Sunday , September 26 2021

How alike is land reform in Namibia and South Africa? || The Southern Times



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By Ronak Gopaldas & Menzi Ndhlovu *

While land reform has dominated South Africa's headlines, it has also emerged as a major polarising issue in Namibia ahead of the next year's national election. Populist pressure fears around the trajectory of the economy and uncertainty about how the process will be administered in Namibia have raised alarm, particularly among investors.

With last year's downgrade rating to sub-investment level and growth depressed outlook, the Namibian economy remains vulnerable. Jittery investors are now zooming in on two questions in particular – whether Namibia's handling of the land issue has any similarity to South Africa's, and whether it merits the same level of concern.

First, it is important to understand the similarities between the two countries. Both have segregationist history and inequality is still dominated across racial lines. Both countries have key elections in 2019 with incumbent governments facing dissatisfaction around the slow pace of transformation (much of which can be attributed to their own inefficiency rather than prohibition laws).

It is in this context that the current clamor around the respective land debates needs to be understood. Current land policies have failed to launch in both countries – evidenced by land ownership statistics, which remain racially skewed.

In South Africa, according to the government's 2018 Land Audit Report, whites own 72% of farms and agricultural holdings, colored people 15%, indians 5% and blacks 4% (all ownership). These figures – and indeed the report – have been questioned. Commentators say the baseline measurements have been manipulated for political profit. However, this does not change the underlying notion that the distribution of individual ownership is misaligned with the country's demographics.

Namibia is no different. According to the 2018 Namibia Land Statistics report, domestic and foreign citizens own about 70% of commercial or freehold agricultural farmland.

In both countries, whites account for less than 10% of the total population. Statistics also show that despite commitments to transforming the nature of land ownership in both countries to better reflect population demographics, not enough has changed.

Land reform was not the only initiative that failed to launch, but land dispossession was central to the segregationist policies that dominated both countries' pasts. Many of their ongoing socio-economic challenges can be traced to this. In both countries, the issue is less about the land itself, and more about inclusion, dignity and the need for redress.

Land is the lightning rod representing dissatisfaction with the status quo, and unhappiness with a lack of economic opportunities and the racialised economic structure of both economies. The issue also carries political currency in each context, particularly as elections approach.

However, there are crucial differences in how land reform historically fits into ruling ruling parties and the type of land that people want. In Namibia – much like Zimbabwe – a largely ethnically denominated liberation movement and now governing SWAPO Party fought a 'people's war' over land.

In contrast, given the multi-ethnic urban elitist composition of South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC), there was little mobilization for land-based people's war but rather for inclusive political and economic broader, of which land was part.

In South Africa, according to the government's 2018 Land Audit Report, whites own 72% of farms and agricultural holdings, colored people 15%, indians 5% and blacks 4% (all ownership). These figures – and indeed the report – have been questioned. Commentators say the baseline measurements have been manipulated for political profit. However, this does not change the underlying notion that the distribution of individual ownership is misaligned with the country's demographics.

Namibia is no different. According to the 2018 Namibia Land Statistics report, domestic and foreign citizens own about 70% of commercial or freehold agricultural farmland.

In both countries, whites account for less than 10% of the total population. Statistics also show that despite commitments to transforming the nature of land ownership in both countries to better reflect population demographics, not enough has changed.

Land reform was not the only initiative that failed to launch, but land dispossession was central to the segregationist policies that dominated both countries' pasts. Many of their ongoing socio-economic challenges can be traced to this. In both countries, the issue is less about land itself, and more about inclusion, dignity and the need for general redress.

Land is the lightning rod representing dissatisfaction with the status quo, and unhappiness with a lack of economic opportunities and the racialised economic structure of both economies. The issue also carries political currency in each context, particularly as elections approach.

However, there are crucial differences in how land reform historically fits into the governing parties' discourse and the type of land that people want. In Namibia – much like Zimbabwe – largely ethnically denominated liberation movement and ruling SWAPO party now fought a 'people's war' over land.

In contrast, given the multi-ethnic urban elitist composition of South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC), there was little mobilization for land-based people's war but rather for inclusive political and economic broader, of which land was part.

This absence of political pressure has allowed Geingob to skirt around contentious measures like expropriation without compensation. As resolved during the 1 October land conference, Namibia will discontinue the willing-buyer-willing-seller principle in favor of an expropriative policy that is enabled by the existing constitution.

The government may also seek to redefine 'just compensation', but so far this will not necessarily include a denial of compensation. Although broached during the conference, Namibia – unlike South Africa – has made no firm commitment toward a constitutional amendment.

While there may be differences in the push for extreme measures, any such possibility is constrained in both countries by considerations related to the market. In South Africa, a predominantly agriculture-driven technical recession renders any radical expropriative policy unviable and would send negative messages to weary markets.

This is possibly why Ramaphosa has spoken against arbitrary land grabs and the nationalization of land. Instead, he has maintained that his administration would undertake a considered approach that prioritises state-owned land for redistribution.

Facing similar economic stagnation and an exacerbated climate-related threat to agriculture, Namibia has followed suit with its own 'considered' approach that seeks to minimize disruptions to the vital sector, albeit with some key differences.

For one, the government has pledged to pursue a 'one Namibian, one farm' policy that discourages the ownership of multiple farms by individuals. Also, foreigners will be prohibited from purchasing underdeveloped residential land. This will not include purchases for commercial and industrial use – a testament to Geingob's cognisance of the potential backlash to a ban.

In both South Africa and Namibia, land reform is critical for socio-economic and political stability, but investors are angry about how it will change the country's landscape. How both governments straddle appeasing investor concerns and rectifying historical injustices through equitable land redistribution will be key to the region's economic well-being and political stability.

For investors, an appropriate diagnosis of the issue is important to ensure that they do not panic or overreact. Central to this is an understanding of the drivers behind each country's land debate, the political considerations at play, and the significance of the context. – ISS

* Ronak Gopaldas, ISS Consultant and Director, Signal Risk and Menzi Ndhlovu, Signal Risk


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