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Identities, Conflict and Cohesion Programme Paper 10: The Politics of Land Distribution and Race Relations in Southern Africa

24 Mar 2005

  • Author(s): Sam Moyo


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. The black majority in most southern African countries remains landless and excluded from development, despite its political and economic sovereignty.

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.

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. The preferred framework integrates conflict analysis and structuralist and materialist perspectives to elucidate the evolution of conflictual race relations.

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.

Order ICCPP 10 from UNRISD (US$ 12 for readers in industrialized countries and US$ 6 for readers in developing and transitional countries and for students).