With the second national land conference about six weeks away, it seems appropriate to reflect on the major conclusions of the National Conference on Land Reform and the Land Question, dubbed the “First Land Conference”, held during June-July 1991. The fact that the conference decisions are referred to as consensus resolutions suggests that most of the decisions were arrived at as a result of compromise, in the spirit of give and take that prevailed at the Constituent Assembly two years prior. The conference was held about 16 months into an independent Namibia and national reconciliation was seemingly the buzzword. What follows is an arm’s length, layman assessment of the implementation of the conference consensus.
The conference accepted that there was injustice with regards to land acquisition in the past and resolved that something practical had to be done. Given that no specific action was agreed in this regard, assessment becomes challenging and might be fair to state that this is still a work in progress. No major feats to write home about.
The conference resolved that in view of the complexities related to overlapping boundaries of the various communities, restitution based on ancestral land claims would be impossible. It is therefore not surprising that nothing was done in this regard. What has not escaped notice is the fact that the Government bought 3-4 farms (amongst others) for the //Hai/Om community of Etosha in areas not far from their ancestral home, for resettlement purposes under the auspices of the San Development Programme housed in the Vice President’s office. The issue has evidently not been put to rest, given the growing and at times emotive claims in recent times, hence the second land conference might endeavour to find a decisive position on this point. The first conference failed to find a long-lasting solution on the issue, and will continue to fester until it is tackled head-on.
Foreign owned farmland
The consensus here was that no foreigners should be allowed to own farmland, but should only be allowed use and development of the land for investment purposes. It is not apparent if the intention was to extend such limitation to companies or close corporation owned by foreigners, whether solely or in majority. In view of the reported foreigners owning large tracks of farmland, which reports were never formally refuted by the Ministry of Land Reform, it seems fair to conclude that this resolution was not complied with, although it would appear easy to implement.
The Conference resolved to reallocate and productively utilise all abandoned and underutilised commercial land. It should be noted that the virgin land in Otjozondjupa, Omaheke, and Kavango West Regions, as well as other pockets of land have always been touted as the answer to overgrazing in communal areas (former reserves), but there seems to be little appetite to develop these untapped areas. Drilling boreholes and finding a permanent solution to the gifblaar, or in the least providing practical ways of co-habitation with the plant are not ‘pie in the sky’ interventions. The government has clearly under performed in utilising under-utilised land productively and has not effectively supported communities who have ventured to do so.
The Conference agreed to expropriate land owned by absent landlords, mainly those owned by foreigners. It is common cause that expropriation attempts were halted by the High Court ruling in the Gunter Kessl and Ministry of Lands and Resettlement matter. Despite the High Court providing guidelines on lawful expropriation no subsequent attempts were made. But given the nationalities involved and the political sway of those countries on domestic policy, this intervention may never see the light of day.
Farm size and numbers
It was resolved that very large farms and multiple ownership of farms would not be permitted, agreeing that such farms should be expropriated. It is not apparent what the Conference regarded as a very large farm as no limit was set on the size of the farm per person. While the maximum size of a farm most possibly had to be determined, the limitation on the number of farms per person would have been easier to implement, assuming that such a position is supported by the necessary legal framework. This resolution should certainly be marked down and attract a negative score.
As directed by the Conference, the land tax for commercial farmland was introduced. While there might be implementation challenges in relation to the right level of taxing and the grace period to be afforded, the Government deserves maximum points on this resolution.
Technical committee on commercial farmland
The Conference recommended the establishment of a technical committee to be tasked with the evaluation of farm utilisation, monitor absentee ownership and make recommendation on acquisition and reallocation of farmland. It would appear that this function is performed by the Division of Land Use Planning and Allocation in the Ministry of Land Reform. Even if no specific committee might have been established as recommended by the Conference, there seem to be substantial compliance with the resolution. However, what should be done once these assessments are conducted, and whether that informs policy intervention, is a mystery.
To ensure expanded access to land, the Conference recommended that a committee be set up to explore available forms of land tenure. It is not clear whether this committee was indeed established, but the 1998 Land Policy accords equal status to all forms of land rights such as customary land rights, leasehold, freehold, permits/certificate and State ownership. This is possibly another resolution for which the Government should be awarded points.
The Conference condemned the injustice against farm workers in commercial and communal areas. The Labour Act (Act No. 11 of 2007) protects the rights of all workers including farm workers. Significant work was also done in prescribing minimum wage for farm workers. The missing element appears to be monitoring and enforcement. Marks for this resolution are certainly in order.
Assistance to commercial farmers
The Conference resolved that the Government should extend assistance to commercial farmers in exceptional circumstances such as during droughts and assist with improving the conditions of farm workers. The broad and vague nature of the resolution makes it hard to assess and score either way. Maybe the occasional tax reprieves in relation to land tax allowed during severe droughts could amount to the envisaged assistance.
The future role of the communal areas
It was agreed that communal areas should be retained, developed and expanded where necessary. Right here is a real compromise. If the communal areas (reserves) were designed and forced on the people by the colonisers, what was the justification for agreeing to their retention? Development of communal areas makes sense, so too their expansion. Without doubt, many services have been taken to communal areas but examples of the expansion of such areas are hard to come by.
There have been significant work around this resolution but retaining communal areas marked an unfortunate departure point.
As indicated above, no specific and extensive research or investigation was done in assessing the implementation of the agreed resolutions. Hence, the possibility that certain resolutions might have by implemented to an extent not reflected above is real, however it follows that where work was carried out, such implementation must not just be effected but must also be seen to be done. Part 2 shall be dedicated to the assessment of Resolutions 13 to 24.