The Land Issue in Africa

Before Africa was carved up and occupied by the European Colonial Powers, land in Africa was largely under populated and human population growth was slow and could quite easily be accommodated. The many tribes of Africa (we speak more than 2000 languages or dialects of languages), were largely divided into those who concentrated on livestock as a mean of subsistence or crops. The divide was often determined by rainfall patterns with the livestock tribes using land that was arid or semi arid.

Eddie Cross

One thing was common, land was a free good and was available to all subject only to community laws and norms and collective tribal decisions. Inter tribal conflicts often involved access to land and cattle and was a common part of everyday life, keeping numbers of people in human settlements down and helping ease the overall pressure on natural resources. The same situation prevailed in the America’s and Austral Asia and probably in Asia proper. When population pressure grew to the point where human mobility was threatened, then adjustments were made.

In Europe similar land occupation systems prevailed right up to the Closure Acts in Britain and the evolution of the feudal land systems in mainland Europe. The industrial revolution and the growth of the Towns and Cities meant that rural peasant farming systems, designed for subsistence and the support of feudal land owner structures, were no longer able to cope and modern farming systems on a commercial basis began to emerge. These required as a prerequisite, stable, secure title rights whether they were freehold or leasehold.

The colonization process changed all that, the Europeans  occupied the United States and Canada, the Portuguese and the Spanish occupied South America, the English occupied Australia and India and the West Indies and Africa was carved up by the European powers – French, German, English, Italian and Belgium. Believing their systems, law and culture were innately superior to the indigenous systems of government, the colonial powers swept aside the languages and rights of those they colonized – often with brute force and ruthless determination. They were followed by the Church and the Mosque and their own religious beliefs and traditions were subjugated to those of the colonizing power.

Wherever they went, the colonizers occupied vast swathes of land, title rights were given and fences erected. Often these practices were resisted by the indigenous people who fought back with the limited means at their disposal. In the process, many indigenous groups were wiped out, the rest were herded into specified areas where the colonial powers decreed that they could live under Tribal law and tradition and make a living from their livestock and arable land. Security of tenure was never extended to these communities and would not have been understood if it had been.

The result was predictable and consistent throughout the colonized world. As populations grew – growth rates were often three or four times historical levels because tribal conflicts were not permitted, disease control was introduced along with modern medicine and life expectancies lengthened from 25 to 35 years on average to 60 years or more. As population pressures grew, the land became exhausted and barren. Conflicts with land owners from the colonial classes – often just across a barbed wire fence, became inevitable.

As the indigenous people absorbed education and information about the wider world, they launched attacks on the Colonial system until eventually, under the weight of history and numbers, the “winds of change” gripped the world and one by one the colonial States capitulated. Only in those countries where the numbers of the settlers were so over whelming that the colonized groups could not fight back and assume control, did the colonial systems of land occupation and settlement survive.

In Africa, as the wave of decolonization swept down the continent, starting with Ghana 60 years ago, one of the first things the new masters of Africa’s destiny chose to do was to brush aside the tenure systems of the Colonists and to replace it with leases or simply allowing it to revert to the traditional forms of tenure that had prevailed before occupation. Sometimes this was accompanied by compensation, but more often than not it was not.

Only when the decolonization process ran into the tough, long term settlers in southern Africa did the issue of resuming State control of all land find resistance. In Namibia, the new government has in fact handled the land issue very carefully and feels that the white Namibian’s who continue to farm vast areas do not show enough appreciation of their magnanimity and wisdom.

In Zambia, the freehold rights of the small settler community has been converted, more or less painfully, into leasehold rights that are tradable and is allowing new farmers to occupy agricultural land on a secure basis and for investment to take place. This has resulted in considerable investment and Zambia is now self sufficient in all basic foods and is in fact exporting a surplus.

In Zimbabwe, nothing was done to disturb the commercial farming system except to buy 3,8 million hectares at market prices and settle the land with small holders and some connected individuals in the first 20 years following Independence.

However from 2000 onwards, the State has mounted what they call the “fast track land reform programme” under which they has forcibly taken over some 8 million hectares of farm land and settled some 200 000 families (a million people). Some 4 million hectares remains under freehold but is insecure. Land that has been nationalized in this way has become “State Land” and is treated as such, even though no compensation has been paid and therefore legally, title rights remain in force.

In South Africa the government has bought 4 million hectares of farm land for settlement and the restitution of land rights is an ongoing process involving tens of thousands of claimants. So far this has been conducted in a legal way and compensation has been paid. However with 70 per cent of all farm land remaining in commercial farm hands under freehold title – this is an ulcer that is chewing away at the roots of the State and the stability of the country. Most recently, under pressure from below, the ANC has begun to ponder the acquisition of land without compensation.

In fact this chaotic historical process has simply exacerbated Africa’s already critical land question. Without tradable security of tenure, agricultural land has no value and by definition, does not attract investment or management and care – what the Bible would call stewardship. Almost without exception land held under communal tenure – or worse, State land, rapidly becomes over populated, degraded and unproductive. The deserts of Africa are expanding everywhere and fragile savannah areas are disappearing. Hunger and starvation and mass migration follow.

Many would argue that this is Africa’s biggest problem and the looming threat of climate change will simply act as an accelerator. Only 18 per cent of all the agricultural land on the globe is held under freehold tenure and this small proportion of world resources produces the great majority of global agricultural output and virtually all its surpluses. By simply giving African farmer’s security rights over the land that they already control and use, would unlock enormous capital sums, would attract massive investment and would enable us to make giant steps towards the elimination of poverty in rural areas. I do not understand why this so hard to understand?

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  1. Proud African (MicahX.J. RIP)
  2. David Wheeler

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