Private Property and Freedom

The concept of freedom is not new; it has been an idea that previous generations have sought with passion and determination. The first European settlers in the United States were people fleeing religious persecution in Europe, so were some of the first settlers in the Cape. It was this motive, amongst others, that drove the Afrikaners to set out from the secure confines of the Cape to undertake a great trek into the remote hinterland of Africa where they sought freedom.

In turn, the people they oppressed as they occupied new lands, sought freedom in a struggle that took on political and even military form. The very freedoms the Afrikaners desired from the 'uitlanders', they in turn denied the indigenous people they displaced and subjugated. In the United States the settlers swamped the indigenous peoples and in their turn not only denied them their own rights, but nearly wiped them out.

Today the struggle for real freedom is less obvious but is still an important issue. In my view the modern Africans struggle for freedom has more to do with property rights today than political rights. The latter struggle is won, the former is still with us and it is in this context that the current farm invasions in Zimbabwe must be seen.

The greatest threat to African progress today is the near universal denial of individual ownership rights to property that characterises traditional society. The roots lie deeply imbedded in a culture where Chiefs hold the title to the land and made use of this to establish their power and authority. The fragile ecosystems that dominate the majority of the land surface of the continent meant that communities had to move when the land they were using became exhausted and over grazed. Few communities built permanent homes - they did not own them and anyway, in a few years time they knew they would have to move on to new, virgin land.

Such socio economic systems were fine so long as there was ample land available and no fences. This changed with colonialism as arbitrary boundaries were drawn in the sand and then settlers started to fence the land they claimed as their own. Cultures that lived by roaming over vast swathes of country as nomads and military raiding parties (the Zulus and the Ndebele) found themselves hemmed in and facing new untenable restrictions. The introduction of the modern economy and health systems led to rising populations and these soon outstripped the capacity of the land to carry the burden of traditional agricultural practices.

The marauding Impi’s of Africa went to war with the settlers only to be cut down and defeated by the Maxim gun and superior technology. The villages settled down and resigned themselves to living on pieces of land that were too small to sustain their forms of agriculture. They slid into poverty, relieved only by the dispatch of sons and daughters to the cities of gold where they earned money that they could send back to the village to help sustain life. The migrant labour system of life became the norm and the rural African family followed the village into poverty.

It is for this reason that the African family is in crisis with over two thirds of all children on the continent growing up without a resident father figure in their lives. Such children will remain handicapped all their lives as adults because of this and their societies will suffer as a consequence. For this reason, despite its rich resources, I am not at all surprised that Africa remains the one continent that is poorer than it was 50 years ago and continues to stagnate. It also explains why political freedom, bought at such a cost in human life and material resources, still proves so tenuous and fragile.

It is all about property rights. The colonists, when they occupied and subjugated the land, restricted the indigenous people to specific land areas and did nothing to see to it that they enjoyed property rights there. Rather they chose to use the inherited powers of the traditional leaders to maintain control in those areas and for this they had to leave their power over land intact. Without security of tenure and subject to the arbitrary dictates of the State and the traditional leaders, the villagers could not invest in their land or their homes with security. If they did, such improvements had no market value.

In towns the situation was no better. The presence of thousands of single migrant workers created a whole new culture. Poorly paid and working mainly to send money home, they were also often denied the right to own their own homes in towns. So vast slums were created with millions of people in them, no go areas for law enforcement agencies and where even security over a locked trunk of clothes was difficult to maintain.

In such situations people cannot be free. They are subject to the whims of their leaders and the people with wealth and power in their midst. They are easily persuaded to use violence for one end or another and can be forced by their dependence on others to vote this way or that.

To bring freedom to people caught up in this cycle of violence, poverty and subjugation requires access to secure property rights. In town the right and even the capacity to own a home large enough to accommodate a family. In the rural areas, security to establish a home with real value and which can be sold if not needed and secure rights to agricultural land so that it too can be the subject of investment - both of labour and cash to manage it and keep it productive.

By destroying the property rights of the commercial farmer in Zimbabwe, the government of the day took the process of reform in the wrong direction. That they did so in violation of their legal rights is another matter. It was the violation of property rights that has done the damage. Yesterday I saw a clip that said, 'Zimbabwe’s maize crop will run out in a couple of months'. Am I surprised? Not at all and I am not surprised that small peasant farmers have suffered as much as their large scale commercial counterparts as a result of the destruction of security over assets in Zimbabwe.

It has long been a goal of the MDC to bring secure property rights to all who must live on the land and to ensure that every family that chooses to move to the towns, is able to buy their own home and live with security. Freehold property rights create freedom and secure democracy.

That is why tyrants try to destroy them whenever they have the opportunity.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 8th May 2009