Samuel and Julius Maherero, leaders of the Herero rebellion against German imperialism in 1904. The Germans, in retaliation, killed 60,000 Africans and enslaved many more for over 80 years., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Landless in the land of the brave
Friday, 29 March 2013 00:00
Namibia’s national anthem includes these lyrics: “Namibia, land of the brave/ Freedom fight we have won/ Glory to their bravery/ Whose blood waters our freedom.” But today — 23 years after independence from apartheid South Africa — very few indigenous Namibians own land in the “Land of the Brave”.
At the close of Namibia’s ruling party, SWAPO’s fifth congress on December 2, 2012, party leader and state president Hifikepunye Pohamba disclosed that a raft of major issues had been highlighted during deliberations and these would be dealt with expeditiously. Among them were “accelerated land reform and land redistribution” and “addressing the access and affordability of residential land in urban and peri-urban areas”.
A few statistics will put the criticality of the land issue into perspective: White Namibians make up about 6 percent of Namibia’s population of 2,4 million people, other non-black groups (mostly mixed race) make up less than 8 percent, and the rest (about 76 percent ) are black Africans. But whites control nearly 90 percent of the land in what is the world’s 34th largest country by area. And around 50 percent of the arable land is in the hands of just about 4000 white commercial farmers.
In this country of skewed land ownership, experts say the GDP per capita in 2005 was $2334 (Africa’s average was $681), but the richest 5 percent of the population — mostly whites — take about 71 percent. At the same time, the poorest 55 percent account for 3 percent of GDP.
This has seen Namibia characterised as one of the most unequal societies on Earth, something that is rarely mentioned in the media. The whites who enjoy all this wealth are mostly descendants of German and South African colonisers, and many of them are absentee landowners who live permanently in South Africa, Italy, Germany and other places.
According to Dr Wolfgang Werner, who soon after Namibia’s independence in 1990 served as director of lands in the Ministry of Lands, Resettlement and Rehabilitation: “The racially-weighted distribution of land was an essential feature in the colonial exploitation of Namibia’s resources, directly affecting the profitability not only of settler agriculture, but also of mining and the industrial sector.
“As in pre-independence Zimbabwe, the whole wage structure and labour supply system depended critically on the land divisions in the country. Access to land determined the supply and cost of African labour to the colonial economy. So, large-scale dispossession of black Namibians was as much intended to provide white settlers with land, as it was to deny black Namibians access to the same land, thereby denying them access to commercial agricultural production and forcing them into wage labour.”
It is against this background that at its December party congress, President Pohamba and SWAPO included the land issue among the most pressing in Namibia. But how is it that this situation prevails 23 years after independence? When apartheid South Africa finally succumbed to local military and international diplomatic pressure in 1990 and left.
Namibia, the new government tried to institute a process of land reform. However, as in all independence pacts, crucial clauses were inserted in the constitution to ensure that “private property” remained protected and the status quo was preserved.
In Namibia’s case, this was Article 16(2) of Chapter 3 of the constitution, which says:
“The state or a competent body or organ authorised by law may expropriate property in the public interest subject to the payment of just compensation, in accordance with requirements and procedures to be determined by [an] Act of Parliament.” More broadly, this is interpreted as the “willing-buyer, willing-seller” system, in which the state cannot acquire land for redistribution unless the landholder actually wants to let go of it.
Crucially, the seller has to agree to the price offered by the government.
This condition, it is widely accepted, came about as a result of the efforts of the “Contact Group”, which comprised the UK, USA, Canada, Germany and France, as a means of ensuring SWAPO could not deliver on its key liberation grievance of large-scale land redistribution. As such, between 1990 and 2002, only 1percent of commercial land changed hands from whites to blacks, and by the mid-1990s less than 20 freehold farms had been purchased for redistribution.
Available figures indicate that as at November 2011, the government had bought 293 farms covering some 1.8 million hectares at about $66m. This translated to 4790 families resettled against a waiting-list of nearly 200 000. Namibia’s First National Development Plan (1995-2000) committed $2,4m per year for purchasing commercial farms, and a similar figure was set aside for the same purposes under the Second National Development Plan (2001-2005).
The annual budget for land acquisition was increased to $5,9m in 2003, and there are indications that this could soon be doubled.
Even then, going by what was paid for 293 farms in the first 12 years of independence, the figure could turn out to be woefully inadequate as land prices rise.
The government says it aims to acquire 15,3 million hectares of land by 2020; 5 million for direct resettlement and the rest through an Affirmative Action Loan Scheme. With the current pace of redistribution, such a target remains unlikely — unless radical reforms are instituted. The government has responded to the land pressure by coming up with new regulations that it hopes will speed up the process of acquisition. However, it remains a willing-buyer, willing-seller system.
In essence, the new model allows commercial farmers to tell the government they are not interested in selling land in a shorter space of time.
According to a Lands and Resettlement Ministry newsletter, farmers can now withdraw their offer of selling land to the state if they do not like the initial offer price or how negotiations are proceeding. The government then moves on to the next farmer.
