There has been a major change in the distribution and purpose of most Namibian cattle over the last 20 years. Previously, the majority of cattle were on so-called commercial freehold farms where they were used largely to produce beef. Nowadays, most Namibian cattle are in areas we call communal where they are used mainly as investments or savings. Commercially farmed beef on the other hand produces incomes for farmers and public tax revenues.
Cattle have increased at an enormous rate, especially in the northern communal areas. For example, between 2008 and 2015, the number of cattle increased by 5% in Zambesi, 54% in Kavango East and West, 69% in Ohangwena, 30% in the communal areas of Oshikoto, 51% in Oshana and by 19% in Omusati. The annual rate of growth in these areas combined was equivalent to numbers doubling over 11 years.
Most cattle added recently to communal areas belong to wealthy men who live and work elsewhere in towns and cities. Some of the animals are grazed and watered around cattle posts in open, free-range areas, such as the ombuga grasslands in central Oshana, and many others are kept on fenced farms, some of them surveyed and allocated before 1990. But the majority of farms were acquired after 1990 through appropriation or expropriation. Some resettlement and commercial farm owners use a system of dual grazing to maximise forage for their herds. Each autumn cattle are moved into communal areas until the grazing has been depleted, after which they return to grazing preserved on the private, fenced farms of their owners. Similarly, many Namibian urban cattle owners have placed large herds of cattle in the Oshimolo ohambo area of Angola.
Some owners farm their cattle productively on communal land, earning regular incomes from sales, mostly of young weaners, tollies and oxen. However, the great majority of cattle are investments, started and expanded as and when their owners have money to buy stock. The returns and security provided by cattle are higher than those from banks, unit trusts and insurance companies, making cattle perfect investments for people living in town who can get communal land, grazing and water for free.
What are the impacts of so many wealthy urban men keeping hundreds of thousands of cattle in communal areas? Much of the land now occupied by the urban owners of large cattle herds was acquired by evicting resident small-holders or day-to-day users of commonage in these areas, normally by or with the agreement of traditional authorities and with no compensation. Some poorer local residents remain in certain areas where their small herds and flocks compete for land, grazing and water with the large numbers belonging to wealthy livestock owners. Cattle and goats belonging to less fortunate residents also serve as sources of money, which are often to meet more pressing needs than the more affluent wants of urban owners.
These circumstances contravene both the law and spirit of our Constitution. Article 17 (1) of the Communal Land Reform Act of 2002 states “….all communal land areas vest in the State in trust for the benefit of the traditional communities residing in those areas and for the purpose of promoting the economic and social development of the people of Namibia, in particular the landless and those with insufficient access to land who are not in formal employment or engaged in non-agriculture business activities.” In short, communal land was intended to be a safety net for poorer people. A reading of Namibia’s Constitution suggests that the state has ‘a duty to administer the communal lands for the benefit of the native population that lives there’.
Cattle ownership and access to land is thus an uneven playing field, one in which the rich and powerful have gotten much by appropriating resources that were set aside for the poor. And while thinking of the land that was taken away, reflect too on the lives shortened by the loss of means to survive.
My emphasis on communal land is because this is a relatively recent and massive change in the use and occupation of land intended for less fortunate Namibians. But the use and keeping of land and livestock as capital is also a feature of commercial farmland, and has been for many decades. The land owners are often known as weekend farmers or absentee landowners. They were typically white, but many black people now use their farms in the same way, irrespective if the farms were bought, subsidised with affirmative loans or given free as resettlement farms.
If we add communal and commercial areas together, probably more than a third of the farmland and over half the livestock is held as capital by wealthy people who live in towns and make their living from non-farming enterprises. Both the land and livestock are largely dormant investments because only rarely is the capital used to generate new sources of revenue for the economy.
Finally, here are two questions to challenge delegates to the 2nd land conference. First, should Namibia accept the realities of land reform in communal areas and abandon provisions of the Constitution and Article 17 (1) of the Communal Land Reform Act of 2002 that protect communal land and poorer Namibians? Second, are Namibians so wealthy and replete with other sources of revenue that so much of its agricultural land and livestock can be set aside as dead capital?
 Harring, S.L. 1996 ‘The Constitution of Namibia and the ‘rights and freedoms’ guaranteed communal land holders: resolving the inconsistency between Article 16, Article 100, and Schedule 5’. South African Journal of Human Rights 12: 469.
By: John Mendelsohn, published on 17 August 2018 in the Market Watch of the Namibian Sun, Allgemeine Zeitung and Republikein.