The battles over land in Namibia

The land issue is the most divisive issue that Namibia has experienced since independence.

Image credit Thomas Becker via Flickr.

Thirty years of German settler colonialism in South West Africa (1884 to 1914) paved the way for continued white minority rule under South African control. The primary resistance against the foreign invasion triggered the first genocide of the 20th century among the Ovaherero, Nama and other groups. As main occupants of the eastern, central and southern regions of the country, they were forced from their land into so-called native reserves.

Since then, the land (dis-)possession continued. The South African Apartheid regime’s administration provided Afrikaans-speaking poor whites a new existence as farmers in the occupied so-called fifth province. Land appropriations and resettlements took place until the 1960s also as part of the Bantustan policy, which was transplanted under the so-called Odendaal Plan.

The limits to liberation

Independence did not bring any decisive changes to the skewed patterns of colonial land distribution created. The negotiated transition to sovereignty in 1990 entrenched the structural discrepancies. In turn for occupying the political commanding heights of the state, the national liberation movement-turned-state SWAPO accepted the material inequalities existing without any major debate. Rather, controlled change resulted in changed control.

Essential clauses seeking to maintain the economic status quo in Namibia’s Constitution were drafted already in the early 1980s as an integral part and precondition by a Western Contact Group, representing three of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, initiating a negotiated decolonization. It was up to SWAPO to propose the adoption of these constitutional principles in the Constitutional Assembly as the final step towards sovereignty. Articles 5 to 25 in chapter 3 (“Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms”), cannot be changed. As stated in article 25(1): “Parliament or any subordinate legislative authority shall not make any law, and the Executive and the agencies of Government shall not take any action which abolishes or abridges the fundamental rights and freedoms conferred by this chapter.” Next to civil and political rights, article 16 includes the freedom and protection of property:

  1. All persons shall have the right in any part of Namibia to acquire, own and dispose of all forms of immovable and movable property individually or in association with others and to bequeath their property to their heirs or legatees: provided that Parliament may be legislation prohibit or regulate as it deems expedient the right to acquire property by persons who are not Namibian citizens.
  2. The State or a competent body or organ authorised by law may expropriate property in the public interest subject to the payment of just compensation, in accordance with requirements and procedures to be determined by Act of Parliament.

As a consequence, existing socio-economic inequalities were officially recognized. Private owned freehold land, amounting to 48% of the territory, remained in the hands of less than 5,000 mainly white farmers, while over 70% of the population nowadays close to 2.5 million Namibians remained directly or indirectly dependent upon the 35% communal land (the remaining 17% are state owned and to a large extent nature reserves). As recently summarized: “The pattern of land distribution and ownership reflects class inequality and perpetuates racial inequalities.”

The first land conference—promises undelivered

Since independence, the question of land—not surprisingly—remained a hotly contested issue. Already in 1991, a major National Land Reform Conference took place. It recommended:

  • redistribution of commercial farmland, mainly on the basis of willing seller-willing buyer, with government having preferential rights to purchase farmland for resettlement purposes;
  • introduction of a land tax;
  • reallocation of underutilised land;
  • limits to the size and number of farms of private owned land;
  • elimination of foreign owned land and absentee landlordism.

In the communal areas (the former reserves), situated mainly in the Northern regions and offering the minimum rainfall to cultivate the land, “the landless and those without adequate land for subsistence” should be given priority. Disadvantaged communities (in particular the San) “should receive special protection of their land rights.” However, “given the complexities in redressing ancestral land claims, restitution in full is impossible.”

As a result, meaningful restitution was not implemented at all. As early as the mid-1990s, disappointed locals already held the view that the land reform had been completed. After all, almost every member of cabinet had by then acquired a private farm with state support under preferential conditions. For many, this also explained why the land tax remained a “work in progress” for decades to come instead of being implemented as a means to enhance rural transformation.

