Namibia’s ancestral land issue: the headache that refuses to go away

> Magreth Nunuhe

WINDHOEK – THE Namibian government is facing enormous pressure to postpone the tabling of a new Land Bill for debate in Parliament.

Interest groups, including one led by National Assembly members, are calling on government to put the Bill on ice until the Ministry of Land Reform convenes a land conference to iron out sticky issues that have dogged the land debate in the country for over two decades.

The pressure groups are demanding that government conduct a thorough public consultative process, to allow for input from interested parties, before the Bill is tabled in Parliament or passed into law.

The interest groups claim that there is no better platform than the land conference to address all their land grievances.

The second land conference is a sequel to the First National Land Conference of 1991, which dealt with issues like the challenges of accessibility to commercial land and the protection of farm workers from exploitation. The second land conference is expected to address many bottlenecks in the land reform process, while interest groups also want the issue of ancestral land rights to be discussed although in contradiction to the Namibian constitution.  The land conference was scheduled for last November but was postponed due to budgetary constraints within the Ministry of Land Reform. It is now scheduled for September. Government’s critics claim that tabling the Bill before the land conference will lead to amendments to the law because changes will be proposed at the conference.

Government, on the other hand, remains resolute in pushing the Bill through Parliament, claiming the public consultation process on the Bill started 10 years ago. Land Reform Minister, Utoni Nujoma was expected to table the Bill in Parliament this week, but President Hage Geingob on Wednesday shelved the plan indefinitely. Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Land Reform, Peter Hamutenya, defended his ministry saying that the process of consultation started in 2006 and identified a number of loopholes in the Land Bill.

“Consultation was done in all 14 regions,” he said, adding that key stakeholders, including traditional authorities participated, while a follow-up workshop was held in Windhoek in February 2012 where all representatives were brought under one roof to exchange views and suggestions.

Hamutenya said the ministry was given a deadline to present the Bill to Cabinet by December 2016. This process was also postponed to this month.

Pressure groups

The Landless People’s Movement (LPM), is the latest group to enter the public land debate following a group led by civil society and the Affirmative Repositioning movement, which is largely comprised of young professionals fighting for access to affordable urban land. Interestingly, the Landless People’s Movement is led by former land reform deputy minister, Bernadus Swartbooi. Swartbooi is still a ruling party MP and vacated his deputy ministerial post late last year after a public fall out with Nujoma over the way the ministry conducted the land resettlement programme.

Swartbooi is supported by a number of opposition and ruling party MPs, who would rather fight the land battle in a land conference as opposed to Parliament where they are members. LPM is made up of people who were dispossessed of land by the colonial regimes.

Part of LPM’s complaint to government is that they have been overlooked and denied

the opportunity to be resettled on their ancestral land while government was resettling people from the northern part of Namibia, who according to this group, never lost any land due to colonialism.

Swartbooi called on consensus to be reached on the land issue before the Bill is tabled. “Any law on land must only be tabled after the conclusion of [the land conference] and the buy-in from land dispossessed Namibians into the total re-alignment of the land reform approach in this country.

We will not make inputs to the narrow dictates of the government reform agenda: it is not in our interest and it is not in the national interest. And if need be, as landless dispossessed Namibians we will institute every measure of legal action on this and other issues of land reform,” he said, also demanding that the government’s resettlement programme be put on hold “until we agree on its future modalities, or even its continued relevance in this country”.

The Landless People’s Movement is mainly advocating for Namibians native to the southern and central parts of the country.

But Hamutenya refuted claims that southerners were being overlooked for resettlement at the expense of people from other regions, saying that the majority of people originally from the south, in the //Karas and Hardap regions were actually the major beneficiaries.

Hamutenya disclosed that to date, government has acquired 510 farms measuring 3.1 million hectares, out of a targeted 5 million hectares, on the open market, valued at R1.7 billion.

He said out of 169 farming units in the //Karas Region, 121 units (72 percent) were allocated to those who originally hail from there, while another 15 percent of the farms were shared among people from the Hardap, Khomas (central) and Omaheke (east) regions (at 5 percent each) and the rest were given to other regions not mentioned.

