Instantly realising how close the danger he describes is, the Tati East MP, Guma Moyo, revises the tense that he uses to describe a land war from future to present perfect within a few short minutes.
He begins by lamenting a situation in the North East where people who typically give the first line of the national anthem (“this is our land”) its most full-throated rendition literally don’t own such land. On the other hand, some of those who own vast tracts of land in that area neither live in Botswana nor have “allegiance” to it.
“We are going to fight over land,” the MP says.
In the next breath, he waxes philosophical about the importance of land ownership. Land ownership, he observes, constitutes a vital part of dignified life and landlessness diminishes one’s humanity. However, in the course of lamenting the sorrowing incompleteness of people in the North East, he suddenly remembers how the latter situation has pushed the residents of one village to the edge.
“People are already invading farms in Themashanga,” reveals Moyo, who then incorporates a pretty heavy Setswana word to describe the attitude of the invaders. “Ba dira ka bodipa [They do it brazenly]. They cut the fence of a nearby game farm to allow their cattle access to good pastures. Actually, the fight over land has started.”
In reverse order, some of the wild animals escape captivity into an unprotected area where they are instantly targetted for their meat by poachers.
Themashanga councillor, Kudzani Tobokani, reveals another set of troubling details. Tobokani says that during periods of drought, residents’ cattle cross over onto nearby farms, some of which are in a very bad state of progressive disrepair. Completely oblivious to a system of human laws and turf protocols that are arbitrarily used to govern habitat they need to survive, the cattle simply go to where the pasture is lush than have to forage virtually bare forests for brambles and weeds. This brings the human parties in question into direct (and costly) conflict.
“The farm owners were terrorizing the cattle owners. If the owners found cattle inside, they would impound them and demand compensation of P500 per head before they could release them. Some of the cattle would disappear or end up being impounded by the district council as well,” Tobokani says.
His use of the past tense owes to the fact that to the extent that the councillor is appraised of it, the problem has been resolved. The resolution came by way of bringing the parties together and cobbling together an agreement that imposes duty on farm owners to maintain proper fencing all around their farms.
The ownership of these farms is also a contentious issue. Tobokani says that he has called on the government to do a thorough land audit because there appears to be nothing in the way of public evidence to prove ownership of this land. The councillor’s fear is that some unscrupulous characters may be unlawfully privatizing a very scarce public resource which is an economic lifeline for most people in rural areas. In part, his suspicions were aroused by the fact that farms that have been lying fallow for decades on end and are seemingly abandoned, suddenly have owners when residents’ cattle stray onto them.
Low key though it may be, the fight that the MP speaks of has indeed started. The councillor may have done a good job of mediating a truce but the fact of the matter is that far from being solved, the real problem has merely been papered over. As sure as another drought will come, the problem will re-emerge. Both men quote rough figures to give a sense of scale of the land shortage problem. Moyo says that farms take up 80 percent of the land in the North East. As the most explicit evidence of a time-capsuled land ownership regime that doesn’t place a high enough premium on the welfare of the majority, Tobokani says that while an ordinary person in the area has to make do with little more than a 40 metre by 30 metre residential plot, “a Boer farmer can own a farm that measures 40 kilometres by 50 kilometres.” Resultantly, this situation has led to near-collapse of agricultural life in the area.
All across the country, getting tribal land means submitting an application form to a land board and having to wait in place for years on end. At least according to Tobokani, the North East situation is unsustainably worse. The councillor says that due to land shortage, the Tati Land Board has not allocated plots since 2013.