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AFRICA / Why land matters to Africans regardless of agriculture
Date of publication at Tlaxcala: 07/03/2011
Translations available: Deutsch 

Why land matters to Africans regardless of agriculture

Chambi Chachage



Agriculture is back on the international agenda on Africa. A green-cum-agrarian revolution is thus being televised. At the heart of this quest, however, is the question of land use – and control.

‘Nothing will compensate an African for the loss of his land’ – Sir Godfrey Lagden
It is within this context a number of diplomats, investors, researchers and scholars across the ideological divides recently convened at the Mumbai’s World Trade Centre and the University of Mumbai in India for an International Conference on ‘South- South Cooperation: India, Africa and Food Security: Between the Summits.’ Soon afterwards, some of them gathered at Rhodes University in South Africa for the third African Institute of Agrarian Studies (AIAS) Summer School on the ‘Global Crisis, Scramble and Agrarian Reform in the South.’ In both cases the agrarian question in relation to agricultural productivity and ownership of land in Africa was brought to the fore not least because of the ‘new’ wave of ‘land grabbing’ across the continent.

The case of South Africa and Zimbabwe’s ongoing land reforms highlights this contentious relationship. On the one hand they jointly affirm the centrality of land ownership in Africa irrespective of whether Africans use it for agricultural production or not. Yet, on the other hand, they dialectically confirm the viability of agricultural productivity among the African peasantry.

Land dispossession, if one has to be reminded, has never augured well with Africans since time immemorial. In fact colonizers and settlers were very much aware of this. Note, for instance, the following interview between the then Resident Commissioner in Lesotho, Sir Godfrey Lagden, and the then Chairperson of the then South African Lands Settlement Commission, one Mr. Southey, on the suitability and availability of African farmland in the then Orange River Colony:
‘Sir Godfrey Lagden […]: Nothing will compensate an African for the loss of his land.
Mr. Southey […]: Not if he is transferred to other land?
Sir Godfrey Lagden […]: No, except he could see the other land first.
Mr. Southey […]: And if it were better land?
Sir Godfrey Lagden […]: Yes.’[1]
But even such a presumable better land would hardly compensate. After all they had a rationale for being where they were in the first place. It is those kind of rationales that one needs to unpack, even today, before jumping into the bandwagon of claiming such and such land in Africa is idle and hence the imperial imperative of displacing Africans to pave way for investors.
In the AIAS deliberations, the National Research Foundation (NRF) Professorial Chair in Land Reform and Democracy in South Africa, Lungisile Ntsebeza, reiterated the ‘enduring’ centrality of the land question in his country. To him this question remains an important marker of inequalities in South Africa. As such it still necessitates a “radical land redistribution program”.[2]

Elsewhere Ntsebeza thus captures the stance of AIAS’ Executive Director, Sam Moyo, on land:
‘Moyo takes a broader view of the land question in southern Africa. His departure point is that land remains a basic source of livelihood for the majority of southern Africans in areas such as the development of agriculture, tourism, mining, housing and industry. Thus, according to him, the land question is not only an agrarian issue, but also a critical social question.’[3]
This consistent position resonated well with at least two South African participants in the AIAS event, Nomboniso Gasa and A.M.S Majeke. To them land is intimately linked to identity. It is central to the production and reproduction of community. Land thus ensures cultural continuity.

