Namibia has been complaining about land grabbing and illegal fencing ever since independence 28 years ago. There has been lots of talking, but nothing really has been done to solve the problem. This is not surprising because those who grabbed and fenced are mainly Namibia’s elites, a point made clear by Theodor Muduva in his recent excellent articles on communal land in the Namibian on the 23rd of February and 18th of May.
However, there are two points that Muduva and other commentators have not mentioned. First, is that all ‘land grabbing’ happens at least with the knowledge – if not the approval – of traditional authorities. Second and moreover, most grabbing is actually facilitated by traditional authorities since it is they who either sell or lease land that we are told has been grabbed or fenced illegally. The buying are the elite, influential and wealthy; the merchants are traditional authorities. Money, gifts or patronage seal the deals. Some farms are sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars, while gifts range between Land Cruisers and boxes of wine, depending on the size of land. And many farms are secured by bartering patronage and the annual payment of ‘lease’ fees to traditional authorities. Their land businesses have made certain chiefs enormously wealthy.
So the sale of communal land has been rife in independent Namibia. By now, there must be one thousand or more large farms acquired for money, patronage and gifts to traditional authorities. In a noble move, the government once declared communal land to be free as a ‘safety net for the poor’. And in a crafty move, the government appointed traditional authorities to manage allocations so that the land would also be free for the rich.
The public remains ignorant about land sales because much is obscured by euphemism. Governor Sirkka Ausiku recently appealed to traditional authorities in Kavango West to stop allocating land to individuals so that people could remain at the place they call home. What she was really saying is stop expropriating and selling the land occupied by villages and their residents. We are told that the Ministry of Lands allocated the hundreds of Small Scale Commercial Farms (SSCFs) in Kavango East and West. These are not small farms! Each covers thousands of hectares, and all the farms were allocated long ago by traditional authorities to several hundred select families. Traditional authorities recognised by government are supposed to manage communal land that is euphemistically ‘vested’ in the state. In actual fact, the state has no ownership; this is land owned and sold by traditional authorities. It is as simple as that!
The way in which much communal land is obtained is contrary to the spirit of the constitution, to the letter of the law, and to the contents of various government documents and speeches by politicians. Selling something that does not belong to you is illegal. That is one major problem. So is the displacement of the poor. Allocating and selling their home lands to the elite is morally contemptible. Colonial powers were often guilty of expropriating land. Should traditional authorities stop doing the same?
By John Mendelsohn and Hannu Shipena (published as a Letter to the Editor, The Namibian newspaper on 24 May 2018)