The Land Question and the Peasantry in Southern Africa

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Land concentration, privatisation and external control in Southern Africa

Historical context of the land question in Southern Africa

The overriding land question facing Southern Africa is that little progress has been achieved in the implementation of land reform, especially with regard to redressing colonially derived and post-independence unequal land ownership, discriminatory land use regulations, and insecure land tenure systems, which marginalize the majority of rural and urban poor populations. The legacy of racially unequal land control, which confronted mainly the former settler colonies, was at independence maintained through constitutions that guaranteed the protection of private property by sanctifying willing-seller-willing-buyer approaches to the redistribution of freehold land. Those SADC states, with legacies of limited settler colonialism, have tended to face the challenges of promoting equitable legal and administrative systems of land tenure security and effective land management within a context of growing land concentration and agrarian class differentiation.

A major underlying problem which confronts these land questions in Southern Africa is the continued increase in population among the peasantries in marginal and congested lands, without a net increase in the access to the maldistributed and underutilized arable lands, and a slow rate of growth in land productivity and agricultural intensification. Discriminatory land use policies and practices, and land tenure laws, have tended to encourage underutilization of land or inefficient land use among large-scale farmers, who nonetheless have high levels of productivity on limited parts of the land they control. Yet, expanding the number of landholders through land redistribution could redress the land shortages and the patterns of insecurity of tenure that arise from maldistribution of land. Instead, Southern African land reform policies have focused on reforming the regulation of land use and environmental management practices among smallholders, as well as customary tenures towards market-based land tenure systems, in the belief that these can lead to increased agricultural investment and intensification.

A persistent feature of the land reform question in the sub-region is therefore that racial imbalance and historic grievances over land expropriation provide a binding force for the political mobilization of social grievance and growing poverty for land reform. Independence, political settlement and reconciliation policies in Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa have thus failed to curb racial conflict in a context where the peace dividend of the mid-1990s has not led to economic growth throughout the sub-region, nor delivered structural changes that include the majority into the formal economy. Not surprisingly, even in the non-settler territories, the land problem and its racial foundations resonate. Thus, conflict over land tends to be fueled by ideological and land policy discourses which, in Southern Africa, have not resolved the question of whether and to what degree the rights held by whites over land that had been expropriated historically are valid and socially and politically legitimate (Moyo, 2003).

Land reform discourses are further fueled by the myth that the freehold landholding system and private land markets are more efficient and superior to customary (so-called “communal”) land tenure systems. This myth tends to justify the preservation of unequally held land in the dual tenure systems, while incorrectly arguing that land reform per se undermines food security and exports, as well as the confidence of the investors in the economy. While this may be correct where conflictive land transfers obtain, as in Zimbabwe since 2000, this could be a short to medium-term transitional problem, depending on the support given to new settlers. In this context, where smallholder farmers are regarded as being less efficient in land use, productivity and ecological practices, intrinsically, than large-scale white farmers, who hold large chunks of the prime lands and other resources, this prophecy can be sustained by the withholding of agricultural resources from so-called subsistence farmers. That is, land reform can only succeed to the degree that attendant resources are reallocated by the state and through appropriate market interventions.

Land conflicts today result from grievances over and struggles for access to land and natural resources by both the poor and emerging black capitalist classes. Such grievances reflect the deep roots of social polarisation along racial and nationality lines. These arise historically from the discriminatory treatment of blacks on farms, mines and towns through a proletarianisation process based on land alienation and cheap labour mobilisation, and the persistence of racially inequitable development. The increasing radicalization of land acquisition approaches in Namibia and South Africa, and the growth of the tactic of land occupations in the SADC region since the 1990s, are manifestations of this deeply rooted phenomenon of common grievances over the unresolved land questions, and the failure of markets or landowners to reallocate land to a broader constituency.

Racial and foreign land distribution patterns

The existing structure and patterns of land inequalities in Southern Africa are based upon a relatively unique racial distribution of socio-economic features including population, wealth, income and employment patterns (Moyo, 2003). Land expropriation was rampant in most Southern African countries, and only Botswana had no white settlers by 1958. On the other hand, Angola, Lesotho and Zambia had lower percentages of alienated land. In terms of settler population, Namibia seems to have had a significant white settler population, mainly composed of the Afrikaners and Germans, in 1960, with 19%. The greatest white settler land alienation occurred in South Africa, where 87% of the land was alienated in the 18th century.

