NAMIBIA: Land reform in Namibia shakes up sentiments
Karin Palmquist

In February of this year, the prime minister of Namibia, Theo-Ben Gurirab, ruffled some feathers by calling for expropriation of white-owned farms, to speed up the process of land reform agreed at the country"s 1991 Land Conference.

"It will be recalled that the land possession pattern in our country has been designed by colonialism to benefit a small group of minority settlers, at the expense of the majority. Therefore, the problem of land ownership was indeed central to the struggle for national independence. Today, generations after the systematic dispossession, our young nation still struggles to bring about balance and undo the effects of the unjust land distribution," the prime minister said in a statement spoke with Jan de Wet, president of the Namibian Agricultural Union representing the commercial farmers in Namibia, about the sentiment amongst Namibian farm owners.

The Namibian Constitution under Article 16 establishes the right to property, including land, and provides for expropriation in the public interest, subject to compensation. Namibia has had a plan for land reform since the Land Conference in 1991. There are two methods of land acquisition by the government: the willing-seller-willing-buyer approach, where the government buys the land from a farmer willing to sell, and expropriation of land in the public interest, subject to compensation by the government.

Since 1991, around ten percent of the country"s commercial farms have been transferred to historically disadvantaged Namibians. Today almost 65% of the arable land is owned or utilized by disadvantaged Namibians - an indication, one could conclude, that the willing-seller-willing-buyer approach has been successful.

If the willing-seller-willing-buyer approach has been successful, why is this happening now? Is it in any way connected to the upcoming elections in November of this year?

"Land reform is a political necessity," Jan de Wet said. "We have elections coming up this year. Land reform is a political issue, important for political sustainability. After the new president is elected, then interest will be diverted to economic sustainability. There is political pressure on the government to expropriate."

Land reform schemes have failed in many other places, most flagrantly in Zimbabwe. How will you ensure that the mistakes of Zimbabwe are not repeated in Namibia?

"After independence it was stated in the constitution that land reform must take place, and that includes also commercial land. So far, we are satisfied with the process, and with the government"s promises. We won"t let Namibia become another Zimbabwe. The government wouldn"t allow it. There will be no squatting, no land sharing or land grabbing. The government is taking a sensible stand on land reform. A new president might take a different approach to reform, but I"m not worried," de Wet said.

How exactly will the reform be carried out?

"We are in negotiations with the government on how the reform will be carried out. According to the 1991 Land Conference, land owned by foreigners and used only for leisure and pleasure is eligible for expropriation, and so is excessive land, which is land with two operational units owned by one person. We have to sort out what is public interest, what is fair compensation, what is excessive land, what is land not used for farming and what is land used for leisure," de Wet said.

The Namibian Agricultural Union hopes to publish a working document on the progress shortly.

Who decides the value of the farm? Is there room for negotiation if the farmer feels he is getting a rough deal?

"The government has said the expropriations will be legal, in accordance with the constitution, and will offer fair compensation at market prices. So far they have not deviated from this promise. Of course there must be room for negotiations on compensation," de Wet said.

On February 27, the ruling Swapo Party newspaper Namibia Today published the names of eight farms singled out for expropriation. Four of those farms are owned by the Held family, involved in a much-publicized murder case last year, and on two of the other farms workers had recently been fired and evicted. It was immediately concluded by the media that the farms had been selected as retaliation by the government against the farms" owners.

"The announcement of those eight farms did not come from the government but from the media," de Wet said. "The government agrees to the negotiation process. The list of farms to be expropriated is not finished yet."

There are 6000 farms in Namibia today, owned by 3000 white and 1000 black farm owners. Around 200,000 people live and work on Namibia"s commercial farms. Roughly how many farms would the government like to see given to disadvantaged Namibians?

"We don"t know. There is no provision on how much land. Up until now, the government has accepted the willing-seller-willing-buyer approach, and we have accepted their course," de Wet said.

What is the sentiment amongst the landowners? And what effect is this having on investments in private farms and into the agricultural sector?

"Farmers are concerned of course, but there is no reason for concern as long as the criteria are used. If the government honors the negotiated terms, we don"t have a problem. Some farmers have left, but the majority has stayed," de Wet said. "But," he conceded, "the first thing they do is withdraw new investments."

All he knows is that "we need to keep production going to ensure food security. What the white farmers can do in the process is to offer their farms to the government, pay their land tax and empower new farmers."

"We have assurances from the government that law and order will remain, that Namibia will not become a second Zimbabwe," de Wet said. "We believe in consultation not confrontation. The relations between white farmers and the government are good. The government is acceptable of us. As long as you can talk there is no problem."

"If we can come up with a constitution, then certainly we can carry out a land reform," de Wet said. "I am very confident in the process."

His concerns hover more around the message the land reform discussion is sending to the rest of the world.

"I am worried that this is sending the wrong message about Namibia. We need investments, we need tourists and the government agrees. We need to beam out a positive reflection of Namibia to the world."