Namibia: This Land Is Ours
Who should own Namibia's farms?
August 16, 2005
Behind the Lens: Interview With Sarah Colt
Here the filmmaker talks about her role as storyteller in this intricate story about race and what has happened to the families and farm workers since she returned from Africa.
Sarah Colt is a freelance documentary producer living in Washington, D.C. She recently completed production on Making Schools Work With Hedrick Smith, a two-hour PBS special that will air in October. For seven years, Colt worked for David Grubin Productions in New York City. Her production credits include Kofi Annan: Center of the Storm, a 90-minute profile of the secretary general of the United Nations and RFK, a two-hour biography of the late senator.
Namibia is a vast, arid, largely empty country on the southwest coast of Africa. The long shoreline -- where the chilly Atlantic meets the Namib Desert -- is so forbidding that sailors named it the "skeleton coast." The British, Dutch, French, Portuguese, Belgians, Italians and other Europeans who carved up Africa avoided Namibia with its intimidating coastal sand dunes and the blistering Kalahari Desert in the east. But in the final scramble to complete the colonization of Africa, Germany, a latecomer to the imperial enterprise, declared its need for "a place in the sun" and staked its claim in 1884 to what was then called South West Africa.
German colonization did not last long. The Germans lost what is now Namibia when they lost World War I -- South Africa took over -- but they left their mark. Lutheran missionaries converted the local inhabitants -- including the Ovambo, the Herero and others -- to Christianity, which is still the dominant religion, and German farmers and ranchers found their way to a more hospitable central plateau where they established Windhoek, the capital, and their descendants still hold deeds to most of the arable land, along with white Afrikaners from South Africa.
All of which brings us to this week's episode of Rough Cut -- Sarah Colt's intimate look at some of the black and white Namibians struggling over who should own Namibia's farms and cattle ranches. This same issue has engulfed neighboring Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe's disastrous policy of forcible takeovers of white-owned farms has led to economic ruin and food shortages. Namibia is different. The government has adopted a more conciliatory approach to land reform, forbidding illegal land seizures.
Nevertheless, Namibia's leaders -- who fought a long war against South African apartheid-style occupation, winning independence in 1990 -- are committed to redistributing land in a country where there is still a vast disparity in land ownership. Whites make up only about 6 percent of Namibia's 1.8 million people but own most of the arable land, including the flower farm and the cattle ranch that Sarah Colt features in her film.
In many ways, Namibia is an isolated, sleepy place, and events sometimes unfold in slow motion. But after a year of debate and delay, the government has indicated that more farms -- as many as 18 -- will receive expropriation notices soon. "We are preparing ourselves for a battle in the courts," said Lands Minister Jerry Ekandjo, adding, "It's a tough game but we will overcome."
"Boy, oh, boy, you guys sure know how to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs!" complained one farmer in a letter last week to a local newspaper, The Namibian. "You have now successfully foiled the plans of the owner, Ms. Hilde Wiese, for increasing the flower exports by 500 percent...Tell me, Minister Ekandjo, did you do the same 'How to Mess Up the Economy' course that President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe did?"
What is playing out in Namibia over land reform is a continentwide debate in microcosm: Given Africa's history of colonialism, and its ongoing disparities in wealth between blacks and whites, how is it possible to redress those inequities fairly without causing economic collapse? Perhaps in Namibia -- which has managed to remain peaceful and relatively democratic in 15 years of independent, black majority rule -- they might find a way to get it right. Listening to all the people involved is a start, which is exactly what Sarah Colt does.