Another participant, Elizabeth Kharono from the Centre for Land, Economy and Rights of Women (CLEAR) in Uganda, underscored this point strongly in her feminist critique of gendered land tenures. Although all forms of land tenure recognized by the Ugandan constitution are underpinned by patriarchy, she sharply noted, research from the ground indicates that the often demonized customary land tenure is relatively far beneficial to women when it comes to ensuring their access to land. At the risk of appearing a pro-patriarchy apologetic she aptly states:
‘Customary land tenure systems and production relations have in-built social insurance mechanisms … meant to ensure that the land needs of everybody in the community, including the needs of vulnerable members of society – aged, widowed, orphans, etc, are met. The possibility for catering for the land needs of all members of the community is important to women because it is linked to family and community ties and obligations that other land tenure systems lack. Customary tenure arrangements are also designed to support livelihood systems. This is not the case for other tenure systems which support highly individualized and commercialized lifestyles. As long as women’s membership to a production unit is intact under customary tenure systems, therefore, they can have access to land, social networks and mutual support systems as well as common property resources which supports their efforts to fulfill their obligations for household food production, whether they are married, widowed or unmarried.’[4]
Of course, as Kharono cautions, such systems should not be seen as static. They are flexible. The central point here in relation to the centrality of land irrespective of its agricultural use is that:
‘Because their basic motivation is to support a livelihood system, customary tenure arrangements permit access to land and other common property resources which are important for sustaining livelihoods. These include land for production, water sources, grazing land, firewood and medicinal plants. Such resources are communally owned and managed and no single individual can appropriate them.[5]
Yet the question is posed: Why reclaim/redistribute/repossess land that would not be farmed by Africans (productively)? Or as Ntsebeza rhetorically asks in the context of South African in relation to Zimbabwean land reforms: “How do we characterise South Africans living in rural areas? Are they interested in making a livelihood out of land, or are jobs their main pre-occupation?” To complete the rhetoric behind that query one may add: Even if they are not interested in making a livelihood out of land by farming is that enough to deny them their land?

Ntsebeza’s latest intervention at AIAS’ Summer School unpacks the sinister rationale for this deniability. “Ironically”, he observes, “the conversion of the indigenous people into workers of various sorts is, most recently, being used as a case to essentially argue against land and agrarian reform in South Africa.” “The argument”, he further observes, “goes that since land dispossession, the South African economy has undergone major transformations such that land is no longer the sole measure of wealth and inequalities.” It is such a thesis that renders Africans in South Africa no longer able to farm as if aftereffects of the then Land Ordinance of 1913 and the Bantustan policies of the then Apartheid regime have made them forget how to use their land to sustain life. At the heart of this thesis, as Ntsebeza notes, South Africa is embraced as “not an agrarian society any longer”[6] whereby the term agrarian is uncritically used to mean agriculture.

The main implication of this thesis is obvious to Ntsebeza: A potentially reactionary streams that suggest that Africans in South Africa should not reclaim their land since agriculture no longer matters to them. Such a thesis is even backed by Marxist-cum-Radical scholars who dare claim that South Africa does not have an agrarian question – only a land question. Such assertions fail to – or deliberately bypass the – link between these questions with the national question. By reducing “the land question to a question of livelihoods and agriculture only” they fail to grasp that in South Africa as in other African countries “there is more to the land question which has to do with fundamental claims of legitimacy over ownership and control of the country at large”.[7]

