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Rough Cut: Namibia: This Land Is Ours
Background Facts and Related Links
Learn more about race and land in Namibia, a nation that is only 15 years old.


By Sarah Colt

Land is the most emotive and potentially explosive issue in Namibia today -- a touch point for the unhealed memories of colonization and dispossession. The prospect of redistributing land reheats past racial injustices, and 15 years after a long struggle to win independence for the black majority, most of Namibia's commercial land is still owned by white farmers who make up 6 percent of the country's population of 1.8 million.

Namibia's land is mostly high plains desert that stretches from the Kalahari to the South Atlantic Coast, and the nation shares borders with Angola, Botswana and South Africa. Formerly called South West Africa, it was colonized by the Germans in the 1880s. Like other European settlers across southern Africa, the Germans took the best ranch land for themselves and conscripted indigenous people into forced labor.

South Africa took over the colony during World War I, then annexed it after World War II. Under South African rule, the territory was divided in half -- land in the south was parceled into large ranches for whites, and blacks were assigned to tribally controlled land in the north.

In 1990, when Namibia finally won its freedom from South Africa and the apartheid system, the majority government allowed European settlers to retain ownership of large tracts of land in an effort to avoid destabilizing the economy. A land reform program was developed to gradually redistribute land to correct the racial imbalance.

Namibia's land program is based on the "willing seller/willing buyer" model. The government has right of first refusal on land that is put on the market, which it will then redistribute to the 240,000 or so landless black Namibians. But the process has been slow -- at the current rate, it will take another 40 years before half of the land is owned by black Namibians.

In February 2004, in response to frustration over the sluggishness of this system, the government announced that it would begin expropriating land in a process that would force white landowners to sell their land for resettlement.

Expropriation of white-owned land has backfired elsewhere. In neighboring Zimbabwe, government-sanctioned, violent seizures of farmlands have ruined the economy. Once hailed as the breadbasket of southern Africa, Zimbabwe now faces food shortages and an inflation rate as high as 620 percent per year.

Although Namibian government officials insist that they will not follow Zimbabwe's example, white farmers are worried. "They do not know what is going on, and they feel insecure," explains Sakkie Coetzee of the Namibian Agricultural Union. "We wait. Must I go on with my normal activities and invest in my land? Or should I wait to see what will happen with my land?"

Alfred Angula, the leader of Namibia's Farmworkers' Union, believes that all Namibian farm workers -- there are approximately 35,000 of them -- deserve their own piece of land. He has threatened to forcibly take over white-owned farms. "Without land there is nothing we can do. It is important because it's about life," Angula says. "To me it is just a question of you return land back to the rightful owners. Full stop. It ends there. It's not yours."

Namibia is at a crossroads. In one direction lies the legal route to land redistribution through reconciliation, whereas in the other lies the example offered by Zimbabwe -- violent land invasions and the potential destruction of the economy.

Related Links

Land Redistribution in Southern Africa
This site from Online NewsHour explains the problems with the willing-seller/willing-buyer strategy and Namibian efforts to ensure that land expropriation strategies do not lead to disaster.

"Union Eyes Second Farm for Takeover"
This January 2004 article from The Namibian covers the conflict between Asser Hendricks and Farm Krumhuk.

"Namibia's Worried White Farmers"
In 2002, the BBC reported on white farmers' increasing nervousness that land reform in Namibia could follow the path of Zimbabwe.

"Namibia Plans White Land Seizures"

In February 2004, the BBC reported on the Namibian government's escalation of land reform plans.

"Namibia Land Seizures 'Very Soon'"
This BBC article from March 2004 explains how the Namibian government planned to kick-start the expropriation process.

"Namibia Warns 'Racist' Farmers"
In May 2004, then-president Sam Nujoma threatened to seize the land of white farmers who fired black farm workers, as covered in this BBC article.

"Namibia Sends Out Farm 'Requests'"
Some white farmers started to receive letters in May 2004 stating that they were "cordially invited to make an offer to sell [your] property to the state," according to this BBC article.

"Namibia to Seize Land Held by Whites"
Listen to this radio story, from NPR's Morning Edition, covering Namibian land reform.

"Namibians Plan for Emotive Land Reform"

This August 2004 BBC article includes the perspectives of white families who have lived in Namibia for generations and face losing their farms, and it covers the parallel land reform situation in Zimbabwe.

"A Bloody History: Namibia's Colonisation"

This BBC article chronicles German occupation of the country that is now Namibia, including a German commander's declaration in 1904 that he would shoot Hereros -- the Herero are an indigenous tribe -- who did not give up their land.

Country Profile: Namibia

The discovery of diamonds made Namibia a popular immigration destination for Europeans in the early 20th century, and in terms of freedom of the press, Namibia is a leader among African countries. This BBC profile includes detailed historical and political information about the young country.

Timeline: Namibia
Shortly after Germany took control of the area then known as West South Africa, tens of thousands of ethnic Herero were killed. In August 2004, Germany formally apologized. This timeline covers key events in Namibia's history of colonization, occupation and independence.

The Namibian

Namibia's leading English language daily newspaper's motto is "Still Telling It Like It Is."