Sarah Colt produced "This Land is Ours" as a fellow of the International Reporting Project at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
Lucian Enescu - Bucharest, Romania
Pardon me for intervening in this debate, for my country has never been involved in what is called "colonialism". The issue is simple: the black governments forcibly take the lands of white farmers and give them to black cronies (don't delude yourselves, wherever there is something to be given/taken for free, corruption also gets into the act). The new owners don't know how to run a commercial farm, for they only did subsistence farming before, or no farming at all. As a consecuence, the farms fall into decay and bankruptcy, agricultural production plummets, famine and starvation begin to engulf the country, and guess what? The government applies for foreign food aid! From the very countries from which the evicted (if not killed, like in Zimbabwe) white farmers originated! Isn't this funny?For all the Black Africans: stop blaming all your problems on colonialism. This is long gone, and you had plenty of time to fix the problems generated by it. If you are not capable of electing competent governors who could get you out of poverty, then nothing can be done for you. If you keep treating your white citizens as second-class and persecute them, they will go away, as many first-world countries (including the United States) are willing to accept them as immigrants. And their money and economic know-how will go with them. The example of Zimbabwe plunging into famine and economic and humanitarian disaster after getting rid of its most capable citizens is there for all to see. I hope the Government of Namibia will be wise enough not to kill his golden eggs-laying goose.
Youlanda Davis - Milwaukee, Wisconsin
I really am bothered by some of you people that posted your opinion on this site. This is to the people who feel that these people
don't deserve their land; First your wicked european ancestors stole and corrupted most of Africa, your people punshied, starved, raped, killed and stole these peoples land and to this day have the nerve too be 90% owners of land, and a resident in a country were they are the minority. Your european people should be the minority, your ancestors are thieves, every country they step foot in they bring their wicked behavior and oh they steal peoples land thats all they did throughout history, they even steal country ideas and find some odd way to make it their own, your people created nothing. Because euopeans can't obtain anything by themselves y'all have to steal . You people who suggest that these white people who called themselves africkaner aren't african at all and they need to give back what they stole because it wasn't theirs in the first place. They were fine before your ancestors came
they nasty selves over and brought there disease infested selves and mental selves over to the country anyway. So with that said read your history
your european culture, customs are all wicked and contradicting , and take
an african history class or an indian or arab history class and see your ancestors wicked works. Bag off and give those people whats fair and right,
isn't that the american way, oh this is really the native land by the way!
so the native way.
Interesting to see that most comments in favor of expropriation come from North America. I wonder how many of the commentators are willing to give their houses and malls to Navajos, Apaches, or Cherokees. One could easily infer that White Africans' major mistake was not to kill the entire original population before moving in.
Charleton - Randburg, South africa
It is a wondrous thing -- people who have something to say about things of which they have absolutely no experience at all! It is all very well saying the black people must "get what they rightfully own" but look at the rest of Africa and what happened the moment the white colonists moved out : famine, hunger, an exploding birth rate. Then the begging hand is held high for the West to serve up sympathy! For all of you who lived in a land of plenty, first, before you judge, try life in a land where the nouveau riche is the black fraternity and is the only group that prospers while those at the grassroots level are worse off than under colonial rule. So please guys, mind your own business and do not instigate.
They should take the ownership away from the farmers but keep them as managers with a salary. They should be subject to the laws that are followed in the business world. If they do not show they are capable of being managers, they should be replaced.
Justin Jackson - Knoxville, TN
Overall this video was very effective. It provided a clear explanation on what is being done with the land issues. Economic situations often occur, but the black Namibians are being juiced in the sense of being educated on land and farm ownership. How can someone be successful and manage a farm without some sort of guidance from the more knowledgable owners. It is a shame when the people have no interest in farming expropriated land due to the lack of "know how"!
Ian Byrne - Boston, MA
Fine journalistic work. Very Interesting to see that the land question is going to more than likely bring about a different Namibia. Zimbabwe is and has been ruled by a "Dictator" who has single handly ruined "his beloved country". With a country like Namibia, the 6% white population should work with the Government on the land issue. It is where a lot of problems arise. Lack of communication leads to disaster.
Excellent work by the way, Sarah, keep up the good work.