This blind spot, and the persistence denial of the failure of ‘willing seller-willing buyer’ and ‘use it or lose it’ land reform models in South Africa, needs an eye salve from Zimbabwe’s Fast Track Land Reform Programme (FTLRP). Unfortunately the debate on the merits and demerits of FTLRP has been coloured if not tainted by the preoccupation on the despotic regime of President Robert Mugabe. Yet when one scratches the surface on the ground it is easy to see how such selective engagement had been informed by a similar myopic discourse on land use for agriculture. AIAS’ recently released FTLRP Baseline Survey thus aptly captures this discourse:
‘Many claim that most, if not all, of the land allocated to new beneficiaries lies unused and idle, suggesting that there is hardly any farming taking place. The new beneficiaries are accused of being unable to adopt the production system and output levels established by the former [Large Scale Commercial Farm] LSCF producers, largely because it is presumed that most of the beneficiaries are unskilled in farming and their work or life experiences are not adaptable to high value farming, particularly of export crops. Farming techniques and agronomic practices are generally considered to be poor and land productivity low, reflecting deficient farming competence. It is generally claimed that hardly any useable farm machinery and equipment, infrastructure and irrigation facilities remain on the farms, or if they do, they are hardly being used effectively, hence the poor land utilisation levels. Moreover, most of the new farmers are deemed to be 'weekend', 'cell phone' or part time farmers, who are not committed to farming and also lack qualified farm managers, hence their pathologically low levels of land utilisation. In addition, it is argued that extension services (by the state, actors and farmers' organisations) have collapsed, such that there is no promotion of productive agronomic land use and natural resource use practices.’[8]
AIAS went to the field to test these assertions empirically. However, such was the lacunae among Africanists – and some African scholars[9] – such that even preliminary findings were bitterly dismissed when Mahmood Mamdani alluded to them in his ‘Lessons from Zimbabwe’.[10] In their defense of his use of these provisional results, Sam Moyo & Paris Yeros thus reiterated:
‘The land reform has been broad-based and largely egalitarian. It has benefited directly 140,000 families, mainly among the rural poor, but also among their urban counterparts, who on average have acquired 20 hectares of land, constituting 70% of the land acquired. The remaining land has benefited 18,000 new small- to medium-scale capitalists with an average of 100 hectares. A small segment of large-scale capitalists persists, including both black and white farmers, but their land sizes have been greatly downsized to an average of 700 hectares, much lower than the average of 2,000 hectares previously held by 4,500 landowners on the whole of this land.[11]
To them this was – and still is – nothing less than a deep structural change. As such it needs to be defended though doing so is not one and the same thing as condoning pro-regime human rights violations. “The new agrarian structure in Zimbabwe”, they then insisted, “now holds out the promise of obtaining food sovereignty (which it had never obtained before), creating new domestic inter-sectoral linkages, and formulating a new model of agro-industrial development with organized peasants in the forefront”. This promise was informed by various new dynamics that they observed as being “underway in the countryside in terms of labor mobilization, investment in infrastructure, new small industries, new commodity chains, and the formation of cooperatives” to the extent that “despite the adverse economic conditions, land utilization levels had already surpassed the 40% mark that prevailed on the so-called white farms after a whole century of state subsidies and racial privilege”. They thus chided their colleagues for missing it:
‘Needless to say, a number of scholars have never recognized this potential. On the contrary, they continue to speculate about “crony capitalism” (Patrick Bond) and the “destruction of the agriculture sector” (Horace Campbell), without having conducted any concrete research of their own, or properly interrogated the new research that has emerged.’[12]
Theirs is a call to go to the Zimbabwean countryside and see for ourselves. It is a clarion call to reconsider the empirical evidence on the ground rather than rely on hearsay. When one does so, he or she will be in a better position to reaffirm or refute AIAS promising findings such as these:
‘The FTLRP transformed the agrarian structure from a bi-modal structure in which 4,500 farmers (approximately 5,000 farm units) held over 11 million hectares mostly on the basis of export focused commercial agriculture, alongside one million communal area households on 16.4 million hectares mostly in the drier regions of the country. The FTLRP implemented by the Government of Zimbabwe redistributed about 80 percent of the former large scale commercial farms (LSCF) to a broad base of beneficiaries including, mostly peasants from across the political divide, as well as politicians, senior Government officials, private sector officials, employed and unemployed urbanites, farm workers, corporate and the former white farmers. This has altered the previous highly unequal bimodal agrarian structure and created relatively more broad based tri-modal agrarian structure comprising small, medium and large farms with an estimated 170,000 family farms created by the FTLRP… It is clear that the FTLRP has broadened access to land and related natural resources to a diverse set of beneficiaries dominated by landless and/or land short peasants from the Communal Areas. The beneficiaries of the FTLRP go beyond those formally allocated land by the state to include others who are labelled as “"squatters"” who co-exist with formal land beneficiaries under different land sharing arrangements. The position of women has vastly improved in newly redistributed areas in comparison to the communal areas as a sizeable proportion were allocated land in their own right, while some benefitted as joint owners through the marital institution.'[13]
Ian Scoones from the UK’s Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and his associates at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) in Cape Town, South Africa had been in Zimbabwe researching the matter on the ground for about a decade. Incidentally, they arrived to more or less similar conclusions as Moyo & Paris and their AIAS research colleagues. The irony is that even the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), well known for being so quick to dismiss if not demonize any positive side of Zimbabwe’s radical land reforms, had to reluctantly swallow its pride and prejudice as it extensively quoted Scoones’ admission of being “genuinely surprised” by findings of their study on ‘Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myth and Reality’ that debunks these five myths perpetuated by “political and media stereotypes of abject failure” in Zimbabwe: (1) That land reform has been a total failure; (2)That most of the land has gone to political "cronies"; (3) That there is no investment on the resettled land; (4) That agriculture is in complete ruins, creating chronic food insecurity; (5)That the rural economy has collapsed.[14]

Rumor has it that even the World Bank and the IMF are also surprised by Zimbabwe’s recovery.

