Namibia moves towards land expropriation

President Hage Geingob has called for expropriation without compensation, a move that many landowners oppose.


Land reform is a pressing issue in Namibia. President Hage Geingob has called for expropriation without compensation, a move that many landowners oppose.

With the 2019 election drawing closer, Namibia held its second nationwide conference dedicated to land reform, an issue which remains at the forefront of Namibian politics. Held in Windhoek in early October, the conference concluded with a controversial call to revise the constitution to allow land expropriation without compensation.

Supporters of such a move, led by President Hage Geingob, view expropriation without compensation as a chance to finally correct the injustice of land dispossession under apartheid and colonial rule by offering ownership, stability and employment to historically marginalised Namibians. “The willing buyer, willing seller principle has not delivered results. Careful consideration should be given to expropriation,” argued Geingob at the conference.

Yet critics question the legality of such a move, pointing to a potential negative economic impact and uncertainty around the ability of government to successfully implement reform. The political stakes are high. The SWAPO government has held power in Namibia since independence in 1990, but has been criticised for failing to tackle land inequality. In 1992 the government planned to transfer 43% of arable land, amounting to 15m hectares, to previously disadvantaged groups. However, only 27% of the original target has been transferred. As a result, expropriation is being seen as a means to accelerate the process.

Schemes fail to deliver

Originally, the government embarked on two forms of land reform both of which were based on the “willing seller, willing buyer” principal. The first, the National Resettlement Programme, saw the government distribute 3m hectares of land. The second, the Affirmative Action Loan Scheme, offered subsidised loans to Namibians to acquire commercial farmland as a freehold. Both schemes failed to result in sweeping reform, in part because many farmers were reluctant to sell and “willing buyer willing seller” allowed them to set high prices.

According to the government, in October 2018, white farmers still own around 70% of freehold land in Namibia, with previously disadvantaged people holding 16%. Currently, freehold land represents 48% of Namibian arable farmland, with 35% being communally owned and the remaining 17% owned directly by the state. Many impoverished freeholders lack title deeds to prove legal ownership. That has led to a renewed clamour for expropriation without compensation. With a parallel drive for expropriation without compensation underway in neighbouring South Africa, host to a much larger agricultural industry, supporters of reform believe that momentum is on their side.

Lucas Matambule Mandema from the Namibian Farmer’s Union, an organisation representing mainly black farmers, argues that the proposed reforms are legal and popular. “The willing buyer, willing seller is not popular in Namibia. This is why a resolution was drafted at the second land reform conference to abolish it. The expropriation of land is provided by the Agricultural (Commercial) Land Reform Act of 1995,” he says. To drive their case, supporters of land reform have alighted on the emotive issue of absentee owners. They argue that wealthy foreign landowners who live abroad have under-utilised productive land and negatively impacted sector efficiencies. Mandema argues that the government’s plan will focus expropriation on landlords “who have been absent for a number of years”.

No agreed metric

In 2016 the Namibian Statistics Agency stated that out of 7,839 farms in Namibia, 250 were owned by foreign nationals, amounting to 1.2m hectares. However, there is no agreed metric to decide what constitutes an absentee landlord. As a result, arguments that absentee landlords harm efficiency and production are difficult to quantify. Furthermore, the scale of land ownership by both commercial farmers and foreign landowners is disputed. 

Opposition voices, particularly those active in the commercial farming sector, argue that private property rights must be respected. They argue that amending the constitution to allow for expropriation could infringe the rights of all Namibians, and say that a violation of private property rights could negatively impact the Namibian economy, which shrugged off a two-year recession earlier this year.

As a middle-income economy reliant on agriculture and mineral extraction, Namibia needs to successfully diversify if long-term economic stability is to be achieved. Crucial to achieving diversification is sustainable foreign investment, something critics say will only be achieved if the markets are assured of clearly defined and protected property rights.

The memories of the botched fast-track reform campaign in Zimbabwe in the early 2000s serve as a warning to many commercial farmers, who fear that their land will be distributed by party loyalty rather than merit or farming ability. Keen to downplay criticisms that it is unprepared for the reality of radical, wide-ranging land reform, the government is preparing a post-acquisition initiative, the revised National Resettlement Policy, to support beneficiaries of land reform.

“The National Resettlement Policy identifies the people and then they settle them on the land that the government has bought,” says Mandema. “These people are placed on the farm and are supplied with basic services like water boreholes and start-up capital [through the Agricultural Bank of Namibia]. Furthermore, land reform would enable the government to lease the land to foreigners as opposed to them owning it.”

In a bid to defuse the issue and engage constructively with reform, many large landowners say that they are in favour of reform but are opposed to expropriation without compensation. The Namibian Agricultural Union announced in July that it would support reform provided farmers are remunerated. “The NAU supports the expropriation process with fair compensation within the legal framework such as the Namibian constitution and various legislation,” says Mandema.

Yet with the ANC pushing for expropriation without compensation in South Africa and Geingob keen to pursue reform in Namibia, the comfortable status quo of Southern Africa’s commercial farmers appears increasingly threatened. Many must brace for the reality that compensation, if delivered at all, is unlikely to align with past expectations.

Giorgio Berti

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