going to fix income gaps, we need to do a redistribution of wealth - wealth of knowledge, finances, and many other resources. Land is important, and redistribution does need to happen, but it needs to be much more creative than it is now, and needs to stick to the constitutional rights of Namibians.

I will start with a brief factual background of land ownership and productivity in Namibia, the (uncomfortable and controversial) question of who is indigenous, a synthesis of what government has achieved or not achieved in the past 28 years, a critical review of the assumption that land means wealth, and the way forward. It is important to mention here that while I have drawn from various resources such as newspaper articles, interview recordings, as well as Legal Assistance Centre documents among others, the content below is predominantly a summary (and in some cases direct quoting) of the really well outlined fifth chapter on 'Land Matters' in Henning Melber's book 'Understanding Namibia'.

As is widely known, approximately 44% of Namibian territory (all of which is within the area of the former 'Police Zone') is free-hold and owned by less than 5000 (mostly white) farmers. Of the remaining land, 43% is communal (and mostly in northern and eastern areas of Namibia). Of this communal land, many areas have been fenced off, a practice which authorities have tolerated despite them being illegal. It also needs to be remembered that only 8% of the entire Namibian land area (which all sits in the northern communal areas) is suitable for dryland cropping. Of the commercial farmland, 60% receives less than 300 mm per year. It is important to give this context, because it outlines the limitations posed by our environmental conditions (water scarce, soil fertility poor country). And this will only be further constrained by the impacts of climate change, especially given the lack of commitments by global leaders to mitigate global climate change (which as you know we have covered many times in other stories).

The land reform process is an entirely complex one that will not allow for simple solutions, especially if social stability needs to be maintained in this process. This complexity includes, inter alia, the question of who is indigenous in this space. The Southern African continent (like many parts of the world) has been a region of migration and thus also of continual changes in occupation and control of territories. Strictly speaking, a consistent policy of land restitution would hand over Southern Africa to the remaining descendents of the Khoisan communities, whose foreparents are considered as the region's indigenous population in the true sense of the word. Descendants of any other groups are, strictly speaking, the offspring of immigrants occupying territory previously controlled by others. As a result, being 'indigenous' remains a matter of timing and is both relative and negotiable. But, it is important that this does not excuse former colonial powers from meeting their responsibilities in addressing the gross structural imbalances shaped by their interventions. Namibia still bears the traces of colonial history with its inherited structural legacies of an Apartheid system. We must remember that colonisation was a process of violent removal of people from their land which they not only utilised as a base for their mode of production, but was also a foundation for their identity and in many cases, spirituality. In the example of the Herero community, war was a direct response by Herero communities to the land invasion by white settlers. This culminated in genocidal forms of execution which then firmly entrenched the skewed land distribution in what was since then for administrative purposes a 'Police Zone' under direct colonial administration.

Then, in addition, reversing historical injustices such as these also requires the decision when and under which circumstances change of land ownership became acceptable. Again, a matter of timing.

So, what has government done in the last 28 years to redistribute land taken away during colonial and apartheid periods? Some have cynically argued that land reform already had taken place in the early 1990s when high-ranking office-bearers and bureaucrats of the new elite had used their privileged position during initial power to secure their own farms through access to land provided by the state agencies. These were also among the regular beneficiaries of drought relief through state-financed drilling of boreholes on their private farms, thereby adding revenue and aid-funded value to their property.
Well, this was only part of the redistribution. Much else has happened, as have many barriers to a what is certainly not a simple process. Despite our leaders speaking about the failure of the 'willing-seller-willing-buyer' process because farm owners were unwilling to sell land, in the first decade after independence only 97 farms were actually bought from government for land reform processes out of 759 commercial farms on offer to the government. This is only 13% of farms that government could have bought from willing sellers. The White Paper on Resettlement Policy 2001 therefore, strictly speaking, did not fail due to a lack of farms on the market. This begs the question: if previous Presidents Hifikepunye Pohamba and Sam Nujoma contest that not enough land was offered up, but then on the other hand much of the land offered was not actually bought by government, then was the land offered not productive enough, or was the land that was actually sought not offered? If the quality of the land on offer would not promote a meaningful re-distributive effect by resettling people, it would actually support the argument that Namibia's environmental constraints do not allow for people to make a decent living from the land (in modern standards at least).