This discussion would not be complete without referring, at least in passing, to Abdul Raufu Mustapha’s exposé at the AIAS Summer School of the celebrated Zimbabwean farmers’ exploits in Nigeria. His research has revealed that it is only the case in which there is heavy financial among other supports from the Nigerian government(s) that these farmers have flourished. Of particular concern to the topic at hand is the fact that even such success have come at the expense of local farmers. Elsewhere Mustapha thus captures their land dispossession and its consequence:

There has been a torrent of journalistic accounts on the success of the Zimbabwean farmers in transplanting commercial agriculture to Nigeria. Under titles like ‘White Zimbabweans Bring Change to Nigeria’, ‘White Zimbabwean farmers highlight Nigeria's agricultural failures’ , and ‘White farmers from Zimbabwe bring prosperity to Nigeria’. The impression is created of a massive transformation based on the ingenuity of the Zimbabwean farmers and without any support from Nigerian governments. But is this really so? The terms of the [Memorandum of Understanding] MOU which the Kwara State government signed with the Zimbabwean farmers, and developments surrounding the establishment of the farms, paint a different picture. It committed the State government to the provision of a series of services crucial for the development of the commercial farms. Crucially, it committed the government to provide land. The government undertook to clear choice land of the indigenous users’ right next to the River Niger. 1289 local farmers in 28 communities were uprooted from their farms to make way for the Zimbabwean farmers. The state set aside a total of N77m (US$513,333) as compensation for the displaced local farmers. Each of the initial 13 Zimbabwean farmers received a 25-year lease of 1000 hectares. The state's instrumentalist use of compensation and 'agricultural packages' (bicycles – 720 were distributed – , fertilizers, seed etc.) and the provision of long sought after communal infrastructure like electricity and additional classrooms in local schools helped to defuse local protests. [15]

All this echoes the epigraph above – nothing can compensate Africans for the loss of their land.

What has been happening in and to Zimbabwe is a wake-up call, not only to South Africa, but to all African countries that wish away the land question under the guise of an agrarian question. As long as the national question remains unresolved these questions need to be addressed as a matter of urgency. This is particularly so now in the neo-liberal context of ongoing land grabs in Africa.

Land mattered to Africans. It still matters somehow. Anyhow it will always continue to matter.

[1]Bethuel Setai (1998: 74).The Making of Poverty in South Africa. Harare, Zimbabwe: SAPES BOOKS.
[2] Lungisile Ntsebeza (2011: 1). Contemporary Agrarian Questions in South Africa. Opening address, Third Summer School on Land and Agrarian Questions in Southern Africa, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, 17 – 21 January 2011(Used by Permission)
[3] Ntsebeza (2006:4-5). The Land and Agrarian Questions: What do they mean in South Africa today? Key note address presented on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Surplus People Project (SPP), Pinelands Bowling club, Pinelands, Cape Town, on 24 February 2006.
[4] Elizabeth Kharono (2011: 7). Gender and Land Relations in Uganda. Paper presented at the AIAS Summer School 17 – 21 January, 2011, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, Eastern Cape, South Africa (Used by Permission).
[5] Kharono (Ibid.:8)
[6] Ntsebeza (Ibid 2011.: 1-2)
[7] Ntsebeza (Ibid 2011.: 2)
[8] Sam Moyo, Walter Chambati, Tendai Murisa, Dumisani Siziba, Charity Dangwa, Kingstone Mujeyi & Ndabezinhle Nyoni (2009: 6-7). Fast Track Land Reform Baseline Survey in Zimbabwe: Trends and Tendencies, 2005/06. Harare, Zimbabwe: AIAS.

Publication date of original article: 01/02/2011
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Tags: AfricaSouth AfricaZimbabweLand reformAgricultureLand questionLand tenureAfrican Institute of Agrarian StudiesAIASFood sovereigntyFood security

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