While the most marginalized battling for survival in the communal areas were supposed to be protected, their de facto expropriation became in parallel the order of the day. Local headmen and chiefs in cahoots with the new political and administrative elite transferred the exclusive individual right of utilization of land and resources to the latter in the higher echelons of state power. This often included their access to and control over water and boreholes (at times state-financed as drought-relief measures). By illegally fencing the allocated land, the beneficiaries de facto privatized the prey as personal property as a form of elite land grabbing.

Failed resettlement policies

Despite the declared policy and the institutionalization of a separate Ministry of Lands, Resettlement and Rehabilitation (nowadays the Ministry for Land Reform), purchasing of farm land was slow and inefficient. The Ministry did not even spend the annual budgetary allocations for the purchase of land, despite many farms on the market. Rather, what emerged was a rhetorical policy on land lacking any meaningful land policy. Where farms were used for resettlement purposes, beneficiaries were often simply dumped but not enabled to utilize the land due to lack of capital and know-how.

In a prominent case, farm Ongombo West near the capital Windhoek made good business in exporting cut flowers to the European market. It was expropriated after a long legal battle. Handed over to landless people, the production collapsed and the infrastructure deteriorated. Occupants are unable to make a living, as documented in a televised news clip. Ironically so, on a recent state visit to Kenya, Namibian President Hage Geingob praised the cut flower industry there as a good example for economic development.

In southern Namibia, the farms Neue Haribes and adjacent Baumgartsbrunn were once with a combined size of 80,000 hectares, the country’s biggest private farming unit. The carrying capacity of 12,000 karakul sheep indicated the limits under the dry climate. The enterprise owned by a locally operating German company provided a meagre income for close to a hundred farm workers and their families mainly from the vicinity and had a school for their children. When Persian lamb furs were in less demand the farm became uneconomical. In 2010, the state purchased 50,000 hectares from the Swedish absentee landlords. Now the left overs are in total shambles. The residents have no means of income and depend on food aid.

Such examples make one wonder if state policy was eager to create a self-fulfilling prophecy that resettlement schemes do not work. But the failed policy only testifies to the incompetence and lack of political will beyond the hunger and greed to own land among the new elites. There are many good but hitherto largely ignored recommendations how best to provide resettlement farmers with meaningful opportunities to make a living.

In addition, the allocation of land to members of communities from other regions of the country became a growing bone of contention. Beneficiaries were often historically from the northern parts of the country. The land in their home regions was never seized under colonialism. The new mobility unlocked by political independence now provided access to land in other parts of the country. Those whose ancestors were robbed of their land by German and South African colonialism, however, remained on the margins and witnessed the new redistribution often as another means of marginalization and discrimination.

Furthermore, while classified as “previously disadvantaged,” many of the beneficiaries were anything but still disadvantaged. Members of the political and bureaucratic elite received preferential treatment. Subsidized by taxpayers’ money they became weekend or hobby farmers. Trying to investigate the mounting complaints, Namibia’s Ombudsman demanded in May 2018 access to the list of resettlement farms and their beneficiaries. It took the Ministry several months to finally hand it over, only after the Ombudsman had threatened to take legal action. By then the second land conference was over. A widely demanded proper land audit is still missing.

In late 2016/early 2017 a fall out between the Deputy Minister for Land Reform and his Minister (a son of Namibia’s first president Sam Nujoma) led to the former’s dismissal first from office and later from Parliament and SWAPO. A Landless People’s Movement (LPM) was subsequently founded, which submitted its registration as a political party in September 2018.

Access to scarce and costly urban land had also emerged as a political issue, pushed by activists from the SWAPO Youth League. Their formation of an Alternative Repositioning (AR) with regard to urban plots in 2015 has since then become another political factor.

At a SWAPO Central Committee meeting towards the end of August 2018, President Geingob took a swipe against those mobilizing around the issue of land. For him, these were “failed politicians” merely looking for personal gains. He accused them of tribalism, playing with people’s emotions, and warned that they could instigate civil war.

The second land conference—more promises

After several postponements, the second land conference—announced with much fanfare—finally came and went during the first week of October 2018. The Namibian government invited more than 800 participants and allocated N$15 million (a million US$) for the five-day event. Given the overwhelming dominance of state authorities and other official institutions as well as indications that SWAPO tried to hijack the agenda, civil society organizations threatened to boycott. At the end, most of them participated, if only to make use of the opportunity to voice their frustrations.

