This land is my land!

Like in South Africa, land reform in Namibia is criticised for being poorly planned, poorly executed and too slow. With an election year coming up, land hunger is set to take on a political hue and exacerbate tensions. Servaas van den Bosch spoke to Erika von Wietersheim, author of This land is my land! about the emotions shaping land reform in Namibia.
Issue date : 23 January 2009

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Like in South Africa, land reform in Namibia is criticised for being poorly planned, poorly executed and too slow. With an election year coming up, land hunger is set to take on a political hue and exacerbate tensions. Servaas van den Bosch spoke to Erika von Wietersheim, author of This land is my land! about the emotions shaping land reform in Namibia.

“I find myself reacting extremely aggressively and emotionally to any possible violation of this piece of land, and I am sure most people feel this way, black or white,” says a young white farmer in the book, who has just bought land in the south of Namibia. Although a government waiver was issued, it’s not a watertight guarantee against expropriation.

The land reform process in Namibia could go either way. At least that’s how most white commercial farmers that Erika von Wietersheim interviewed for This land is my land! see it. The former farmer and anthropologist interviewed dozens of politicians, commercial farmers, union representatives, communal and resettled farmers and farmworkers, asking them why land is such an emotional issue. “It seems like a logical question, but in all the reports that are issued, land reform is always approached from a very rational point of view, while emotions shape the decision-making process,” she says.

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Reading her book, it becomes clear that the uncertainty surrounding land reform also affects aspiring black commercial farmers and the 200 000 or so landless that populate an obscure government list for resettlement. In various reports over the years, the programme has been slammed for “lacking clear planning”, for “creating as much poverty as it eliminates” and for being marred by “arbitrary and incompetent” actions. The prevailing mood is one of anxiety on both sides of the former divide. But Von Wietersheim wondered whether this was an honest reflection of what was happening on the ground.

Namibia’s land reform is a little different from that of its brother in the south. In South Africa, the Natives Land Act of 1913 was instrumental in deciding who lost what and who deserved compensation, but in Namibia, there never was such a decisive or documented historic moment.

A ‘perfect’ rationale
That’s why the National Conference on the Land Question and Land Reform in 1991 decided to structure the land programme from a socioeconomic perspective. “This meant a more representative distribution of land, governed by the overruling principle of sustained agricultural production,” explains Von Wietersheim. “A ‘perfect’ rationale that has possibly worsened the way some groups feel about land reform.”

“For the Ovaherero and Nama people, who lost most of their land under German colonisation and South African occupation, it means they have, forever, lost their ancestral land and have to queue with other black Namibians. The Oshiwambo-speaking majority in the north – the power base of the ruling Swapo party – on the other hand, has never lost land, but is eligible to receive it.”

Like in South Africa, a willing-buyer, willing-seller principle is pursued in order to resettle landless people. Aspiring commercial farmers are assisted by government loans in terms of an affirmative action scheme. The constitution allows expropriation and this has occurred in a handful of cases, resulting in a fair share of unhappiness.

Simple retaliation that bodes failure?
The perception persists that many “new” commercial farms are underutilised and the owners are well-connected individuals that are either absent, or use the farm for purposes other than agricultural production. To qualify for a government loan, a prospective farmer must own 150 head of cattle and have operating capital of R150 000. Agribank, a state bank, then loans him 85% of the purchase price at a subsidised interest rate.

The government backs the loan for 35% of the amount.
A recent study from the Legal Assistance Centre and the Namibian Economic Policy Research Unit concludes that the affirmative action programme “will not help to alleviate poverty, since those who can afford to buy these farms are obviously not so poor”. Although only five farms have been expropriated since independence, the way this happened has raised some eyebrows, with productive farms having been taken for no other apparent reason than having incurred the wrath of ministry officials or the former president, Sam Nujoma. Researchers conclude that “no other rational process, other than simple retaliation is at work”.

So is land reform in Namibia doomed for failure? At a post-settlement conference in the capital in early November 2008, reactions were mixed. Black farmers complained about the poor condition of resettlement farms and a lack of support. The 99-year government lease also doesn’t give them access to credit. But the under-secretary of land Hanno Shipena hit back, saying that resettlement criteria should be tightened and preference should be given to black farmers with capital and experience.
Officials tasked with aiding the resettled farmers complained that up to 70% of them are often absent because they are employed in towns, which raises the question whether they should have been targeted at all.

The positives and the status quo
However, the land reform process has also been hailed as extraordinarily successful compared to neighbouring countries and praised for its holistic and rational approach by international donors like the German Development Cooperation.
“This is a sentiment that is echoed in the farming community,” says Von Wietersheim. “White farmers have little problem with the idea of land reform as such. They want to keep on living in the country and dread the example of Zimbabwe. A delegation of Namibian farmers visited Zimbabwe and came back with the resolve never to choose sides in politics, but to keep the dialogue going.”