Although at independence the white settler populations have tended to decrease, the proportion of land possessed by white minorities has tended not to decrease proportionately in former settler lands, while there has been a gradual increase in foreign landholdings in countries such as Mozambique, Zambia and Malawi, in the context of renewed interest by private international capital in tourism based on the control of natural resources (Moyo, 2003).

Countries such as South Africa and Namibia are confronted with unequal land holdings with titled land in the hands of a few white commercial farmers. This pattern is excessive in South Africa, where 60,000 white farmers, who make up only 5% of the white population, own almost 87% (85.5 million) of the land. Only 20,000 white commercial farmers produce 80% of the gross agricultural product. A further 40,000, including some 2,000 black farmers, produce 15%, while 500,000 families living in the former homelands produce an estimated 5%. At least 12 million blacks inhabit 17.1 million hectares of land, and no more than 15% (or 2.6 million hectares) of this land is potentially arable (Wildschut and Hulbert, 1998). Thus, whites own 6 times more land in terms of the quantity of land available and its quality (Wildschut and Hulbert, 1998).

However, Namibia has the highest number of white settlers, with about 8% of the total population. Commercial land under freehold title comprises approximately 6,300 farms, belonging to 4,128 mostly white farmers, and measuring about 36.2 million hectares. The freehold land covers 44% of available land and 70% of the most productive agricultural land, covering 36 million hectares. Only 2.2 million hectares of the commercial farmland belong to black farmers. By contrast, communal lands comprise 138,000 households with an area of 33.5 million hectares, which is only 41% of the land available.

In countries with predominant customary land tenure systems, there is a tendency to high population densities on land regarded as poor around largely mountainous areas and scarce arable land. In fact, in Swaziland and Malawi, the struggle for equitable land ownership invokes the control by traditional leaders over land allocation (Mashinini, 2000). Increased privatisation of state lands as part of the foreign investment drive has crowded out the poor onto the worst lands. In Mozambique, although all land is constitutionally state land, “privatisation” started in 1984 as part of the implementation of the structural adjustment programmes. This has created grounds for racial animosity, as foreigners and white South Africans tend to dominate this investment. Confrontation over land in Zimbabwe has seen the emigration of white Zimbabweans to Mozambique3. Mozambican officials have called for greater social integration of incoming white farmers to avoid creation of “white islands” where commercial development outpaces that of the indigenous populations who surround these new settlers.

In Zimbabwe, before the fast-track land reform programme, most of the freehold lands were in the hands of 4,500 whites (comprising 0.03% of the population) and located in the most fertile parts of the country, with the most favorable climatic conditions and water resources. White farmers controlled 31% of the country’s freehold land, or about 42% of the agricultural land, while 1.2 million black families subsisted on 41% of the country’s area of 39 million hectares.

A diverse and differentiated structure of land tenure and land use also exists among the regions with white population. Racial ownership of land ranges from family landowners to a few white-dominated large companies –most of which are multinational companies with strong international linkages. Whilst these companies tend to under-utilize most of their land, it is however the nationality and citizenship of large landowners that is mostly contested. In Zimbabwe, it is estimated that between 20,000 to 30,000 white Zimbabweans are British and South Africans with dual citizenship4. While the definition of who is indigenous remains contested, even for non-white members of minority groups who are citizens by birth or through naturalization, absentee land ownership exacerbates feelings against foreign land ownership. In Namibia, corporate ownership of land hides the influx of foreign landowners, particularly those who are shifting land use from agricultural use to tourism.

Foreign land ownership has a historical and contemporary dimension to it. Past colonial land expropriation tends now to be reinforced by new land concessions to foreign investors. This tends to be complicated socially and politically by the physical absence of many foreign large-scale landowners. Foreign landowners increasingly use stock holding land tenure arrangements for the control of land, especially in the growing eco-tourist industry, thus increasing the globalization of the region’s land question (Moyo, 2000). The rural poor are thus marginalized from their own landscape, and livelihood systems are undermined.