As President Geingob stressed in his opening speech:

As the head of this Namibian House, I am committed to ensuring that the basic needs of all inhabitants are met. I believe that each and every Namibian should live a dignified life. I feel the pain of the landless. I feel the pain of the dispossessed. I feel the pain of the hungry and impoverished.

The Ministry for Land Reform provided access to most of the documents submitted, including those of the first Land Conference. Compared with the 24 resolutions adopted but hardly implemented then, many matters in the now 40 resolutions were a modified follow up.

A significant new addition was the issue of urban land and informal settlements. It recognized the demands of urban squatters, estimated at almost a million people—40% of Namibia’s total population—to affordable housing. The capital Windhoek is a tale of two cities.

Notably, the issues of communal and of ancestral land also received more prominence and a greater willingness to consider interventions by the state. These included a resolution stressing the need for the protection of tenure rights mainly in the interest of the poorest as victims of illegal land occupation and the condemnation of the ongoing privatization of communal land by members of the new elites.

While it was pointed out in 1991 that “restitution in full is impossible,” during the 27 years since then no serious efforts were made for meaningful restitution at all. Now the recommendations were in stark contrast to the earlier insults by Namibia’s President as quoted above in response to such demands. Significantly, a Presidential Commission of Inquiry on Ancestral Land should be tasked to offer further advice.

Overall, the local responses to the final document adopted were based on previous experiences where not much happened after similar such conferences. “The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” concluded a columnist in the state-owned newspaper. “Placing one or two plasters on the stump of an amputated leg, is not a cure,” remarked an editorial in The Observer, a weekly paper.

The meaning of land—beyond economy

What complicates matters is that land is not merely an economic affair. Only about 8% of the over 825,000 square kilometers of land, mainly situated in the Northern communal areas, are suitable for dry land cropping. Its size shrinks due to the effects of climate change. Droughts have become a regular feature, and chronic water shortage makes farming even more difficult. Two-thirds of the country are semi-arid, another quarter is arid. Some 60% of the freehold agricultural land receives on average less than 300 mm rainfall annually. The means of income among commercial farmers—with the exception of some big cattle ranchers and farms producing maize and other crops under irrigation—have considerably shifted towards guest farms and trophy hunting to benefit from tourism as the current most important economic growth sector.

Beyond economic matters, however, the land issue is also a matter of identity; for those who own it as much as for those who feel it should be theirs. Colonialism went along with and remains associated with violent land theft. Therefore, the current distribution of land in Namibia is a constant reminder that colonialism has not ended with independence. It continues as long as restorative justice is not infused into the land debate.

But as legitimate as these claims are, the restitution of land is confronted with a dilemma. What King Louis XVIII’s advisor Talleyrand reportedly told the king applies for land restitution too: “treason is merely a matter of dates.” Nando’s controversial TV ad of 2012, taken off the air by the South African state broadcaster on the grounds that it is xenophobic, makes the point: going back long enough, legitimate land claims would rest solely with the descendants of the San (Bushmen) as the only indigenous people roaming Southern Africa.

History cannot be fully reversed. The structural legacies created under Apartheid and the long-term demographic impact of the genocide have left irreversible marks on Namibian society. However, what seems a feasible compromise is to offer the San communities access to and protection in the parts of Namibia, which have remained their home. At the same time, the forced removal from land on record since the early times of white settler encroachment would be a widely-accepted reference point.

Some of the festering wounds can be treated. The Land Conference stated on “ancestral land rights and claims” in resolution 38 that, “measures to restore social justice and ensure economic empowerment of the affected communities” should be identified. And it suggests to “use the reparations from the former colonial powers for such purpose.” This might offer a way out of the current stagnation in the negotiations between the Namibian and German governments. The latest return of human remains documented no breakthrough in coming to terms with the shared past as regards a somewhat adequate compensation for the crimes committed.