In the Hardap Region, 212 farms (representing 71 percent of farms) were allocated to the aborigines, according to Hamutenya, while 8 percent of the farms were shared among people from //Karas and Khomas regions and the rest were divided among people from other regions not disclosed.

Reading a speech on behalf of Minister Nujoma, Hamutenya said: “This trend shows that the majority families who are originally from //Karas and Hardap regions are the major beneficiaries of the farms that are being acquired in their respective regions of origin. Thus, it is not true that the resettlement process is marginalising certain communities in favour of others.”

Nujoma argued that Article 95 of the Namibian Constitution gives the State the mandate to actively promote and maintain the welfare of the people by adopting (appropriate) policies, while Article 21 (h) of the Constitution provides for all Namibians to reside and settle in any part of Namibia.

But the demand for ancestral land also creates an ideological conflict between the government and the involved communities’ demands as the Right to Property clause, Article 16(1) of the Namibian Constitution guarantees all persons the right to acquire, own and dispose of all forms of property in any part of Namibia, while Article 16(2) gives the power to Parliament to make laws that would allow the state or a lawfully established body or organ to expropriate property in the public interest, on the 

condition that state pays what is termed “just compensation” to those affected by such an expropriation.

Hamutenya warned that the ancestral land claim could manifest itself in tribalism and regionalism and “one has to look at the sensitivity of what could be the implications” of such demands especially when considering beneficiaries.

“There are indications or manifestations that you are not welcome in certain areas contrary to the principles of our Constitution,” he maintained.

He further explained that the Land Bill and the land conference are two different “exercises”, in that the Land Bill is looking at the issues of the Agricultural and Commercial Land Reform Acts and taxation, while the second land conference will look at the consensus reached since the first land conference.

But the Legal Assistance Centre (LAC) said that given that there are already two sets of land legislation in place (Agriculture Commercial Land Reform Act of 1995 and Communal Land Reform Act of 2002), there is also no real urgency to steamroll the Bill through at this stage.

“Hopefully, Parliament would see the same and urge the Ministry to allow civil society to give their inputs. Proper law reform consultation makes good legislation,” said Bernadine Mynhardt-Jansen, Legal Practitioner on Land, Environment and Development Project at the LAC.

On the issue of addressing the wrongs committed against people who have lost land during the colonial period, Mynhardt-Jansen said that it was apparent that government’s policies have not succeeded in compensating people who have lost their land in the past nor empowered the majority of new land beneficiaries in an economically meaningful way, despite having the current legislative and policy framework backed by Article 16 of the Namibian Constitution, which provides for the acquisition of land for the landless and the poor.

“In retrospect, government could also have implemented legislation such as the Restitution of Land Rights Act 22 of 1994 as was done in South

Africa. This legislation allowed specific persons who could demonstrate that they lost land during the colonial period to lay claims for the return of their land, or for compensation,” she pointed out.

“It would have made sense to wait for the land conference to take place in order to consult with an extensive group of stakeholders,” she added.

Uhuru Dempers, convener of the Namibian Non-governmental Organisations Forum (NANGOF) Working Group shared LAC’s sentiments, saying that there are many factors that needed interrogating in the Land Bill.

“Do you think that this issue has been addressed properly as the communities who were directly affected by the German war – the Hereros and Namas – feel that their land is being given to people from other areas who have never lost land during the colonial period?” he asked.

The Land Bill

National data indicate that Namibia has about 4,000 commercial farms of which almost a thousand farms have been acquired by previously disadvantaged Namibians through private transactions or government-facilitated loans since independence in 1990.

By 2020 government is expected to have transferred a further 15 million hectares of commercial agricultural land to homeless blacks who were mainly dispossessed, with a third of that area to be used for resettlement purposes and two thirds for agriculture.

Land division mostly benefitted the white minority, constituting only about 0.2 percent of the population, who took up about 50 percent of the country’s agricultural land.

Over five thousand people have been resettled since independence.


February 2017
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