Commercial Farmers' Union of Zimbabwe

Commercial Farmers' Union of Zimbabwe

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Land: Africa’s greatest but still dead asset

Land: Africa’s greatest but still dead asset

Thursday, 26 January 2012 16:51

By Eddie Cross

IN THE pre-colonial era of African culture, both in respect of those tribes 
that cultivated and those that were nomadic in character or even the Nguni 
tribes that pursued a militaristic form of life and culture, all regarded 
land as God-given and a common good. Usage determined title and could be 
usurped at any time by force of arms or tribal consensus. Life was insecure, 
short and pretty torrid.
Because these widely spread communities were basically using the land until 
it was exhausted or grazing was finished, they seldom built permanent 
accommodation –– nomads living in tents and the cultivators living in huts 
that could be simply abandoned when it became necessary to move on. Once 
abandoned, the land recovered in its own time. A similar situation existed 
in pre-colonial America and in Australia.

So long as the population remained very small in relation to the vast areas 
occupied this was a stable and reasonable life that was reflected in the 
culture and norms of the people. It was also environmentally sustainable.

Then comes the colonial era which introduced colonial forms of title rights 
for settler interests, the restriction of people to prescribed land areas 
and the erection of fences to limit access and establish control. At the 
same time, tribal conflicts were halted, life expectancies raised and in the 
absence of conflict and the control of disease, African populations began to 
grow at a rate not seen for centuries. In Zimbabwe the population was 
expanding at over 3,5% per annum by the 1950s and remained at this very high 
level until Independence in 1980.

This created pressure on land resources, but so long as there were adequate 
stocks of vacant state-controlled land, that could be allocated and settled 
to accommodate the growing population. There was a need for security for 
migrant workers and their families and to make provision for the exhaustion 
of land now being occupied on a permanent basis. This was satisfied by 
simply bringing more land into play. In the 1960s I was involved in just 
such an exercise when the Rhodesian government opened up the Zhombe/Gokwe 
area (some 10 million acres of land) for tribal or communal occupation.

This was the situation in almost all colonial states in Africa and once the 
colonial regime had been overthrown or withdrawn, the new African 
governments, one after the other, chose to revert to different forms of 
tribal and communal systems of land use. In some countries like Kenya, the 
transition was reasonably managed, in others it was done by the simple 
abolition of colonial title rights.

This post-colonial process over the past 50 years, culminated in the “fast 
track” land reform programme of the Zanu PF regime that governed Zimbabwe 
for 28 years up to the formation of the Transitional Government with the MDC 
in 2008. Here, as in most other African states the colonial imposition of 
title rights, underwritten by the constitution were simply swept aside.

South Africa remains the only country in Africa with widespread title rights 
covering a significant majority of the land surface. What are the 
implications of this development for modern Africa?

Despite the collapse of many economies in the past colonial era and despite 
poor social services delivery in most countries and human migration to more 
developed countries, the population of Africa has continued to grow. Urban 
populations still, on average, constitute half of total population and 
social security systems (pensions, urban freehold housing, secure private 
assets) are in embryonic form in most countries leaving urban workers and 
dwellers with rural land rights established through tribal linkages, as the 
only security for old age, ill health or unemployment.

The result is that rural agricultural and grazing land has become a vast 
retirement and social security safety net for hundreds of millions of 
people, even those living in the Diaspora often claim such rights as are due 
to them under tribal law.

Then there is the fact that if such rights are exercised within the 
framework of a consensual tribal culture, such land owners only have 
security in so far as they occupy and use the land in question. So, for 
example, you have the spectacle that each year people plough vast areas in 
the vicinity of their rural homesteads just to maintain their traditional 
land usage and occupation rights.

Such rights cannot be expressed in law or in writing and certainly cannot be 
sold or used as collateral.

Such a system is reinforced in dictatorial tribal or country systems by 
leaders who recognise immediately the leverage that such systems give those 
with the tertiary rights to control land allocations.

The first result of this situation is that Africa is witnessing the fastest 
destruction of its fragile environment in the history of mankind. The 
deserts of Africa are all expanding –– some by kilometres every year. Much 
of North Africa that is today sand and stone desert was at one time 
productive savannah. It is within recorded history, that the Sahara Desert 
was at one stage, the granary of the Mediterranean region.

The second is that those who depend on the land for a living are almost 
universally among the poorest people on earth.

They constitute a disproportionate share of the absolute poor, living on 
less than US$2 a day. Agricultural systems based on such traditional land 
title rights are always subsistence –– barely able to meet the needs of the 
immediate community let alone provide for urban markets.

Money transfers tend to be towards such communities rather than from them –– 
absorbing savings and creating societies that cannot generate the capital 
resources to develop their countries on their own.

The third consequence is that the African economy is denied the inherent 
capital value of land and its ability to collateralise the rest of the 
economy through the operation of land markets. In Zimbabwe for example, the 
GDP stands today at about US$10 billion. The national debt nearly the same 
value while the currency in circulation is perhaps US$4 billion. Compare 
this to the theoretical value of urban assets at about US$5 billion and of 
rural farm land of at least US$20 billion.

The fourth dimension of this situation lies in the simple fact that people 
do not invest in assets that they do not own or control.

Communal land rights are universally characterised by poor development and 
maintenance. Who is going to invest in infrastructure on land they do not 
own? Who is going to try and improve the fertility of land that they might 
lose control of next year? Such issues are universal in character.

Land is Africa’s greatest asset and yet it remains a dead asset under 
present arrangements; barely able to sustain itself both economically and 
ecologically. This critical issue is brought to the fore by two things –– 
our inability to reduce the high proportion of our population in absolute 
poverty and associated human degradation and our inability to control and 
reverse land gradation.

Any good pasture scientist will tell you that once land has become desert, 
it is almost impossible to reverse the process.

Yes you can plant trees across the Sahel, yes you can remove people from 
vast swathes of country and relocate them to land that can support them for 
a while, but so long as there is no ownership, backed by legal, negotiable 
title rights, land will continue to degrade, irrespective of where it is.

In many respects this is Africa’s greatest challenge and until its leaders 
come to grips with it and take the required steps to grant their own people 
basic secure title rights to the land they use to make their living, there 
cannot be any real long-term development either of African economies or 
African democracies and freedoms.

Cross is MDC-T MP for Bulawayo South.


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