Africa Watch

SA not alone in seeking solutions to lingering land issues

African farming.jpg

Land and its ownership is a challenge not only in South Africa but also for other countries on the continent, among them Namibia and Kenya.

Last week EFF leader Julius Malema again pushed the issue to the fore, with racial undertones, and threatening land invasions and occupation.  

South Africa is, however, not the only country confronted with extremely emotional land issues.

According to independent global land watchdog, The Land Matrix, Africa is the continent most impacted by land grabs and currently confronted with 422 deals covering a total area of 10 million hectares.

In recent weeks, land issues featured prominently in both Namibia and Kenya.


With its political history closely intertwined with South Africa’s, many of the problems and challenges experienced by Namibia are quite similar to those in South Africa.

With particularly agricultural land predominantly in white, and often absent, ownership, Namibia’s government has introduced legal measures to accelerate land restitution and redress imbalances. 

Under growing criticism that government is failing, the lands minister announced plans to table a new land ownership bill in November, seeking to bar foreigners, particularly absent owners, from owning agricultural, commercial and communal lands.

The bill proposes a raft of amendments to the Agricultural Commercial Land Reform Act of 1995 and the Communal Land Reform Act of 2002.

If passed as is, the bill will complement expropriation laws gazetted recently to amend the willing-buyer, willing-seller clause requiring farmers to first offer their land to government before considering other potential buyers.


Namibia’s land debate is dominated by the exclusion of the indigenous population from land ownership, with ownership mostly in the hands of whites, and more importantly, absent white owners.

In Kenya, however, the land issue is dominated by the victimisation and harassment of people unable to prove ownership of the land on which they had lived and worked for years, sometimes generations,  and their struggles to hold onto the land. 

Like in many other places, colonialism is partly to blame. In Kenya British colonial rule contributed to the current dilemma. The British established a property registration system that individualised and commercialised land, contradictory to the local tradition of sharing and valuing land.

During British rule the locals and traditional owners of the land had no access to or representation in this new system to protect their interests. The legacy of this system is still reflected in many of the disputes over land, which escalated since independence in 1963.

As in South Africa, many Kenyans are left vulnerable by a lack of title deeds to the land they have been occupying and living on for many years.

In the year of independence, Kenya’s government took a loan from the British government to buy back the dispossessed land. The largest chunks, however, went to the new political elite, who had the resources and power to become the new owners.

It is no coincidence that the current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, son of the first president Jomo Kenyatta, is believed to own the largest parcels of privately owned land in Kenya.

According to renowned Kenyan activist Boniface Mwangi, Kenyans are fond of the saying, “‘It’s our turn to eat’, so every person who comes to power tries to accumulate as much wealth as possible, even if it means grabbing it. Impunity in this country is costing citizens their rights”.

While land grabbing and illegal occupation by the new rulers were one of the pillars of the post-colonial era, the problem reached epic proportions during the notoriously corrupt rule of former president Daniel arap Moi.

He awarded his allies huge pieces of land without any documentation and ever since, land-grabbing in Kenya has become a common phenomenon, exploited by the powerful as a money-making scheme.

Also entering the frenzy were powerful individuals, politicians, the politically well connected, “powerful land cartels”, multi-national companies and even the Church as the main transgressors.

And it is getting worse. Investigations and research revealed that many land-grabbers are high-profile individuals in the current government. They deny the allegations, saying that as citizens, government members can possess private land.

Historically, indigenous people of Africa suffered most from the loss of land, and still do at an increasing pace, due to the greed of the powerful and ‘well connected’.

The arrival of international companies, including agricultural, safari and exotic hunting companies contributed to the trend.

In Kenya, for example, the proud Maasai had to endure the indignation of being forcefully and often violently evicted from their land to make way for others more powerful and influential. 

This happened to the Bushmen in Botswana, controversially evicted from their traditional hunting land in favour of diamond exploration and tourism.

It came as no surprise that in Kenya land and the mismanagement thereof, has taken on an ethnic character and is a ticking time bomb which could spark violence among communities.

In fact, it has already happened, with dire consequences.

Exploited by unscrupulous politicians, fuelling of the controversial land issue resulted in post-election violence since 1992 and especially in 2007/2008.  

For their role in post-election violence, both President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto, were subjected to an investigation (later terminated) by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The ICC’s actions upset many African states. It became the rallying point to blame the ICC for singling out Africa, prompting South Africa to become the first African country to announce its withdrawal from the ICC.

Kenya has indicated they consider doing the same, which might turn out to be case of ‘cutting your nose to spite your face’.

The ICC recently decided to hold company executives, politicians and other individuals criminally responsible for environmental destruction and land grabbing. The ICC renders valuable support, should the Kenyatta government be serious of coming to grips with some of its land issues.

Despite President Kenyatta’s undertaking to resolve problematic land grabbing, his  the government’s attempts have been largely ineffective.  

Also read: Land reform should address both black feudalism and colonialism 

by Garth Cilliers

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