Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN)

No resettlement available
An assessment of the expropriation principle and its impact on land reform in Namibia
Sydney L Harring and Willem Odendaal
Legal Assistance Centre (LAC)

Acknowledgements: FANRPAN acknowledges the LAC website as the source of this report:

Introduction: Three Farms – the Beginnings of Land Expropriation in Namibia

The “land question” is among the most difficult issues facing independent Namibia.1 About half of the agricultural land in Namibia is in the hands of about 3 500 whites, while nearly a million blacks live on subsistence farms in the communal lands. Expropriation of agricultural land is both a popular and controversial route to achieving the land reform needed. The Agricultural (Commercial) Land Reform Act 6 of 1995 (ACLRA) is the primary legal mechanism for securing land reform.2 Although expropriation has been legal under this Act since 1995, the Government of Namibia held to a “willing buyer / willing seller” process for political reasons, until announcing in 2004, after much public criticism over “the slow pace of land reform”, that it would proceed with land expropriation.3

The first three farms were expropriated in 2005, when rumours of massive expropriations were rampant, but as at late 2007, the expropriation process has proceeded slowly. At the time of writing this report in August 2007, two more farms were earmarked for expropriation. In July 2007, three High Court cases were filed by German farmers who are challenging the entire land expropriation process on several grounds, including constitutional.4 The study on which we report here was an in-depth investigation of the first three expropriations. Our goal in undertaking this research is threefold: (1) to describe the operation of the legal process under the ACLRA; (2) to offer a critical analysis of what has been accomplished since the ACLRA was ratified in 1995; and (3) to make recommendations for an effective land reform and resettlement programme.

We recognise the difficulties involved in writing about an ongoing process, but by its very nature, this process must be analysed while it is underway.

Before proceeding, it is important to give a brief description of the agricultural framework of Namibia that necessitates land reform. Namibia has always been, and to a lesser extent still is, an agrarian society. Farms occupy most of the country’s land area, and farming employs most of the population (when the communal areas are included), hence the work of farming has deep cultural and social meaning in Namibia. Two distinct farming regimes, i.e. commercial and communal, have divided the country since colonial times.5 About 3 800 commercial farmers,6 mainly white, occupy 6 000 commercial farms, comprising just under half of the country’s land area. These farms are large, averaging at about 5 000 hectares in the north and 10 000 in the south. The commercial farmers are viewed as prosperous citizens and their farms as highly desirable. About one million blacks share communal land in the communal areas where they typically farm cattle and goats, which forage on heavily overgrazed lands. Most of these farmers are very poor, living at subsistence level with little money to meet their basic needs.7

Another several hundred thousand blacks have left (or have been crowded off) communal lands and moved to sprawling squatter camps surrounding every town in Namibia. While these people are now urbanised, they are both poor and products of a collapsing agrarian social order in the communal areas. About 40% of Namibia’s population live at or near subsistence level, without real employment, hungry and lacking opportunity.8

This current social order is a product of a history of colonialism, racism and apartheid. Both German and later South African colonial governments subsidised white commercial farming and denied blacks both land and access to equal education and employment opportunities. After independence in 1990, the new SWAPO-led Government of Namibia promised “land reform” as a core element of their promise for the new nation.9 Land reform is necessary to redress the great inequalities that developed in all spheres of Namibian life, which are still particularly obvious in both the occupation of land and the activity of farming.