Another complexity thrown in is that, actually, land restitution is not really an issue for the majority of the population. Land was physically occupied and expropriated by European settlers and the colonial state in the southern and central areas of Namibia (the 'Police Zone'). The majority of the population settled north and were never moved; patterns of exploitation (like labour, for instance) were established there in different forms of indirect rule.

So, it is sad to see that certain ambiguity, since independence, especially towards minority groups, prevailed. Some examples of these:
(a) A Damara community occupying the entrance of Daan Viljoen Game Park outside Windhoek in the mid 1990s were resettled to state farms despite the fact that they were forcefully removed from the land they claimed back only half a century ago;
(b) The San group claiming access to Etosha National Park as part of their ancestral land were even arrested and brought to court for their occupation of one of the entrance gates to the park;
(c) State authorities showed little respect towards the notion of ancestral land in the ongoing dispute with members of the Himba communities who resist the planned construction of Epupa dam, as it would flood parts of their land they claim to be their ancestral burial grounds. In fact, on another note, the Himba are among the most successful and economically independent subsistent farmers in Africa with sound strategies for food security which have proven successful even in times of severe drought, and Epupa dam would have also threatened some of this livelihood.

The difficulties in disentangling competing claims of lost lands provided an ideal political opportunity to broaden the category of beneficiaries of land reform to include those who were never disposed in the historical sense. And this has happened, in terms of the claim by government after a decade of independence to refer to 240,000 people on the waiting list for resettlement, mainly from the densely populated northern areas, where direct evasion from land never took place under German and South African rule.

On the other hand, in 2002, there was a plan to expropriate 192 farms from absentee landlords. Despite this plan being pushed from leadership, and that the expropriation was within the legal and constitutional framework, the directive was not implemented by Government.

Then, in May 2004, then President Pohamba sent a letter to over ten farmers expressing Government interest in buying the property. The farm owners were invited to make an offer to sell the property to the State. Among the farmers targeted were those which were on record for labour-related conflicts. So to most of us, that sounds like an amicable plan. Once the expropriation letters were distributed, a minority group of racist hard-liners among the farmers took the matter forward into public confrontation. At a meeting in June 2004, they articulated arrogant and self-righteous defiance to government and blamed the commercial farmers union for its sell-out strategy (the union has never really had a uniform and consistent voice on this matter). This of course did not help the matter in the slightest.

It is important to consider all these angles to understand the complexity inherent in solving the land issue. The land issue, while in many instances is about wealth (and the wrong assumption that having land equates to having wealth), is also represented by a basis of identity. It is a matter of dignity, self-respect and spirituality. This relationship with the land is not measured in our economy, and thus is often an argument that is pushed below the surface, even though this will drive decisions.

Which brings the discussion to calculated populism. The land issue, as long as it remains unresolved in the eyes of many, will always be a social factor that can be easily activated by those competing to political power, material gains or seeking popular support. This invites hidden agendas and offers the possibility of exploiting existing disillusionment among the landless and unemployed. Look at the example of Zimbabwe - the frustrated parts of the population was abused by government in attempts to maintain political power. The government which failed to address the land issue during the first two decades since Independence then rallied popular support by advocating militant ways of land redistribution which blatantly ignored the rule of law it had established at Independence. And there are now examples in Namibia where such radical rhetoric on the land issue is garnering support. And unless the government undertakes deliberate efforts to work towards an amicable solution, the land issue will remain vulnerable as a focus of aggression which might develop its own dynamics and once having gained momentum, will run out of control.

