Land tenure reform and the balance of power in eastern and southern Africa

Land tenure reform and the balance of power in eastern and southern Africa

Tenure reforms: a shift in power to local landholders?

This paper examines the current wave of land tenure reform in eastern and southern Africa. It discusses how far tenure reform reflects a shift in powers over property from centre to periphery. A central question is whether tenure reform is designed to deliver to rural smallholders greater security of tenure and greater control over the regulation and transfer of these rights.

Policy conclusions include:

  • whilst diverse in initial objective, and uneven in delivery, tenure reforms address a remarkably common set of concerns. Most embody significant shifts in the balance of power in state–people property relations
  • overall, tenure reform incorporates new recognition of local level land rights and significant transfer of powers over their disposition nearer to the ordinary landholder
  • some authority over land is being concentrated more at the centre, illustrating the essentially political nature of property relations and the reluctance of central governments to release powers.
  • however, intentionally or otherwise, governments are delivering to landholders new powers and rights in land which may enhance democratisation in this and related spheres
  • the manner in which customary, unregistered rights in land are being regarded in new tenure law represents the most crucial area of change and should yield an African character to property relations in the 21st century.


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