The market paradigm shift of the 1980s saw new waves of migration by white large farmers into Zambia, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This migration, encouraged by neo-liberal investment policies, has led to increased foreign land ownership in many countries and pressures for increased private land tenure property regimes in order to protect investments.

The agricultural sector has been the prime target of such investment through lucrative incentives provided for foreign investment, especially in export processing zones.

Contested settler notions of land size and peasant marginalisation

Per capita arable land ownership per household has been declining due to the increase in population in the regions’ customary tenure areas, while the few white and some black large-scale farmers own most of the best arable land in farms that are oversized. Thus, according to IFAD (2001), poverty tends to be concentrated in households with farm sizes under 1ha, and especially under 0.5ha. While poor black smallholders and the landless call for increased land redistribution, rural and urban black elites also call for access to large over-sized commercial farms, as it happened recently in Zimbabwe, where the prescribed land size ceilings are based upon outdated notions of the land sizes required for “viable” commercial farming5.

Farm sizes in the region reflect the trends in land ownership. In Namibia, the average white LSCF farm size is 5,700 hectares. In Zimbabwe, the average was 2,500, with variation between NR II to V6. In the communal areas, the average farm size is around 2 hectares, and in resettlement, it is 5 hectares. In South Africa 28.5% of the farms were larger than 1,000 hectares (Wildschut and Hulbert, 1998). In Malawi 40% of the smallholders cultivate less than 0.5ha, with an average farm size of 0.28ha (IFAD, 2001). The areas inhabited by smallholders have the highest poverty.

The resettlement programmes in the region are proceeding on the basis of small-sized farms for blacks averaging less than 10 hectares of arable land in areas such as NR II in Zimbabwe. Land reform based on controlling farm sizes through ceilings has not been pursued in most of the countries.

This leaves a few landowners holding excessively large tracts of land. Using the cut-off point of over 10,000 hectares owned either through company or individual title, or as single or multiple farms, about 66 landowners (with 158 farms) occupied over two million hectares of Zimbabwe’s land by 1998 (Moyo, 2003). Most of these farms are multiple owned company farms. Multiple farm ownership is thus a decided feature of Zimbabwe’s landed gentry, whether company or individually owned.

The criterion used to determine viable farm sizes is based on a legacy of white settler notions of the ‘small scale’ being subsistence oriented, and the ‘commercial’ being large-scale white farms.

Although the categorisation is posited as a function of different resource levels, there is a fundamental class and racial basis for its definition. Historically, large farms have prescribed higher levels of income targets for whites, against lower ‘subsistence’ incomes for blacks. The latter were required to provide cheap labour to supplement incomes. Large-sized plots are also said to allow for multiple land uses at a ‘commercial’ scale, and to allow some of the land to remain fallow for some time. They are also considered necessary for mechanised agriculture, on the false grounds that economies of scale obtain in farming. Yet blacks have historically been unable to acquire large-scale machinery through institutionalised resource allocation biases and financial institution discrimination. However, whilst many of the large farms so supported are productive by the region’s standards, most of their lands are underutilized.

In order to conceal land under-utilization and speculative uses of land, white commercial farmers and multinational companies have tended to put their land under wildlife ranching, even though the social and economic benefits of such uses remain contested (Moyo, 2000). Nonetheless investing in game ranching, tourism in the form of conservancy requires the continued exclusion from large areas of the poor, and in some countries the enclosure of newly consolidated lands to the same end. Various shareholding structures that remain in the clique of white farmers exclude both elite and poor blacks, who contest such arrangements through various strategies, including land occupations. The tourism sector has justified the exclusion of blacks by arguing that it is too technical for black smallholders’ land management, and that its marketing requirements are too sophisticated for them. It is argued that the latter should instead concentrate on less technical crops such as food grains rather than horticulture export crops (World Bank, 1991; 1995).

