FRONTLINE/World [home]

Search FRONTLINE/World

FRONTLINE/World Rough Cut

Rough Cut: Namibia: This Land Is Ours
Land Redistribution: A Question of Race, Politics and Economics

Robin Sherbourne is an economist and director of the Institute for Public Policy Research in Namibia. Sarah Colt spoke with him about how successful land reform has been since the country gained independence.

Why is land redistribution important to Namibia?
Land reform is about the past, it's about historical justice and it's about racial justice. At independence [in 1990], white farmers owned pretty much all the commercial farmland -- that's an unacceptable position to be in for any country. So it's a political priority.

Does it come down to race?
At this stage in Namibia's development, it is about race. You can talk about all sorts of other things -- poverty reduction, employment, environmental sustainability -- but the public debate is centered on race. We wouldn't be having a big debate on land reform in this country if, for example, 95 percent of commercial farmland was owned by black Namibians.

How has the government laid out its land reform policy?
The government's mission states that land reform should help give land to landless Namibians -- people who don't have access to land to generate an income for themselves and their families. But land reform in Namibia since independence has been a two-policy process. On the one hand, we've got the national resettlement program, which means the government goes into the market and buys commercial farms and resettles landless people on a waiting list for those farms. The other process is the affirmative action loan scheme, where large communal farmers -- those who have a certain number of large or small stock -- have been offered subsidized loans to buy commercial farmland. Those two processes have been going on pretty much simultaneously for the last 10 years or so.

Robin Sherbourne.

Economist Robin Sherbourne at his home in Windhoek, Namibia.

How much commercial land has been redistributed from white Namibians to black Namibians?
We've seen a redistribution of perhaps 1 percent a year since the mid-1990s when both policies really got going. So about 11 percent of our total commercial land area has been redistributed.
So it's pretty slow. At the current rate, we're talking about a 50-year process. That's two generations.

Given how dry the land is here, how easy is it to farm in Namibia? Will land help poor people?
This all comes back to the question of whether it's lucrative to be a farmer. A lot of people believe that if you have land, you're going to be rich -- and for all sorts of historical reasons that might have been the case. But we're moving into a stage right now where you have to pay to be a farmer. That's why we're seeing so many hobby farmers, part-time farmers moving into commercial farming. These are all people with significant incomes from other activities, from professional activities in urban centers. Farming isn't a way out of poverty, but it is something the rich can afford to do.

If all these farms were incredibly profitable and all you had to do was drop a seed into the ground or just let your cattle graze and that was that, the policy wouldn't end up costing anything. But the situation now is very different. We have to ask ourselves, "How much is it going to cost the black Namibians themselves or the Namibian taxpayer to achieve racial balance in ownership of land?" Because farming really is not the productive cornucopia it might have been in the past.

Who's benefited by the changeover of land so far?
I think it's pretty fair to say that the affirmative action loan recipients have been the ones to benefit most from our policy since independence because they are the ones who have received the most land in terms of hectares. What has happened to that land? We don't know. Has the land been farmed productively? Has the agricultural output increased? We don't know. We don't have the statistics to measure that. We do know that the default on these loans is quite high -- 199 out of 563 loans [35 percent] -- so these farms aren't that productive in generating incomes for farmers. Maybe these things just take longer to work themselves out.

Then there are those people who have been resettled on farms purchased by the government through the national resettlement policy -- I'm not sure how many people we're talking about here. But the costs of resettling those people could amount to 150,000 to 200,000 Namibian dollars per family. Any economist will tell you that sticking that money in the bank will earn you probably a lot more than these people are making from the land they've been resettled on. But again, it's about politics, not economics. These are very poor people who were landless who have now benefited. But if they haven't been supplied with technical support and they don't have access to credit because they don't own the land -- if all these things aren't in place -- are they actually beneficiaries or are they being trapped in more poverty? These are very important questions that we don't actually have answers to at the moment.

Can you comment on the price of land in Namibia?
What is the true or fair price of anything? It's a question that has engaged philosophers for centuries. To economists, it's the market price as long as it's a competitive market. Clearly, the price of land in Namibia has risen since independence. In part, that's a reflection of how well the economy has been run. House prices and land prices have risen, and we're now having to pay these higher prices to implement the resettlement program.

What was your reaction to the February 2004 announcement that the government would begin expropriation of land?
The way I understood the announcement, they [the government] are now going to use expropriation on top of the willing-seller willing-buyer method to speed up land reform, which I think is fine.

What happened after the prime minister's announcement was that it was added to, subtracted from and qualified by other spokespeople, and it created an awful lot of uncertainty. From a very clear understanding [of how land resettlement is going to happen] -- foreign ownership, absentee landlords, unproductive farms -- we have moved into a situation where almost any farm belonging to anyone -- black, white, productive or unproductive -- can be a target, which makes absolutely no economic sense. It just heightens uncertainty across the board. Who is going to invest in their farm if they really believe at any time the government could come in and take it?

Another point to understand is that the prime minister's announcement was very constitutional -- he was talking about expropriation with fair compensation. He made that very clear. But, it all comes down to price. What is the fair price for a hectare of land? This is a big, big debate that we are nowhere near solving.