Seeking ways out of the impasse on land reform in Southern Africa: notes from an informal ‘think tank’ meeting

Seeking ways out of the impasse on land reform in Southern Africa: notes from an informal ‘think tank’ meeting

What are the key issues surrounding land reform in Southern Africa?

Land reform in Southern Africa is currently at an impasse. This paper analyses the constraints to sustainable land reform and identifies ways and means of moving things forward. In addition, appendices to the document include country by country reviews of the status of land reform in each country, and a matrix providing an overview of current land issues in the region.

The document finds that whilst some progress has been achieved with tenure reform in Botswana, Malawi and Mozambique, many challenges remain across the region, particularly for Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia. The paper finds that the following issues need to be understood and addressed:

Cyclical patterns of land reform in the region:initial strong political commitment to land redistribution often gives way to an emphasis on ‘economic’ goals rather than the eradication of poverty, which tends to favour elite landowners rather than the landless lobby.

Redistributive land reform:in the context of the region, and in particular South Africa, the following need to be addressed:

  • balancing redistribution with sustainable rural development
  • the productivity of small farmers
  • establishing post-transfer support (farm credit, extension services) in complex institutional contexts
  • high rural to urban migration
  • mobilisation for change amongst civil society and business
  • the possibility of dropping the ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ approach

Land tenure reform:is a crucial issue as it may assure the land rights of the majority of the population, because of the potential link between secure land rights, investment and economic growth, and because it is an important safeguard against creating land or income inequality in the future.

Land rights of women:across the region, women suffer from strong male bias in relation to land rights. Despite pockets of success (for example Botswana), there is insufficient attention to mainstreaming gender concerns into land policy and implementation. This applies not only to governments and public and customary institutions, but also to many donor and NGO programmes.

Customary land rights and systems:initiatives to protect customary land rights alongside formal rights in polarised and racially divided contexts such as Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia can benefit from looking at the experiences of lower profile countries of Botswana, Mozambique and Malawi. Emphasis should be placed upon the process (who is involved in the policy discussions and subsequent implementation) as much as the technical content and substance of the resulting programme.

HIV/AIDS and land:the potentially catastrophic impact of HIV/AIDS requires a re-examination of many basic assumptions underpinning land policy work. The pandemic is bringing the negative impact of aspects of customary law on the livelihoods of women and children into sharper focus, as their land rights become more vulnerable to dispossession by patrilineal kin on the death of male household heads. More attention needs to be paid to understanding the impact of HIV/AIDS on land tenure.

Donor support to government land reform programmes is increasingly politically sensitive for both donors and recipient governments. However, donors should continue to support a redistribution agenda, which should be a long-term iterative process, requiring feedback, learning and involvement of many stakeholders.

Donor support to civil society initiativesshould be further encouraged, for example through a ‘Land Reform Fund’. Civil society organisations are a source of knowledge and information, are effective partners in implementing land reform, and can also be important in kick-starting new government initiatives.

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