In-depth: Land reform in Southern Africa

SOUTHERN AFRICA: Overview

Photo: USAID
JOHANNESBURG, 1 July 2003 (IRIN) - The colonial histories of Southern African countries have influenced the land reform debate. But whether land is in the hands of a white minority or a black elite, redistribution in favour of the poor remains an emotive issue.

Countries that were "settled" under colonialism - Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe - share a similar profile of racially skewed land distribution, dual tenure systems based on received law and customary law, and a dispossessed black rural population confined to degraded and overcrowded communal lands.

Land issues in "non-settled" countries tend to be more strongly associated with landlessness, environmental degradation, loss of land to peri-urban settlement, high population growth, unsustainable land use and weak systems of land administration, according to a synthesis of land issues in Southern Africa presented at a World Bank regional workshop last year.

"The main justification for land reform in post-colonial Southern Africa has been the repossession and redistribution of freehold land to achieve a more equitable balance in land ownership, as well as to raise the economic and social well being of the African population, in order to redress past wrongs and to address the consequences of colonial land practices," John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group (ICG) told IRIN.

"In addition to land redistribution, land tenure reform is a crucial aspect of land reform," he added. "The aims of tenure reform are to enhance the land rights of the poor, to secure their control over the land they use and occupy, and to devolve power over land administration and management to local democratic institutions."

The ICG is preparing a study on land reform in the subregion.

Land is a highly charged issue. South African land expert Scott Drimie explained that, for Southern Africa, reform must be seen in the context of restitution. "The primary reason is about history. There are vast inequalities that have to be addressed for historical and economic reasons."

Poverty reduction

According to Oxfam's land policy adviser, Robin Palmer, because of economic disempowerment as a result of structural adjustment programmes, land reform has become all the more important. "Land is often all that people have as a bottom line for livelihood security."

Land reform is not merely about asset redistribution. Ideally it should form part of a policy of poverty reduction within a framework of rural development. Land resettlement should, therefore, be buttressed by the provision of clinics, roads, schools, access to agricultural inputs and markets.

The reality has been that governments have failed to allocate the financial and human resources needed to address the land issue, said a think-tank of land experts who met earlier this year in South Africa to analyse constraints on sustainable land reform in Southern Africa.

"At the same time, donors have found it increasingly difficult to justify the allocation of aid resources to land reform in the region. This reluctance is due to the lack of viable policies and programmes, and is also a response to policy trends - in practice if not in rhetorical terms - away from the pro-poor agenda that donors feel should be the focus of land reform policies," the 14-member think-tank noted.

"The misfit between land policy and rural development is most evident where land reform is being pursued by a government primarily as a 'quasi-constitutional right' or a means of redressing past injustices, rather than as a basis for sustainable rural livelihoods... Redressing gross racial imbalances in land ownership and access is one thing; recreating sustainable livelihoods on the land is infinitely more difficult."

The think-tank meeting was organised by the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation Zimbabwe and the Southern African Regional Poverty Network.

A common view is that governments in the region have been complicit in the preservation of land alienated by a powerful elite. Even liberation movements, once in power, are often accused of dropping their radicalism, preferring to join the privileged.

An initially strong political commitment to land redistribution has been followed by a switch of emphasis to so-called economic goals, rather than the eradication of landlessness and/or poverty.

"Indeed, debates about land reform everywhere have seen a confrontation between those who believe that land reform must be centred on the redistribution of ownership (or land rights over) productive agricultural land in favour of the rural poor, and those opposed to extensive redistribution, who wish the reform to focus on measures to raise agricultural productivity and/or create a new class of (black) African commercial farmers," the think-tank noted.

Often mentioned as part of the reason for the lack of real progress in redistributive land reform has been the principle of "willing buyer, willing seller", which was insisted upon by the British during Zimbabwe's independence negotiations. The willing-seller side of the equation is an obstacle to "any form of systematic designation of land for redistribution", the think-tank observed.

"There are unreconstructed power relationships in South Africa, in Zimbabwe until recently, and Namibia. These formal and informal power structures [the banks, for example] are rigged against emergent black farmers. When you are supposed to have willing buyer, willing seller, what you often get is an unequal relationship," Palmer told IRIN.

The principle was not imposed by donors funding South Africa's land reform process during 1994 to 1999. The South African constitution provides for land expropriation, with "just and equitable" (as opposed to market-related) compensation, for a public purpose or in the public interest - which specifically includes land reform.

"If 'willing seller, willing buyer' has been a constraint in the past, and it is now judged to be irrelevant, it should be dropped from the agenda altogether," the think-tank concluded. "We felt that there are several issues around this subject that need more investigation, such as the real nature of the constraint it imposes, and whether it is the supply of land or the other conditions (price, who gets land once it is 'redistributed', etc.) that are the real problem."

