Land reform needs to change society

Many African countries that introduced land reforms after independence succeeded in transferring land from colonial governments, settlers and businesses, but they largely failed to create competitive agricultural industries, address colonial-era ethnic and social power inequalities and redistribute income more broadly.

Successful land reform is not to be done for overly ideological and populist reasons nor for revenge. It has to be done pragmatically. It must fit in with a long-term industrialisation strategy to boost commercial agriculture and to change the production structure of agriculture. This means it must revolutionise farm production methods and diversify the commodities produced, as well as transform unequal colonial, apartheid-era and traditional African-based social relations.

Many governments focused on land reform that largely involved transferring commercial farms into either state or private hands.

Small subsistence farmers, depending on the countries’ post-colonial political systems, were often left in the same position as they were in under colonialism — land was farmed by families but it was under communal control, meaning under the overall control of traditional kings, chiefs and leaders.

The first crime of colonialism was the removal of Africans from the land. In most precolonial African cultures, the sense of self and communal belonging were interwoven with land ownership.


The forceful dispossession of land from Africans set in motion a vicious cycle of continual dispossession and a growing inequality between Africans and colonial settlers. Control of land also gave settlers control of the resources to continue to suppress Africans and, consequently, to view them as less than equal because they had been defeated.

This also induced inferiority complexes among Africans because they had lost their precious land to the colonial invaders.

The loss of land also undermined Africans’ ability to catch up in terms of industrialisation, technology and capital formation and to reach the same levels as the colonial powers.

Land dispossession also undermined the ability of traditional institutions, cultures and systems to ease into adapting to and leveraging rapid new developments in technology and industrialisation, and even in cultures brought in by the Western invaders.

The understandable existential need for land reform to address past wrongs makes it difficult to pursue pragmatic land reform solutions, yet it makes it even more necessary not to seek ideological, populist and revenge-based solutions.

At independence, the social power of many African countries largely comprised three orders.

The first order was loaded in favour of the white settlers on the one hand and the black colonial elite on the other.

Colonial powers in most African colonies pursued a policy of indirect rule. Traditional leaders ruled on behalf of the colonial governments over the colonised communities. These rulers presided over communal land — or rather controlled communal land.

In the second order, within most indigenous African communities, patriarchy was the dominant system governing power relations between individuals, with traditional kings, chiefs and leaders having more power than ordinary subjects.

In the third, because of the patriarchal structures of many African societies, women and young people had less control over land than men.

During colonialism in some African countries, new black elites were formed based on their level of education acquired under colonialism. These came from the traditional leaders or a particular community or ethnic group favoured by the colonial power. They occupied some public sector positions and were granted business licences.

In some cases, new postcolonial elites were formed by African independence and liberation movements. They would be fully or partially based on traditional leaders, on the newly educated black elite, on a combination of both, or they would be a new elite formed entirely because of their struggle credentials.

Land in many postcolonial societies was vested in the state, which took over land that belonged to the colonial power and settlers in urban areas as well as commercial farms.

In many African countries, if the new liberation movement elite was different from the traditional king, chiefs and leaders-based elite, an alliance was then struck between these two elites, whereby the former would control the state and the latter would control the rural areas, presiding over communal land as they did on behalf of the colonial governments.

Successful land reform must change the structure of societies. This means it must break the traditional patriarchal power base that has more social power than ordinary rural dwellers by virtue of holding communal land.

Communal ownership of land must be abolished. Land rights must be given to individuals.

Land reform has the potential to democratise rural society by giving ordinary people — and women and the youth in particular — equal social, economic and individual power in relation to traditional leaders, businesses and white farmers.

Importantly, in the African context, unless women get equal access to the land, and not at the behest of their husbands, fathers or traditional authorities, land reform will be an absolute failure.

To be successful, land reform must be pragmatic; it must fit in with a long-term industrialisation strategy that encompasses new technology, diversifies production and establishes institutions that support industrialisation — and it must ensure gender and racial equality in economic opportunities.

Land reform must revitalise rural economies, not only by diversifying farming methods and products, but also by bringing in manufacturing and businesses related to the farm products and by building up industrially relevant skills to the agricultural sector.

Finance should be made more readily available to those genuinely interested in farming.

Land reform must also be done in such a way that it protects food security, not only by retaining the existing competitive agriculture sector but also by making informal, small-scale farmers and emerging farmers more efficient, diversified and competitive in export markets.

Land reform must also include the development of a housing programme for those in urban areas. It should be part of the industrialisation strategy to establish an up-to-date manufacturing sector based on producing the materials for the build programme. In almost all African countries, developing urban housing has been spectacularly absent from their development strategies.

Land reform is complicated and requires co-ordination and the management of market perceptions. Therefore, it needs a competent public sector to manage it. Most African land reform has failed because the public sector has been filled with incompetent government-appointed cadres.

Furthermore, redistribution strategies are, by their nature, highly prone to corruption, rent-seeking and manipulation. Unless land reform is done honestly, transparently and accountably, it will be ensnared by such ills in similar ways to black economic empowerment.

William Gumede is an associate professor at the University of the Witwatersrand’s school of governance, the chairperson of the Democracy Works Foundation and the author of South Africa in Brics (Tafelberg)

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