The South African Female Farmer of the Year 2006, Olga Nghatsane, who visited Namibia in 2007, commented about the land reform process that, “They are so open with each other, they help each other. I wish this could take place in South Africa as well.” It’s true the Namibia Agricultural Union and the Namibian National Farmers Union (NNFU) oversee the ongoing Emerging Commercial Farmers’ Support Programme which provides mentorship to black farmers. Still, some say this is mere “window dressing” and that white farmers are zealously “defending their own interests”.

 In This land is my land!, prime minister Nahas Angula accuses white farmers of “playing games” to hold onto the two or more farms many of them have.
This demonstrates the tensions that underpin the process, but since government is not very successful in maintaining productivity on resettled farms either, the status quo remains.

Perceptions and expectations
Although a large part of the Namibian population depends on farming, the agricultural sector only makes up 6% of the GDP. The tough conditions also make farming difficult and account for high input costs. Farming units smaller than 5 000ha are not regarded as viable. “Owning a farm can be a nightmare!” confides former agriculture minister Nicky Iyambo to Von Wietersheim.

“Having land and farming doesn’t mean you are rich, never! Having a farm actually means that you might have debts up to your neck.” That farming will make you rich is one of the strongest perceptions associated with land reform; that it will uplift large parts of a society ranked as of the most unequal in the world. For many, the expectation that land will provide a secure livelihood is perhaps stronger than any spiritual connection with the land or the wish to right the wrongs of the past, says Von Wietersheim. “But it is not a realistic belief, and land reform should not pretend to address these expectations, because it cannot. Other ways of addressing the needs of the poorest of the poor have to be used.”

“For others, one of the main motives for applying for land is the wish for a safe and secure home, while they do not really have an interest in farming.” The realisation begins to dawn that the agricultural sector can’t sustain the land hunger of hundreds of thousands, but above all, the land reform programme is in dire need of clear guidelines on expropriation, compensation and the evaluation of land that’s available to buy, say stakeholders. Also, it needs to be better communicated.One official interviewed by Von Wietersheim commented about the inter-ministerial cooperation, “It is weak, and this is mainly due to the ministry officials. Everyone is busy with their own resettlement farm or further studies. They are not involved enough in their work. […] I would abolish the Ministry of Lands and Resettlement and integrate it into the Ministry of Agriculture.”

The uncertainty remains
The most important factor that keeps surfacing in the book is the nagging uncertainty which inhibits investment and growth in the sector. “If I were a white commercial farmer today and looked at the concept of land reform, the very first thing that would come to mind is the level of uncertainty,” says Vehaka Tjimune, executive director of the NNFU. “I do not know what will be the next move. I do not know whether my farm is the next to be expropriated, because for me, the criteria for farm expropriation are not very clear.”     |fw

More land reform facts

Commercial area: 52% of arable land.
Number of farms: 6 000.
White farmers: 3 800 (at independence).
Average commercial farm size: 5 000ha to 15 000ha or more.
Farms bought under Affirmative Action Loan Scheme: 623 (274 part-time farmers).
Bought on free market by blacks: 180.

Privately owned former “white” land: 14%.

  • Black commercial farms at independence: 40.
  • Farms acquired by state for resettlement: 209.

Families resettled: 2 040.

  • Ownership resettled farms: 99-year lease from state.
  • Average unit size: 1 000ha to 3 000ha.
  • Total change of ownership: 17% of former “white” land.

A different look at land reform

This land is my land! is not the first book about land reform in Namibia, but it offers a new perspective. Erika von Wietersheim looks at the emotions surrounding land reform, because emotions shape policies, she says. The Namibian-born journalist was educated as an anthropologist at the University of Cape Town before settling on a hunting farm in the south of Namibia. After independence, her husband Anton became agriculture minister and helped shape the land reform process in the country. He left the Cabinet after a fallout with President Sam Nujoma and in 2000, the family had to sell the farm. “These experiences shaped me,” says Erika. “I know how painful it is to lose a piece of land. Not just for our family, but also for the farmworkers that were out of a job.” With a grant from the Friedrich Ebert Stifftung, she took a trip to every corner of Namibia to collect testimonies about the land reform process. After 5 000km and over 50 interviews, the result is a fascinating collection of stories from farmers and politicians, workers and union activists, black and white.
For more information contact Auriel Mitchley on (011) 889 0796 or e-mail
[email protected].

Farmer Thekla Kahiru in conversation with the author,