Missing women

Women make a major contribution to household well-being through their productive labour, but have been largely absent in the debates on land reform, and not rewarded for their contribution.


Photo: USAID
Tea workers
"Land is a major resource in women's livelihood strategies. However, in general women are discriminated against in terms of the robustness of their rights in land, and this can create severe hardships for them and for those who depend on them. Generally their rights in land are secondary rights, derived through their membership in households and secured primarily through marriage," analyst Cherryl Walker said in a study on women's access to land.

"Addressing women's particular disadvantages in relation to land ownership, access and control has not been a major focus in the drafting of new land policies, although most countries formally acknowledge gender equity as a goal at the level of principle... Redistribution programmes in Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe have not targeted women as potential beneficiaries and have, in any case, not been implemented on a sufficiently large scale to address land hunger and land need in the communal areas."

There is considerable potential for the state to target marginalised groups, such as women, or to ensure that the principle of gender equity informs the terms of membership and participation within land reform. "The extent to which this happens, however, depends on the extent to which the state is committed in this direction, or under pressure to do so," the study, prepared for the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation, noted.

"Tenure reform, on the other hand, involves interventions in already existing social and property relationships, and the affected communities may be more or less resistant or supportive, and more or less united or divided, in their responses to such innovations as enhanced land rights for women, or women's representation on land management bodies... Nevertheless, given the value of common property resources to women, policies aimed at strengthening community access to these resources, and recognising the layers of overlapping rights in land that are accommodated within customary systems, can be very important for women, especially poor women."

Walker pointed out: "A serious problem, however, is that state capacity to implement land reform is already a problem in many countries; implementation of gender policy in land reform will require the deployment of additional capacity and resources."

Effective administration has been described as the "missing link" in any land reform exercise. That includes the proper definition of property rights, land market controls and quality assurance, land valuation and revenue collection. "Land administration systems in Africa have generally failed to perform the functions for which they were designed," the World Bank workshop report noted.

Impact of HIV/AIDS

HIV/AIDS has the potential to have an even more catastrophic impact on land reform. Dan Mullins, Oxfam's regional HIV/AIDS coordinator, points out that it can affect those being resettled by depriving some families of access to resettlement due to illness, while others may acquire land but eventually be unable to work it.

AIDS-affected households typically shift to less labour intensive production, in some cases leaving land fallow, or using sharecropping arrangements to raise cash or share output. The sale of cattle to cover medical expenses often robs households of draft power, lowering their production. In some countries, land not used for a specified number of years reverts to the allocating authority.

AIDS also affects people running the institutions that support land reform, or supply essential goods and services. "We must assume that 20 to 35 percent of staff are HIV-positive, and carefully consider the implications for institutional capacity to carry out its functions, [and the] impacts in terms of productivity, on finances, on human resources and long-term workforce planning," Mullins said in a paper on land reform and poverty reduction.

"What we do know is that the effects of HIV/AIDS are unevenly distributed and fall most severely on the poorest and most marginal members of society, who are most vulnerable to losing, forfeiting or alienating their land rights as a result of sickness or death within their families and households. Many of the most marginal households ... are likely to break up and disappear altogether," the think-tank report noted.

Boost for big farms

The received wisdom is that small is beautiful and small-scale farmers are invariably more productive than large estates. However, new comparative studies are beginning to suggest that in Southern Africa this might not always hold true, and small family farms may not be able to compete so well in increasingly liberalised and competitive markets.

"Where rains are both unpredictable and unreliable, which is over much of the region, the mechanised farmer can readily take advantage of favourable soil moisture conditions... This flexibility is not available to small-scale farmers dependent on borrowed oxen or draught animals weakened by fodder shortages during the long dry season," the think-tank said.

But Drimie believes the small-scale versus large-scale debate "may in many ways be a false dichotomy in terms of policy choices". Rather than a blanket model, a more nuanced blend based on location (climate, land suitability) and resources within a context of rural development would better achieve poverty alleviation.

The think-tank meeting of land experts was critical of donor responses to land reform.

"Donors in Southern Africa increasingly see assistance to land reform as politically sensitive and complex, likely to result in negative consequences - whatever the moral foundation - and therefore best avoided. In addition, recipient governments have become suspicious that donors, by insisting on a range of conditions - a 'pro-poor' focus, the willing-buyer, willing-seller principle, maintaining economic stability - are using support of land reform as a neo-colonialist 'Trojan Horse', which in some cases is also perpetuating racial imbalances in land ownership."

The report commented: "What is clear is that donors should not walk away when things turn sour, but rather tread carefully and maintain a base flow of support. Nor should they give up on promoting a redistribution agenda, notwithstanding the disaster unfolding in Zimbabwe, which seems to have become the reference point in spite of it really being the 'very worst case scenario'."