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The Agrarian Question, Access to Land, and Peasant Responses in Sub-Saharan Africa



Sub-Saharan Africa is characterized by some unique land tenure regimes and systems of social organization for production, which have profound conceptual implications and raise intriguing questions with regard to agrarian transformation in the subregion. In this paper, Archie Mafeje argues that most of these were lost in the welter of Eurocentric theories and universalizing tendencies. Yet a careful study of African agrarian systems shows that there is more than one way to agricultural and rural social development, which Mafeje says is particularly important in the wake of “mono-economics” from the West and the drive toward globalization or homogenization in a unipolar world order. Recognition of variety is not only one of the imperatives of democratization of the world order, he says, but is also enriching in the long run.

In the paper, Mafeje deals with five major issues. First, he interrogates Eurocentric concepts and notions about land tenure in sub-Saharan Africa. Second, he seeks to reinstate the authenticity of African systems of land tenure and social organization for production by looking at them from inside. This constitutes a study of African attitudes toward land, its acquisition and uses, and its management for social reproduction and production. Third, Mafeje describes how African producers have adapted to changing economic conditions, especially the introduction of the capitalist system and the market for agricultural commodities. This also entails a review of the theoretical constructs that have been evolved mainly by Eurocentric advocates to characterize such adaptations or responses, and the policy predispositions to which they have given rise. Fourth, the author attempts to clarify some of the conceptual issues involved so as to discern more clearly some of the underlying processes and thus explain why African peasants, in particular, have behaved in ways that are unpredictable, even to their governments. And finally, he evaluates the prospects for a genuine agrarian transformation in sub-Saharan Africa.

Mafeje discusses the concept of “ownership” of land in sub-Saharan Africa. The concept is alien to African customary law: property is held by, and transmitted through, lineages or unilineal descent groups. African jurisprudence recognizes rights of possession determined by prior settlement and membership in given social groups, use-rights contingent on social labour, and rights of social exchange underscored by implicit reversionary rights. Attempts by some African governments to introduce individual land tenure have often met with resistance from the population.

Mafeje says that the decline in agricultural productivity in Africa is not the result of a lack of access to land or individual tenure. Rather, he attributes it to degradation of the soil, which is largely attributable to inappropriate production techniques. Africa will have to industrialize as a matter of urgency—not only to survive economically, but also in order to meet the technical and scientific requirements for the development of agriculture. He says that the immediate task for African planners and policy makers is to make sure that agriculture can, in the foreseeable future, feed the rapidly growing African population. He emphasizes social democracy as a necessary condition for equitable development in Africa.

Archie Mafeje is Senior Research Professor at the African Renaissance Centre, University of South Africa.

  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 May 2003
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8178
    From: UNRISD