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Back | Programme Area: Identities, Conflict and Cohesion

The Politics of Land Distribution and Race Relations in Southern Africa



This paper discusses the politics of land distribution and race relations in southern Africa, with a particular focus on the experiences of the former colonial states of Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia. It examines how inequitable land relations have contributed to intensified race-based conflicts.

Recent land reform debates in southern Africa have rekindled discourses on unequal race relations within the region. Land policy formation continues to be shaped by racial patterns, ownership of land and natural resources, and social justice concerns arising from historic grievances. The indigenous black population remains marginalized in national and global politics and in terms of economic benefits derived from land and natural resources, and the black majority in most southern African countries remains landless and excluded from development, despite the fact that, technically, it has political and economic sovereignty.

Colonial land policies institutionalized racial inequity with regard to land in southern Africa, and recent attempts to confront the consequences of historical land expropriation, and to redress contemporary land-based inequities, discriminatory legislation and institutions, have generated renewed racial conflict in the subregion.

The greatest threat to security in southern Africa lies in the unequal land ownership patterns in countries where poor people’s livelihoods depend on farming. There are too many blacks who remain unemployed, landless, homeless and shut out of the agricultural economic base of the region. This is due, in part, to the political independence agreements within the subregion that failed to address the core racial problem of inequitable land and natural resource ownership, and the commensurate dearth of economic opportunities. Moreover, continuing land conflicts along racial lines suggest the fallibility of efforts for reconciliation that fail to humanely and fairly address economic, political and social justice concerns. Simply put, a major problem in addressing land conflict is the racially based ideological distortion that shrouds social, political and economic debates about land and agriculture in southern Africa.

This paper argues that land redistribution through redressing historical problems and social justice is a crucial ingredient of reconciliation and development in the subregion. Since political independence agreements failed to consider compensating victims for past losses of lives, land, livestock, wildlife resources and homes, land redistribution can be seen as a form of reparation for the land and resources expropriated during the colonial period. The international community’s failure to mobilize finance for land reform has fuelled the perceptions of indigenous people that white landowners are being protected by the donor community. Many donor countries have supported land reform as an economic development initiative, while neglecting the enduring political and social justice issues that underlie it.

Hence, the land question in southern Africa is increasingly viewed as an internationalized form of racist privileging of white minorities in the face of demands for land redistribution by victims of past land expropriation. Moreover, non-governmental organizations appear to be predominantly interested in sustainable environment issues, which, while certainly important, seem to consistently militate against the needs and interests of the poor and landless of the region.

This paper develops a conceptual framework, reviews the structure and relationships regarding race and land distribution, and discusses demands for land redistribution. It provides a review of land policies and detailed case-study evidence from the subregion. It utilizes a historical and political-economic framework to examine the evolution of racial inequalities, conflicts and struggles over land and land policies in order to address these issues directly. The preferred framework integrates conflict analysis and structuralist and materialist perspectives to elucidate the evolution of conflictual race relations.
It also provides a framework for analysing the social basis for land demand, struggles and policy making. Data and indices relating to inequality, scarcity and landlessness are presented and discussed. It further offers a broad scan of land policies and administration systems, many of which have perpetuated, deepened and institutionalized social and economic inequities derived from unequal agrarian structures.

Different approaches to land redistribution are also explored, examining the politics and policies of land reform with particular reference to the Zimbabwe experience and its implications for South Africa and Namibia. Details of the political process, violence and conflict are reviewed, together with the manner in which international relations and aid have affected land reform in postcolonial Zimbabwe.

Race relations in southern Africa can improve, normalize and benefit the entire region through appropriate land reform policies if the historical and social justice issues, together with contemporary problems of equity, poverty reduction and economic growth, are acknowledged and redressed directly, rather than subsumed by development parameters and aid preconditions. Attempts to reduce complex racial, political and identity-based conflicts into simplistic components of economic reform based upon inadequately developed market processes will only further polarize socially charged southern African societies.

Social justice based upon more equitable race relations and land distribution is integral to longer-term political reform and economic development. Ultimately, resolving racial land conflicts requires realistic and meaningful notions of reconciliation, which entail exposing the wider historic truths of past and present race relations in this region, and exploring avenues for redistribution of critical resources such as land.

Sam Moyo is the Executive Director of the African Institute for Agrarian Studies (AIAS) based in Harare, Zimbabwe.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Dec 2004
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8194
    From: UNRISD