As mentioned above, it is popularly believed that the possession of land is associated with wealth. And it is very important that this belief is debunked. For those dependent on the land for their livelihood (whether commercial or communal) will tell you, and be able to prove it, that their existence is not guaranteed, especially in times of drought. On average, these farmers are certainly not wealthy. We need to differentiate these from those who have taken on 'weekend farming'. It has become very fashionable to the urban upper and middle class to have a farm which they subsidise from other principal forms of income, a 'rich man's hobby'. This part time pastoralism practiced by the fashionable lifestyle of the post colonial urban and rural elites in salaried employment can only further marginalise the landless and unemployed.

Then there is the argument that giving back land to a previous herder (or tiller) does not pay off in terms of economic performance. From the macroeconomic point of view, the present pattern of commercially-driven utilisation makes sense. Commercial farmers farm cattle for beef which is then traded internationally and earns foreign currency. Although I am not in favour of this argument as I believe subsistence farming should be over and above commercial farming, especially if it manages to feed more people (rather than increasing GDP which does not equate to better wellbeing for the landless masses). But it still needs to be seen within our cash economy. Field research exploring the results of some among the first farms utilised for resettlement purposes offered some sobering results. Most of the settlements remained dependent on food aid, do not receive the necessary support towards self-sufficiency and fail to meet the social welfare objectives. The main issue here is not land, but poverty. And if you look at the Poverty Reduction Strategy nor the Poverty Reduction Action Programme, both did not link land reform to poverty reduction. Which implies that the government does not view land redistribution as one of the major instruments in reducing poverty.

So. What does this all mean? Well, many years of the resettlement programme have yielded not so great results. It has failed to empower the poor and landless of Namibia to become self-reliant. It has also not always focused on the most marginalised, who should come first. Resettling people does not only involve buying or expropriating land from the haves to give that land to the have-nots. Resettlement involves a complex human process and requires careful social and economic planning in order for it to be successful.

The land issue should not emerge or remain as a tempting political tool for manipulation and social engineering when instead we should be addressing a long overdue material redistribution as an integral coherent process to reduce inequity in our society.

In this sense, we need a blend of land issues within this greater complex. Here I would like to bring up, as many have before, the fact that we should be spending as much time on communal land management, as we are on commercial land reform. Communal land makes up roughly 43% but 70% of people live off this land (in one way or another). Proper, holistic management and administration of communal land (constantly under threat by international developers and illegal fencing, among others) should be for the benefit of all inhabitants. The local privatisation of communal land (as well as the commercialisation by private and foreign investors) marginalises the most vulnerable even further. Government and their local authorities need to make sure that communal land remains communal. In fact, if any land is further redistributed, should not an argument be made for increasing the communal areas - versus resettling new private owners? We do, after all, live in a dryland system in which nomadism among grazers has proven the evolved strategy. In this sense, fencing and making borders (a very European way of farming which has spread all over the world) is perhaps not appropriate for our farmland conditions. So, a controversial question: what if all farm land was communal and open, and what if this land was 'managed' holistically? There are plenty of examples where commons have indeed been looked after better than in private hands.

It is no secret that the land issue is complicated, and while it is easy to look at the failures and challenges within the current land reform process, there are few real-life examples that can illustrate a success story of land restitution and maintenance of social stability. But it is true that the current system only further marginalises instead of integrates. Issues need to be looked at within a system. It is important to note that within this system there is also a difference between agricultural land and residential (urban) land (which I have not really covered in this article). In terms of agricultural land the conclusion in a policy paper in 2005 rings true, which highlighted improving agriculture in communal lands through capital and skills investment (as well as holistic management), restructuring existing commercial agriculture, as well as bold and creative policy of land reform and land resettlement in commercial and communal areas alike. This will be expensive and require a substantial government subsidy, but the alternative is probably even more expensive.

I suppose the greater question one has to ask when formulating and detailing this policy: is this better for the quality of life for all, or better for the economy (not the same thing, given the current economic system). In other words, does it solve social inequity, or continue making the rich richer, and the poor poorer?