Santa Cruz, Bolivia
The whites also own most of the land in Bolivia. This property was stolen and cheated for little or no money from the natives over hundreds of years. The whites need to stop being selfish. The time is now for the government to redistribute this property to the poor landless natives of Bolivia!
West Bromwich, West Midlands
It is unfortunate that the white farmers still believe that they have rights to land their ancestors stole through brutal oppression and lasting trauma. Instead of wanting to empower Africans, they concentrate on who can manage the wealth more efficiently. They still desire to be masters over Africans. Some readers from the West even advocate violence against innocent Africans who have now been given a chance to claim their birthright. Imagine a hypothetical scenario of Africans invading Europe and taking the best lands and relegating Europeans to slaves, denying them access to education and wealth for three to four hundred years. Europeans are still greedy and selfish and may still pose a serious threat to Africa's development. They should give up the land willingly and apologize for the wickedness of their forebears. They should also open universities to train Africans in return for naturalization and a chance to assist Africa in its development. Europe underdeveloped Africa in the last four hundred years due to greed and Imperialism. This is a time of repentance, not more thirst for land. They have forgotten that Africa existed long before Europe and not until colonization did Africans suffer from starvation.
Karl - La Paz, Bolivia
I feel deeply for the plight of the white Namibians. Just like the situation in Zimbabwe the situation is only going to get worse. I am a white Bolivian, and the newly elected majority rule government seeks to also take a way the rights of the white minority in my country. I am all for eqaulity of races and civil rights for all ethnicities, but just beacuse we descend from europeans does not give the aboriginal population the right to take away what we have accomplished. We too are citizens of these nations!
Peter Carruthers - Durban, South Africa
As a white South African with no links to the land, but many links to farmers as small business owners, I know just one thing: this issue is hugely complex and defies simple, quick fixes. Which is why 12 years after the introduction of majority (black) rule into South Africa, we're still grappling with it. There are not just the immediate financial issues to consider; the whites that own these farms are, in most cases, not the people who evicted the indigenous peoples, but also deep cultural issues, as well as the macro-economic issues of feeding the whole country. One cannot simply replace a first world farming community with a third world subsistence farming community without challenges, as Zimbabwe has seen. Bottom line, much as we'd like to wave a magic wand and get a quick solution, the problem is complex.
M A - Madison, Wisconsin
Land redistribution is a must in this situation. Some contend that a laissez-faire philosophy, in which we let the "invisible hand" determine the allocation of assets, should be adapted. But considering the recent history of this country, the "invisible hand" has actually never been allowed to function freely (i.e. colonialization and apartheid). As a result, the white population has had many years of advantage and privilege. Thus it is understandable why so many white Namibians are ready to advocate laissez-faire economic policies. This is the same population that clearly understands that asset ownership is the only way to economic success. This point is made evident by the fact stated within the program that, although whites are 6% of the population, they hold 90% of the land wealth. This to me, in no way, sounds like the result which would have occurred had colonialism and apartheid not been instituted. Thus land expropriation is a must. Namibia will benefit from added mental creativity and efficiency of land use and increased economic output via small business activity as a result of home/land ownership (as evidenced by Asian minorities in the USA). This, without doubt, is a divisive issue. For Africa to progress, its citizens must be empowered with assets and education. The whites of Africa should change their attitude from that greed to that of empowering others....for, ironically, it is the only way that white Africans can ever achieve a sense of economic, political and personal security in Africa.
William Merryman - Adairsville, GA
I would say to the white inhabitants to bare arms to keep their rightful lands. Do not let it go without a fight!
