Newspaper Contribution

Should tenure systems still govern land uses, or vice versa?


07 Sep 2018

The much-awaited 2nd land conference is 6 weeks away. Lots is being alleged, assumed and demanded during dozens of meetings and consultations, often accompanied by considerable hype. Despite all this talk and energy, the debate about land remains narrow, focusing largely on land as a political football. Those who score most goals will fill their political bellies with more free, idle farms. Those who lose will continue to be destitute and forgotten. A few thousand families will be winners, but hundreds of thousands will be losers if the debate continues on its present course.

Redistribution and restitution are extremely important challenges to which solutions must be found. The solutions need to be practical, and much more pragmatism will be achieved if Namibia begins to focus on the uses and values of land, rather than the kind of tenure or ownership applied to land.

Land policy in Namibia has largely been structured so that tenure arrangements are determined first. Land uses come second, thus having to fit in with tenure stipulations. As a result, tenure systems have been established in many areas of the country regardless of what land uses are desirable, or indeed possible. The nature of ownership or occupation of land has become more important than the purpose or use of land.

Much poverty has been caused as a result. The best example – and with the greatest impact – is in communal areas where about 38% of all Namibian homes are found (a percentage based on extrapolations using the 2016 Inter-Censal Demographic Survey and 2011 Population Census). Most of those households have been offered or given customary land rights (but not in Kavango East and Kavango West). The Communal Land Reform Act of 2003 first set a limit of 20 hectares (which was later raised to 50 hectares) for each customary land right parcel. However, in areas where crops can be grown population densities are so high that most residents have only a few hectares, largely of soil with minimal fertility.

The same legal tenure conditions apply in other areas mainly or entirely used for farming livestock. Each resident normally has a tiny plot, large enough for a residence, a kraal and perhaps a small vegetable garden. There is no point in having more land around your house, and also no sense in having 20 or 50 hectares because cattle herds or flocks of goats or sheep require hundreds, if not thousands of hectares of forage.

The Communal Land Reform Act of 2003 allows only two land uses on parcels registered as customary land rights: residential purposes and crop growth. No commercial uses are allowed, and the land may not be sold. Customary land right parcels therefore cannot provide incomes or investment values. These restrictions follow the perverse, pervasive prejudices that food stuffs are the only consumables that rural people need, and that these ‘simple people’ have no need to invest for the future.

Tenure conditions for commonages are left under the control of traditional authorities who are not accountable to local residents who use – or should be able to use – commonage resources. The freedom and authority that the Communal Land Reform Act gives traditional authorities allows them to expropriate or facilitate the appropriation of very large areas of commonage. For example, more than half the communal land in Kavango West and East has been expropriated and allocated to a few hundred influential families, many of them from other regions.

Namibians in other areas are also constrained by inappropriate tenure systems. For example, resettlement farms can’t be owned by their occupants. Onerous requirements for tenure and planning regulations in urban areas prevent more than a quarter of all Namibian families from having small plots on which to build their homes and invest in their futures. These are people now crowded into informal settlements. Their numbers will grow so that shacks become the predominant form of Namibian housing in 2025 if major changes to tenure policy and practice are not made soon.

These are the bizarre tenure arrangements that bedevil the livelihoods of the majority of Namibians, now to poor and polite to complain. Even the State’s honourable intentions for communal land to be used as a safety net for the poor are undermined by the tenure system that facilitates abuse by traditional authorities.

Perhaps it is not too late to ask those who lead the land conference to focus more on the livelihoods of the majority, less on the wealth of the few. Place emphasis on the use of land, not who owns it. Maximize the economic value of Namibian land, rather than using it as a political football to exaggerate differences between the ruling elite and the lower class, leaving the distribution and use of land more broken than ever! In the words of the late Kofi Annan, delegates to the land conference would do well to acknowledge ‘that suffering anywhere concerns people everywhere’. Indeed, Mr Annan’s words would do well as a slogan for Namibia’s 2nd Land Conference.

24 August 2018

By: John Mendelsohn