The Issue of Property Rights in Africa

In the pre-colonial era of African culture, both in respect of those tribes that cultivated and those that were nomadic in character or even the Nguni tribes that pursued a militaristic form of life and culture, all regarded land as God given and a common good. Usage determined title and could be usurped at any time by force of arms or tribal consensus. Life was insecure, short and pretty torrid.

Because these widely spread communities were basically using the land until it was exhausted or grazing was finished, they seldom built permanent accommodation – nomads living in tents and the cultivators living in huts that could be simply abandoned when it became necessary to move on. Once abandoned, the land recovered in its own time. A similar situation existed in pre-colonial America and in Australia.

So long as the population remained very small in relation to the vast areas occupied this was a stable and reasonable life that was reflected in the culture and norms of the people. It was also environmentally sustainable.

Then comes the colonial era which introduced colonial forms of title rights for settler interests, the restriction of people to prescribed land areas and the erection of fences to limit access and establish control. At the same time, tribal conflicts were halted, life expectancies raised and in the absence of conflict and the control of disease, African populations began to grow at a rate not seen for centuries. In Zimbabwe the population was expanding at over 3,5 per cent per annum by the 50’s and remained at this very high level until Independence in 1980.

This created pressure on land resources, but so long as there were adequate stocks of vacant state controlled land, that could be allocated and settled to accommodate the growing population, the need for security for migrant workers and their families and to make provision for the exhaustion of land now being occupied on a permanent basis this was satisfied by simply bringing more land into play. In the 60’s I was involved in just such an exercise when the Rhodesian government opened up the Zhombe/Gokwe area (some 10 million acres of land) for tribal or communal occupation.

This was the situation in almost all Colonial States in Africa and once the colonial regime had been overthrown or withdrawn, the new African governments, one after the other, chose to revert to different forms of tribal and communal systems of land use. In some countries like Kenya, the transition was reasonably managed, in others it was done by the simple abolition of colonial title rights.

This post colonial process over the past 50 years, culminated in the “fast track land reform programme” of the Zanu PF regime that governed Zimbabwe for 28 years up to the formation of the Transitional Government with the MDC in 2008. Here, as in most other African States the colonial imposition of title rights, underwritten by the constitution were simply swept aside. South Africa remains the only country in Africa with widespread title rights covering a significant majority of the land surface. What are the implications of this development for modern Africa?

Despite the collapse of many economies in the past colonial era and despite poor social services delivery in most countries and human migration to more developed countries, the population of Africa has continued to grow. Urban populations still, on average, constitute half of total population and social security systems (pensions, urban freehold housing, secure private assets) are in embryonic form in most countries leaving urban workers and dwellers with rural land rights established through tribal linkages, as the only security for old age, ill health or unemployment.

The result is that rural agricultural and grazing land has become a vast retirement and social security safety net for hundreds of millions of people, even those living in the Diaspora often claim such rights as are due to them under tribal law.

Then there is the fact that if such rights are exercised within the framework of a consensual tribal culture, such land owners only have security in so far as they occupy and use the land in question. So , example, you have the spectacle that each year people plough vast areas in the vicinity of their rural homesteads just to maintain their traditional land usage and occupation rights. Such rights cannot be expressed in law or in writing and certainly cannot be sold or used as collateral.

Such a system is reinforced in dictatorial tribal or country systems by leaders who recognize immediately the leverage that such systems give those with the tertiary rights to control land allocations.
The first result of this situation is that Africa is witnessing the fastest destruction of its fragile environment in the history of mankind. The deserts of Africa are all expanding – some by kilometers every year. Much of North Africa that is today sand and stone desert was at one time open productive Savannah. It is within recorded history, that the Sahara Desert was at one stage, the granary of the Mediterranean region.

The second is that those who depend on the land for a living are almost universally among the poorest people on earth. They constitute a disproportionate share of the absolute poor, living on less than $2 a day. Agricultural systems based on such traditional land title rights are always subsistence – barely able to meet the needs of the immediate community let alone provide for urban markets. Money transfers tend to be towards such communities rather than from them – absorbing savings and creating societies that cannot generate the capital resources to develop their countries on their own.

The third consequence is that the African economy is denied the inherent capital value of land and its ability to collateralize the rest of the economy through the operation of land markets. In Zimbabwe for example, the GDP stands today at about $10 billion. The national debt nearly the same value, currency in circulation perhaps $4 billion. Compare this to the theoretical value of urban assets at about $5 billion and of rural farm land of at least $20 billion.

The fourth dimension of this situation lies in the simple fact that people do not invest in assets that they do not own or control. Communal land rights are universally characterized by poor development and maintenance. Who is going to invest in infrastructure on land they do not own? Who is going to try and improve the fertility of land that they might lose control of next year? Such issues are universal in character.

Land is Africa’s greatest asset and yet it remains a dead asset under present arrangements; barely able to sustain itself both economically and ecologically. This critical issue is brought to the fore by two things – our inability to reduce the high proportion of our population in absolute poverty and associated human degradation and our inability to control and reverse land gradation.

Any good pasture scientist will tell you that once land has become desert, it is almost impossible to reverse the process. Yes you can plant trees across the Sahel, yes you can remove people from vast swathes of country and relocate them to land that can support them for a while, but so long as there is no ownership, backed by legal, negotiable title rights, land will continue to degrade, irrespective of where it is.

In many respects this is Africa’s greatest challenge and until its leaders come to grips with it and take the required steps to grant their own people basic secure title rights to the land they use to make their living, there cannot be any real long term development either of African economies or African democracies and freedoms – secure title is also the most fundamental foundation for free societies.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 15th January 2012