This racist notion is buttressed by the belief that blacks only aim to secure home consumption and residence, and that they do not require land for commercial uses. However, the output performance of smallholders, including resettled black farmers and those who have invested in peri-urban areas, demonstrates that with adequate access to land blacks contribute substantially to domestic and export markets. Unfortunately, racism, in some donor circles as well, continues to pursue the misplaced notion that when blacks obtain large-sized land through state support, it is only a reflection of unproductive cronyism rather than a de-racialisation process. However, since historically whites obtained large-sized land aimed at commercialising farming through the same procedures, such notions are unfounded.

These contradictions of access to land based on race, class and nationality cleavages are thus a fundamental source of conflict over demands for land in a region where the hegemonic neoliberal ideology in fact promotes agrarian capitalism, with lip service paid to poverty reduction-focused land reform.

Land reform experiences in the SADC states

The demand for land reform

The demand for land redistribution, in terms both of redressing historical and racially grounded inequities and of growing needs by both the black poor (rural and urban) and black elites, has been a consistent feature of Southern African politics and policymaking. Recently, most of these countries have been formulating land policies in response to both pressures for redistribution.

These efforts are dominated by official perspectives that tend to emphasize the conversion of customary tenure systems to private freehold land tenure systems. Most official analyses of the land question have, however, tended to underestimate the nature and scale of demand for land redistribution, and to ignore the racial tensions that have persisted as a result of the unfinished land reform agenda.

The demand for land reform takes various forms and arises from various sources. These include formal and informal demands, legal and underground, or illegal, forms of demand for land redistribution, and demands that may be based upon the restitution of historic rights, or contemporary demands based upon different needs. The different socio-political organizations that mediate such demands include civil society organizations, farmers’ unions, political parties, War Veterans Associations, business representatives’ associations, community-based organizations and traditional structures. Such structures are central to the evolution of the demand for land redistribution. The social content of these structures, however, is decidedly racially polarized in Southern Africa, while the class composition of the “visible” policy actors has been elitist.

Since the decolonization of Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia, the debate on land reform has mainly been focused on market instruments of land transfer. Despite broad consensus among governments, the landless, landowners and the international community on the need for land reform in the sub-region, land reform remains limited. The onset of structural adjustment programmes, as well as multiparty “democratization” in Southern Africa since the 1980s, have tended to reinforce the liberal political and market dimensions of debate on the land questions. In the process of economic liberalisation, however, informal rural political demands for land, including land occupations and natural resource poaching, have remained a critical source of advocacy for radical land reform, and, indeed, have succeeded in keeping land reform on the agenda (Moyo, 2001). Over time, the salient land demands of the black middle classes and elites have tended to be advanced within civil society organizations and both the ruling and opposition parties, within a liberal political and human rights framework, which leaves the fundamental issues of economic restructuring and redistribution of resources to the market (Moyo, 2001).

Thus, the predominantly urban-led civil society has not formally embraced the land reform agenda, perhaps due to the enduring middle-class basis of its leadership, especially in the NGO movement.

Limited civil society advocacy for land reform

This has relegated rural social movements on land reform to informal politics, while giving prominence to more organized, middle-class civic groups and policy organizations that typically advocate market-based methods of land reform and liberal civic and political rights issues. Yet, the race question of land reform persistently dominates land reform struggles and debate, because the land to be redistributed is mainly expected to come from land largely owned by whites, while the black potential beneficiaries compete for redistribution and affirmative action along class lines, but in the common name of healing the wounds of past grievances.

This raises contradictory tendencies in the ideologies and foci of social movements between those who struggle for access to social (land and broader resource redistribution) rights and those focused on political (civic and human) rights. Thus, most civil society organisations, which are generally one-issue oriented in their advocacy, have tended to divide between those with structuralist (redistributionist) and proceduralist (governance) perspectives of social and economic change, even though in reality both issues need to be addressed in calibrated combination. Over the years, however, the formal demand for radical or merely extensive land reform has tended to be submerged, especially in recent struggles for democratization, by the proceduralist thrust of civil society activism, much of which is ensconced within a neoliberal framework. This is reinforced by the fact that the balance of external aid, in Zimbabwe, for example, has tilted in the last five years towards the support of governance activism.

While such support is necessary, this trend has served to highlight mainly the issues of human rights and electoral transgressions by the state, to the detriment of the redress of structural and social rights issues. The exceptions here are food aid and HIV/AIDS and health, which defy the dichotomy and tend to be considered as basic humanitarian support.

