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Civil Society and Social Movements Programme Paper 6 : The Agrarian Question, Access to Land, and Peasant Responses in Sub-Saharan Africa

10 Jul 2003

  • Author(s): Archie Mafeje


Some of the world’s most unique land tenure regimes and systems of social organization for production exist in sub-Saharan Africa. The present study shows that they have profound conceptual implications and raise intriguing questions with regard to agrarian transformation in the subregion. However, the study also highlights the fact that most of these were abandoned after the introduction of non-African forms or tenure and organization.

The author argues that there is more than one way to agricultural and rural social development, particularly in the context of globalization or homogenization in a unipolar world order. Variety, he says “is not only one of the imperatives of democratization of the world order, but is also enriching in the long run.”

The paper probes the concept of “ownership” of land in sub-Saharan Africa and finds that it is alien to African customary law. It also recalls that attempts by some African governments to introduce individual land tenure have often met with resistance from the population.

The author argues that Africa’s decline in agricultural productivity is not the result of a lack of access to land or individual tenure. He attributes it to degradation of the soil, which is largely attributable to inappropriate production techniques.

The author calls for an urgent industrialization of Africa—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.

Order PPCSSM 6 from UNRISD (US$ 12 for readers in industrialized countries and US$ 6 for readers in developing and transitional countries and for students).