HARARE – In most of Africa, property in terms of land was almost always held under communal tenure.
The reasons were cultural but based economically on the need for open access.
When the smaller settler populations were eventually overthrown by diplomacy or force of arms, land rights were in nearly all cases simply abolished in Africa.
In Zimbabwe, the colonial system of tenure over rural land was gradually dismantled — at first by State acquisition and resettlement and then after 2000, by a chaotic “fast track land reform programme” which almost destroyed the agricultural industry.
A similar process is underway in South Africa (SA), retarded by the much larger settler population with much deeper historical roots.
In Africa this process has often been accompanied by the use by ruling elites to control rural populations on insecure settlements, for political purposes.
This is clearly shown in SA and Zimbabwe where the newly-settled indigenous people on both rural and urban land are being settled without security of tenure.
Millions of people are involved, and the political, social and economic consequences are enormous. This is by no means an issue restricted to a few countries.
Only 18 per cent of the total area of land available in the world for agriculture is held under a sound, lawfully protected, system of tenure — corporate or individual.
Africa, with 60 per cent of all available rain-fed agricultural potential in the world, has the smallest proportion of titled land in the world.
The statistics tell the story — Africa lags behind all other continents in agricultural yields, production and remains the only continent with a persistent shortage of basic foods.
We should not be surprised — a superficial examination of all the tribal reservations in the developed world will reveal conditions similar to those prevailing in Africa.
Degraded land resources, low yields, high levels of erosion and declining fertility associated with abject poverty and malnutrition, even hunger.
The reasons are not linked to any fundamental weaknesses in the populations involved, they are directly linked to the absence of security of tenure.
A clear example of this is the recent issue of title rights to eight million land holders in Rwanda.
This has resulted in an explosive growth in rural investment, an upsurge in production and rising incomes across the country.
In SA, a close examination of the settlement of both urban and rural populations since 1994 shows that the State has probably built close to five million homes in urban areas — the RDP Programme, but not sold them to the occupants or offered anything more than a lease to rent. The result is that every town in SA has large areas of housing — without gardens, trees or any other form of development, just brick under roof shacks in long lines.
When I was growing up in Zimbabwe, I was raised, effectively by my mother who had 4 children to contend with.
The reason was that my father had become an alcoholic and had lost everything. We grew up in what was a “white slum” in Bulawayo. Low income, subsidised housing, rented from the City.
No fences or hedges, broken windows, unpainted walls, cracked, leaking roofs. Then one day we got a letter from the City converting our status to that of home owners. We received the title deeds and our monthly rentals became rates.
The changes were instantaneous — fences went up, hedges were planted, houses repaired and painted, flowers and fruit trees planted.
It was dramatic and in six months you could not recognise the area. Just a piece of paper. It enabled us to sell the house and buy a better property and it gave us security and dignity. Tenure.
In SA the new leader of the ANC has announced that they are going to start taking land from white farmers without compensation, but are going to do it “sustainably”.
What does that mean? Any attempt to take land away from legitimate, legal owners without compensation just will not fly.
But what Africa needs to face up to is the question of providing security of tenure to all who own property.
It is not a matter of choice, it is essential if the continent is going to make progress. Granting tenure rights would create billions of real value, and empower hundreds of millions of people.
It would raise productivity and lower prices, improve living standards and help us reduce absolute poverty.