Civil society discourses on land reform, therefore, to the extent that they go beyond rule of law issues, have been focused on a critique of methods of land acquisition and allocation, without offering alternatives to land market acquisition and expropriation instruments or mobilizing the more deserving beneficiaries of land reform in support of extensive land reform in the face of resistance by landlords and other stakeholders. Because of the polarization of society on political party and ideological grounds, in Zimbabwe, for example, engaging the state in furtherance of land reform has been sacrificed for rejecting the administrative processes and legal rules applied in land reform, despite legal challenges and resistance. Yet, there is a fait acompli redistribution on the grounds (see also Nyoni, 2004) that this trend of civil society land advocacy is not conjunctural or limited to the Zimbabwe experience.

Historically, Southern Africa in general has not had an organized civil society that has made radical demands for land reform or land redistribution. Under colonial rule the land cause was led by the liberation movements, and in the 1970s it was pursued by means of armed struggle (Chitiyo, 2000). In the independence period, civil society land advocacy has been constrained by their predominantly middle-class, social welfarist and neoliberal developmentalist values, which are in turn dependent on international aid. Meanwhile, formal rural and urban community-based organizations which seek land tend to be appendages of middle-class driven intermediary civil society organizations, while local land occupation movements have tended to be shunned by them (Moyo, 1998). The rural operations of NGOs within a neoliberal framework have thus been characterized by demands for funds for small “development” projects aimed at a few selected beneficiaries (Moyo, Raftopolous and Makumbe, 2000), and have left a political and social vacuum in the leadership of the land reform agenda.

Advocacy for land reform in the region has increasingly been dominated by former liberation movements’ associations, scattered traditional leaders and spiritual mediums, special-interest groups and other narrowly based structures rather than by broadly-based civil society organisations, as we have seen in Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa. In the latter, a few left-leaning NGO groups have supported the formation of the Landless People’s Movement (LPM), although the contradictions of white middle-class intellectual leadership of black people’s landless structures, and the transclass and nationalist nature of the interests in land, have become evident in the slow maturation of a nation-wide radical land reform agenda.

Black indigenization or affirmative action lobbies, some with ethno-regional and gender foci, have on the other hand re-focused the land reform agenda, including the demand for the “return of lost lands” more towards the de-racialization of the ownership base of commercial farmland, at times as a racial substitution formula for capitalist farming (Moyo, 2001). So far, however, a dual approach of land redistribution to large black and poor peasants remains on the formal or official land reform agenda, even if resource allocations have tended to favour elites. However, large white farmer organizations, black technocrats, and many NGOs, have tended to support the commercial-farmer orientation of land redistribution in general, given their general tendency to believe in the inefficiency of small farmers. This has shifted policy discourses on the criteria for access to land, refocusing the redistribution vision from the “landless” and “insecure” towards the “capable”, and presumed “efficient”, indigenous agrarian capitalists, within the terms of the neoliberal global development paradigm.

This is exemplified, for instance, even in the similarity between the bi-focal land allocation policies of the opposed political parties, in the case of the Zanu-PF-led government of Zimbabwe and the MDC (MDC, 2004). The former talks about providing the needy (the landless and ‘congested’) and the ‘capable’ with land as defined by the A1 and A2 allocation schemes respectively, while the latter promises to give according to need and ability. Neither defines formally the proportionate class-based tilt intended in the land allocations, although in Zimbabwe 35% of the land has so far been given to the capable elites, which number less than 20,000, compared to 130,000 ‘needy’ beneficiaries. This however suggests also that there is a common intra-elite bipartisan interest in a capitalist agrarian class project. These terms of the land reform agenda tend also to be dictated by the favourable disposition of the middle-class and elite dominated political party and civil society to external (global) markets, buttressed by optimistic expectations of the promise of foreign investment. The latter, it seems, tends to be expected to obviate the need for extensive redistributive land reform, and the belief exists that the latter could be substituted by other economic development benefits, including employment creation. But employment growth remains appallingly low and informalised and well below survival wages among the majority, while the rural remain marginalised.

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