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Namibia debates land reform

Martina Schwikowski
October 3, 2018

Nambia is currently holding a weeklong conference on land reform. It hopes to reach a solution on the unfair distribution of land between the black and white populations. But not all of the players are at the table.

A cow on Namibian farmland
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Tödt

"The willing-buyer, willing-seller principle has not delivered results," Namibian President Hage Geingob told reporters at the start of the southern African country's Second National Land Conference. "Careful consideration should be given to expropriation." His comments have raised concern that white landowners may have to give up their land to black farmers without compensation.

Even before the weeklong gathering opened, Geingob had stressed that the land issue should be dealt with as soon as possible. Exactly how the expropriations would proceed, he did not say. He denied that there would be a repeat episode of the violent expulsions of white farmers in Zimbabwe almost 20 years ago. A similar land debate in South Africa is also adding fuel to the fire in Namibia — there, white landowners are facing the possibility of land expropriation without compensation.

Read more: Namibia's president wants to expropriate land from whites

Correcting colonial wrongs                                               

Namibia was a German colony from 1884 to 1914.In the decades that followed to independence in 1990, it was administered by South Africa, which imposed its oppressive system of apartheid on the population. During this time, thousands of Namibians were expelled from their lands. To this day, a large portion remains under the control of Germans and South Africans, or other foreigners: approximately 70 percent of Namibia's farmland is owned by whites. According to the Namibia Statistics Agency, socially disadvantaged black or colored citizens own only 16 percent of the land. 

The Namibian government has sought to correct past colonial wrongs and pursue social equality. Up until now, white farmers only had to sell their lands back to the state on a voluntary basis. But this principle had not worked. By 2020, Namibia plans to return 43 percent of its 15 million hectares of farmland to the black population. At the end of 2015, only 27 percent of the land was redistributed, according to the Namibia Agricultural Union.

Namibian President Hage Geingob speaks during an opening ceremony
President Hage Geingob has opened the dialogue on land ownership in NamibiaImage: picture-alliance/Xinhua/W. Changwei

The elite set to profit

A scramble over land is currently unfolding between the socially vulnerable and another class termed the 'new elite' — those who have often have close ties with the government and international investors and who frequently benefit more compared to the poor. The government is using the policy of national reconciliation to justify this status quo.

Leader of the Landless People's Movement in Namibia, Bernadus Swartbooi, thinks this week's conference on land issues will not change anything. "The landless will remain landless, the homeless will remain homeless, nothing much will change in terms of the return of ancestral land," he told NBC state television. His organization is not participating in the conference — he was not invited to voice his concerns.

Civil society absent from the table

"Traditional groups are being infiltrated in this process, and our proposals are not in line with the ideology of the governing party," Naita Hishoono, the director of the Namibia Institute of Democracy (NID), told DW. She thinks that returning farmland to its original owners could have happened long ago and low-income earners from the cities should receive a piece of land from the government without payment. "We want to fundamentally restructure society and restore peoples' dignity," she says.

Other traditional groups and representatives from civil society are also staying away from the debate. They fear the government will not consider their concerns or proposals. This means there it little to no open dialogue with the potential stakeholders. 

Hishoono views the conference in a critical light. "Civil society, academics and key country representatives are all boycotting this conference because only government institutions have any say there," she says. "It's just a public relations act." This isn't too surprising considering presidential elections are set to take place next year — and Geingob is under increasing pressure.

A group of Namibian teenagers ride a small cart on a dirt road being pulled by two donkeys
Only 43 percent of farming land in Namibia is owned by the black population Image: picture-alliance/ZB/M. Tödt

Nico Horn, a professor of human rights and constitutional law at the University of Namibia who is currently attending the land conference in Windhoek, does not think landowners should be too concerned at this stage.

"The whole ides of expropriation without compensation will not go through at this conference," he told DW. "Namibian farmers are reasonably safe."

Even the issue of compensation is still being discussed in its most basic form.

"A hot point at the conference at the moment is, what does compensation mean? In the past it's always been seen as a market value. Now there's a sort of resistance against that. The feeling among black farmers is that the prices have been explicitly inflated. And the white farmers are of course asking the question, if it's not market price, then what is it that we [sell on]?"

In any case, expropriation without compensation is not possible without amending Namibia's constitution — although former presidents Sam Nujoma and Hifikepunye Pohamba have called for a referendum to amend the constitution as a way of addressing the issue of land ownership. 

Does the government control the discourse?

The government wants Namibia to remain peaceful and a fair redistribution of land — but it also doesn't want to scare away investors. "The government does not want to stand in the way of productive farmers, who could then migrate," says Hinshoono. "Agriculture is one of the main sources of income in Namibia."

However, the big question over who really owns the land is still difficult to answer, Hishoono explains. "The indigenous people of Namibia do not view land as their own property — rather, it is something that belongs to everyone."

Ineke Mules contributed to this report.

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