“This model opens the way for flexibility and negotiations between government and the landowner before the ministry makes a final counter-offer,” the Lands Ministry says.
Previously, once a farmer made an offer of sale to the state, s/he could not withdraw it and the two parties would be locked in never-ending negotiations with the Lands Tribunal standing available for price determination.
“The (new) mechanism has been rigorously tested since then and has proved to be doable and beneficial to all parties,” the Lands Ministry insists.
This means farmers can easily price the land out of the government’s reach much quicker than previously, something that Namibia’s founding president, Dr Sam Nujoma, fumed about in an interview with the regional weekly paper, The Southern Times. “We thought that when we have adopted the policy of national reconciliation, those whites who remained with us in Namibia, [would] also accept our policy of land reform, but we see now they are sabotaging land reform,” said a furious Dr Nujoma. Land reform remains premised on the National Resettlement Policy and Resettlement Criteria, which are thankfully now under review.
The criteria stems from the 1991 National Land Reform conference, which adopted 24 “consensus resolutions” that inform the laws and policies governing tenure changes. Apart from the willing-buyer, willing-seller system, there can be no claims on the grounds of “ancestral land” and priority is on expropriating farms from absentee landlords.
Amendments through a proposed Land Bill, to peg maximum farm sizes in communal areas to 20 hectares and to identify under-utilised land among other measures, could also mean more people getting access to land. But the question is: why are the farm sizes of the already disadvantaged being limited in a country where it is not unusual for a white farmer to own 20,000 or more hectares of land? Zero cases in 20 years!
There are several legal and political routes that the state can pursue to meet its obligations to the land hungry, one of which is using the Lands Tribunal more effectively.
The Tribunal was established to act as an arbiter in disputes between the willing-buyer and the willing-seller. According to the Ministry of Lands and Resettlement: “The Lands Tribunal is mainly tasked with the determination of the purchase price of farms in the event where the farm owner concerned [does] not agree [with] the counter-offer made by the minister in respect of the farm offered and the owner makes an application to the Lands Tribunal.”
The Ministry’s website gives the Lands Tribunal’s jurisdiction as:
Deciding any appeal lodged with it in terms of any provision of the Act.
Considering and giving a decision on any application made to it in terms of any provision of the Act.
Generally inquiring and adjudicating upon any matter which is required or permitted to be referred to it under any provision of this Act or any other law.
The Tribunal has as much authority as the High Court of Namibia, and thus carries sufficient weight to ease things along. But according to the chair of the Tribunal, Advocate Dirk Conradie, the institution is yet to hear a single case. That’s right, zero cases in 20 years!
In an interview with New African, Conradie could barely hide his frustration, both as a Namibian and as a professional, at the under-use of the Lands Tribunal. In his view, the state is yet to exhaust the options available to it. “The government can simply state maximum farm sizes and start reallocating the ‘excess’ land,” he says.
“There is no justice in one person having 70,000 hectares of land – which was illegally seized from indigenous populations during colonialism – when hundreds of thousands of people have nothing.
“After that, the state must go after absentee landlords. This has been done to some extent but the mechanisms must be tightened. Why should a person own 20,000 hectares that they use as a holiday resort for two months of the year and then spend the other 10 months in Germany or wherever else?”
Conradie adds that a major area that needs revisiting to unlock land access is that of “illegally obtained land”. According to him: “Any transfer of land requires a waiver from the Ministry of Lands and Resettlement, even if that land is owned by a closed corporation. But what we have are white lawyers in this country facilitating the transfer of land from one closed corporation to another without seeking clearance from the state.
“The Ministry of Trade should avail a register of the properties of closed corporations, so that if they own land no asset transfers can be done without the Ministry of Lands being aware.”
What he means is this: a private company that owns farmland can sell out to another private company, and ownership of that land is thus transferred without the government being aware of it.
Since no waiver has been granted for the transfer of that land, the land is “illegally obtained” and should thus be automatically forfeited to the state.
Conradie thinks “the government should conduct an audit on which companies own what land and how they acquired it”. Another major handicap in the present system is that of the jurisdiction of the Lands Tribunal. While it enjoys the same status as the High Court, it also appears to share jurisdiction with that institution. This means an aggrieved party can opt to take a land dispute to the High Court rather than the Lands Tribunal, and that is more likely to happen as Conradie’s views on land reform are well known. As long as white farmers can get recourse to the High Court, they will not go to the Lands Tribunal. President Pohamba knows that Namibia is sitting on a timebomb.
In an interview with Al Jazeera last year, the president said: “Inequality exists… people are not happy, and when you talk about people not being happy, what do you expect? They can react. And when they react, then those who have the land will not have the land, people will take over the land.”
Political and legal options are there for Namibia, but will they be taken? The late Prof Archie Mafeje of the University of Cape Town (South Africa) once cast aspersions on the political will of Namibia’s rulers and the wealthy. “The whole debate about land in Namibia is not about the livelihood of the dispossessed in the countryside but about how best to maintain the status quo,” he said. “This could be true of white farmers, the government, as well as the black notables in the so-called communal areas.” But how long can this situation continue?
— NewAfrican magazine.