Southern Africa today presents a wide spectrum of land policies, embracing a variety of forms of redistribution and tenure reform initiatives, utilising methods that range from consensual, market-based approaches to forcible confiscation.
Having remained marginal to political debates in most countries of the region for much of the 1980s and 1990s, land and land reform are back on the policy agenda to an extent unknown since the liberation struggles of the 1960s and early 1970s. Recent events in Zimbabwe, in particular, have had strong resonance for political parties and landless people in those countries, most notably South Africa and Namibia, where severe racial inequalities in landholding persist, and struggles over land have become central to external perceptions of the region. Critical questions, therefore, are whether the Zimbabwean case is exceptional or an indication of tensions throughout the region, and whether the heightened political importance of land in the region is a product of changes in the regional or global economy, or a culmination of long-running processes at a more local level.
While conditions vary considerably from country to country, a number of broad themes can be identified that provide a common context for the politics of land across the region. First, is the shared history of colonialism, and with it the dispossession and impoverishment of rural people, which shapes both patterns of landholding and discourses around the value of different types of land use. Second, is the growing impact of neoliberal globalisation, in terms of both direct influences on agriculture and rural economies generally and on the policies being promoted by national governments and international agencies. Of particular importance here are the deregulation of markets, the withdrawal of state support to agricultural producers and the reliance on the private sector as the principal agent of development (see article 6, this Bulletin). Third, is the ongoing impoverishment of the mass of the rural population and the extreme precariousness of rural livelihoods. High rates of unemployment, poor returns to small-scale agriculture, lack of access to social services such as health and education, recurring drought and a rampant (and largely unaddressed) HIV/AIDS pandemic, serve to erode existing livelihood activities and perpetuate relative and absolute poverty in rural areas (see article 2, this Bulletin). Last, is the re-emergence of the rural poor as political actors, to varying degrees throughout the region. Mobilisation around the Campanha Terra in Mozambique in 1996-97, the occupation of commercial farms by war veterans and others in Zimbabwe, and growing militancy by the Landless People’s Movement, among others, in South Africa since 2000, suggest that an important new phase in the politics of land in Southern Africa has begun (see also SLSA Research Papers 2,3,9, 11 and 12).
This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 34.3 (2003) Land and Livelihoods: The Politics of Land Reform in Southern Africa