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
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
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
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.
Bulawayo, 8th May 2009