As part of the long overdue consequences, Germany should fork out the necessary funds for a just expropriation of commercial farmers, whose land was utilized by the indigenous communities and where their ancestors are buried. The German state should also finance the necessary investments—both in terms of infrastructure as well as know-how—that empowers local communities to fully benefit from resettlement and access to land under the conditions of climate change adaptation. The Namibian government would have to accept resettlement for the descendants of those robbed of the land. This would be a wise investment by both governments into true reconciliation towards a peaceful future for all people who want to continue living in Namibia. After all, as a local commentator observed “the land issue is the most divisive issue of all that Namibia has experienced since independence.”

Land grab 2.0—class matters

But such brokerage requires honesty to obtain legitimacy and credibility. Ten days after the Land Conference, some disturbing news made the rounds. Rashid Sardarov, a Russian oligarch, since 2013 in possession of three farms, added another four farms to his Namibian empire in a rather dubious transaction. The shady deal with the Land Reform Ministry was sealed a week before the Land Conference. Meanwhile, conference resolution 21 stated “no land should be sold to Foreign Nationals.” And a sub-clause under resolution 2 ominously proclaimed “Implement the Principle of ‘One Namibian One Farm’”—whatever its unexplained meaning might be. After all, the close to two and a half million Namibians are hardly able to have one farm each. Presumably, the meaning of the resolution links to earlier recommendations that farmers should limit property to one farm only.

With the latest “billionaire playground” of Sardarov getting the green light, it seems that foreigners are at greater liberty to benefit from exceptions decided on a political level. The deal was justified by the government with the argument that it is a major investment into development. The oligarch purchased the farms and donated them to the state in exchange for a 99-year lease. The lawyer tasked with the transaction for “the King of Dordabis” (the area in one of the country’s best farming locations about an hour’s drive from both Windhoek and its international airport) is also frequently acting for the government. He negotiated the agreement with his private partner acting in the capacity as conveyancer of the land deal.

Not surprisingly, the public outcry was massive. After all, following the logic of such arguments could there then also be a tentative “solution” to the land issue once and for all: commercial farmers not willing to vacate their land in return for a just compensation could simply donate their property to the state in a similar deal for a 99-year lease in return. Then the state would be the owner of all commercial farming land, which is utilized for a century to come by the previous owners—almost as long a period since the land was originally appropriated. And given the effects of climate change, the issue of an investment is hardly of any value until or rather by 2117. In response to the outburst of public criticism, the Prime Minister vowed to defend the deal in court. As she declared: “All requirements of all the laws of the state have been followed. The government made use of the legal expertise within government to make sure that it was done properly.”

However, such dubious legal argument overlooks the moral dimensions of such deals. It only documents the ignorance—or rather arrogance—of those in power. Some 1,200 landless people dumped in a small corridor at Dordabis, feel very differently about the deal than the political office bearers do.

The contrast could have hardly been bigger comparing this transaction, which had the explicit approval of cabinet, with the closing speech at the Land Conference by President Geingob. He then, days after the deal had been done, urged: “we need to ensure that we are living in a just and fair society, a society in which the mantra of ‘No Namibian must feel left out’ permeates every facet of our coexistence.”

But the landless dumped since years at the margins of the new empire created at Dordabis, feel exactly left out and betrayed. Their story differs from the populist rhetoric, which is nothing else than the cosmetics trying to cover up an elite pact. People are not fooled when feeling the effects daily. As a commentator in the state-owned newspaper put it: “the saga of the four Russian farms seems to be the tip of the iceberg… we must call upon the Namibian government to institute a forensic audit into the management of land.”

By diagnosing that the “inaccurate characterization of the land issue is a smokescreen to cover-up continued elite control over not just the land, but all income-generating natural resources in Namibia,” an editorial in The Observer managed to put the battles for land in the overall current context:

If an accurate look at who is receiving the resettlement farms, EPLs, fishing quotas, affirmative action farm loans and other natural resource allocations is ever possible, we are convinced it will reveal not necessarily one ethnic group reaping all benefits but one socio-economic class gathering wealth.

Further Reading