  1. While this report is concerned entirely with the situation in Namibia, the related land reform situations in South Africa and Zimbabwe are well known in Namibia and clearly have some impact on the Namibian situation. See Lungisile Ntsebeza, “Address the Land Question”, Globe and Mail, 19 August 2007; Thembela Kepe and Ben Cousins, “Radical Land Reform is Key to Sustainable Rural Development in South Africa”, Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies, University of the Western Cape, Policy Brief 3, August 2002, and “Land Reform in South Africa: Is It Meeting the Challenge?”, Policy Brief 1, September 2001; Martin Adams and John Howell, “Redistributive Land Reform in Southern Africa”, Overseas Development Institute, Natural Resource Perspectives, No. 64, January 2001; Willem Odendaal, “The SADC and Agrarian Reform Initiative: The Case of Namibia”, Namibian Economic Policy Research Unit (NEPRU), Working Paper 11, December 2006; and Justine Hunter (ed.), Who Should Own the Land?, Namibia Institute for Democracy, Windhoek, 2004.
  2. Agricultural (Commercial) Land Reform Act 6 of 1995.
  3. The entire history of the land reform process since independence has been difficult. There is an extensive body of literature on land reform. See Sidney L. Harring, “‘Stolen Lands’ Under the Constitution of Namibia: Land Reform under the Rule of Law”, in Manfred Hinz et al (eds), Ten Years of Namibian Nationhood, New Namibia Books, Windhoek, 2002; Jan Kees van Donge, “Land Reform in Namibia: Issues of Equity and Poverty”, Institute of Social Studies, Land, Poverty, and Public Action Policy Paper 8, December 2005; Wolfgang Werner, “Land Reform and Poverty Alleviation: Experiences from Namibia”, Namibian Economic Policy Research Unit (NEPRU), Research Report 24, 2001; Phillipus Geingob, “Land Reform Process in Namibia: A Study of the Impact of Land Reform on Beneficiaries in the Otjozondjupa Region, Namibia”, MPA thesis, School of Government, University of the Western Cape, September 2005; and Land, Environment and Development Project, Legal Assistance Centre, “Consultative Workshop: Perceptions of Land Reform” (report on the workshop proceedings), Windhoek, November 2006.
  4. Brigitte Weidlich, “Germans to go head to head with Government over farm grab”, The Namibian, 24 July 2007, p.1; and “Expropriations target German Land Owners High Court Hears”, The Namibian, 25 July 2007, p. 1.
  5. Eirin Hongslo and Tor A. Benjaminsen, “Turning Landscapes into ‘Nothing’: A Narrative on Land Reform in Namibia”, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), Forum for Development Studies No. 2, 2002. Brigitte Lau and Peter Reiner, 100 Years of Agricultural Development in Colonial Namibia, National Archives of Namibia, Windhoek, 1993, is the classic history of Namibian agriculture. The evolution of the current situation under apartheid is analysed at pp. 52-63.
  6. The exact data, which is highly political, is subject to interpretation. According to the Namibia Agricultural Union (NAU) in “A Framework for Sustainable Land Use and Land Reform in Namibia”, Windhoek, 2003: 64.75% of the high-potential agricultural land belongs to the government and affirmative action buyers, and is utilised by the latter and resettled persons; 24% of the high-potential agricultural land belongs to white commercial farmers; 32.45% of marginal agricultural land belongs to the government and affirmative action buyers, and is utilised by the latter and resettled persons; and 66.35% of marginal land belongs to white commercial farmers. According to March 2007 figures from Agribank, 361 full-time farmers and 285 part-time farmers have Affirmative Action Loan Scheme (AALS) loans from this bank, totalling 646 AALS farmers.
    These figures, however, include communal land as government land and conflate the small farms in the communal lands with the large farms purchased under the AALS. Also, AALS lands, in this NAU analysis, are placed under black ownership when in fact they are held under Agribank mortgages. There are also apparently secret contractual agreements that conceal actual ownership of some commercial farms. Still, a few hundred formerly white-owned commercial farms are now under black ownership and the number is growing.
  7. Sidney L. Harring, “Communal Lands, Land Reform, and ‘Indigenous’ Peoples’ Right to Land in Namibia”, in Land in Southern Africa, International Working Group for Indigenous Rights, Copenhagen, 2002.
  8. The Government officially reports that in the year 2000, 24.7% of Namibians lived in poverty, or 450 000 in a population of about 1.8 million (National Planning Commission, Regional Poverty Profile: Ohangwena, 2003, pp. 15-16). This estimate is too low, given both low income levels and the number of people who must spend nearly all of their income on basic food needs. The Government’s own data is inconsistent. A parallel study (National Planning Commission, Regional Poverty Profile: Omaheke, 2004) noted the same 24.7% statistic under the Human Poverty Index, but also that 29.1% of Namibian households were “poor”. The same report states, at least partly inconsistently, that 54.1% “participate in the labour force”, while 39.3% of the population are “outside of the labour force”. Of those “participating in the labour force”, 23.8% were unemployed at the time of the study. Thus, underemployment is rampant, affecting a majority of the population. While not all of these people are “poor”, they live close to the poverty line.
  9. Wolfgang Werner, “The Land Question in Namibia”, in Ingolf Diener and Olivier Graefe (eds), Contemporary Namibia: The First Landmarks of a Post-Apartheid Society, Gamsberg Macmillan Publishers and IFRA, Windhoek, 2001.

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