Russ Gould - Canby, OR
Those who feel that the indigenous people should own the land should consider the case of the USA and Canada. This is not a very practical philosophy. Farm land in particular should be under the stewardship of persons who are the most efficient and productive farmers, not the person who can claim that his/her ancestors were there first. In the case of Namibia, the government's plan to carve up the expropriated farms and distribute them to the poor (ie undercapitalized and uneducated) masses, is folly with a capital F. Let private enterprise work ... the assets will end up in the hands of those most able to utilize them in the long run. And in the meantime, the proven way to uplift the dispossessed is to encourage industrialization and other forms of economic activity and growth. The diligent and the able will rise to the top and they will own the assets, land or otherwise. Threatening to expropriate private assets undermines investment and stunts economic growth. Don't be naive. The government's policies in Zimbabwe and Namibia are at best naive and at worst reverse racism. Either way, disrupting the farming/hunting sector of the economy isn't in the national interest.
Jonathan Tarharka - New York, NY
I'm so tired of hearing from Europeans that without their help Africa would fall to its knees. Give native Africans a chance to master the farm craft. Besides, Europeans tend to forget that it was their ancestors who set up the racist systems that marginalized the blacks. Indeed, made Africans second-class citizens in their own land. What fair-minded person truly believes that a country whose white population is less than 5 percent should own 97 percent of the arable land? Nonetheless, I hope the descendants of these same Europeans do not pay for the shortcommings of their ancestors.
- Stamford, CT
No one familiar with the issue can argue against the need for black farmers to receive the land they so rightfully fought for. However, it has to be done the right way to avoid a disaster such as Zimbabwe and to ensure that the people that deserve the land, which are the poor, truely receive this land in the end and not government supporters such as was the case in Zimbabwe.Further, if you decide to expropriate land, the land should be fully transferred to the new black owner, which must include the deed, so that they truly are the new rightful owners of the land. In the case of Zimbabwe, this was not done, thus farmers couldn't borrow money from banks for new equipment purchases, seeds, etc, which makes running of large commercial farms impossible. Afterall, the new landowners should be given not only the land itself but also the correct tools in order to harvest the land and ensure the future for them and protect the food production for all Namibians in the future.
Marion James - Chemainus, BC
Sharing from a colonized (whether I want to be or not) state of being, Namibia indigenous people have a definite challenge ahead of them. The decolonization stage in society can also have an integrated membership of peoples as long as people get along within a society that holds respect and equality for each other. The 6% Caucasions can be given opportunity to share their wealth by teaching and training others to develop economy in the country and given the option to live in the country but under a majority sovereign within the nation. Very interesting topic by Sarah Colt! Bravo!
Benjamin Machar - Mount Pleasant, MI
This is an interesting video clip I have watched about Namibia's land expropriation Act. The land issue is one of the hottest topics facing the African continent today. The notion of the "Land is ours" has become a big issue in Zimbabwe, Kenya, South Africa, and lastly Namibia. I think the White Namibians are even lucky because most of them are going to be compensated during their removal and evacuation. But, I am impressed by this statement: "What did whites give the indigenous people when they came and took?" Of course, they took the land by force and forced the indigenous out. I think the most crucial thing that should be done to stop land grievancies in Africa would be an expropriation and division act that would recognize the rights of indigenous people and the fact their great grand fathers owned that continent's land before the whites took it over. Also, indigenous Africans should understand that there is nowhere we are going to chase those whites to. They are Africans and most of them idenitify themselves with the continent. By the same, token, white farmers should stop saying that they will leave if their farms are expropriated. They are lucky because their removal is being conducted under the jurisdiction of law. While their fathers who came to Africa took the land by force and made use of africans' labor.
Enjoyed viewing your Rough Cut. I thought a broader picture of Namibia as a land itself would have added a lot for me. Thanks, congratulations and good luck.
It seems that the disillusion about the future that the white farmers express is the same disillusion that the indiginous people have suffered since the arrival of the Germans in the late 19th century. The main difference seems to be that the whites are given warning, compensation and someone to tell their story to the world. What did the whites give the indiginous people when they came and took over? Economically, this is a difficult situation for Namibia, but how can the country continue to justify the wealth disparities that are so deeply drawn along racial lines? How can the people be prepared for ownership and the country protected from the corruption that infects so much of the Continent?