The ongoing debates on the land question and poverty in Botswana raise very pertinent issues regarding the trajectory of Botswana’s development. The land petitioners, who have coalesced into a social movement called ‘The Petition To Minister of Lands’ were given a boost by the doomed Parliamentary motion on land audit by Dumelang Saleshando, Member of Parliament for Gaborone Central and the leader of the BCP.
According to newspaper accounts, the petitioners are concerned about the difficulties that confront young people in particular in accessing land for residential and other purposes, and their gripe is that large tracts of land in Botswana are in the hands of a few foreigners and a few politically connected citizens, whilst the rest of ‘us’ have to wait years on end for a standard plot. For his part, Dumelang Saleshando M.P wanted Parliament to institute a comprehensive land audit in all urban, peri-urban, freehold farms and tourism frontier settlements with a view to establishing the ownership of land, value, tenure and synergy between planned use of such a land and the actual use.
At the same time Botswana is caught up in what can only be characterized as poverty in the midst of plenty. Over the years, government has made unsuccessful efforts to eradicate and or reduce poverty. According to the most recent report on poverty in Botswana, the Botswana Core Welfare Indicators (Poverty) Survey ÔÇô(hereinafter Poverty Survey) poverty in Botswana is a matter of great concern. According to the Poverty Survey, the number of persons below poverty datum line in Botswana was 373, 388, or about 21 percent of the population at the time of the survey.
Simply put, poverty refers to a lack of basic material resources required to sustain a decent life and or even simple physical existence. Poverty stricken families never know when their next meal is going to be, or where it is going to come from. The Poverty Survey puts the Botswana poverty datum line (PDL) close to P900. PDL refers to the amount of money a family needs to sustain itself over a period of one month.
Whilst the Poverty Survey reveals that the food component of the PDL was P680, destitute allowance increased from P81 to only P90 per month! It is quite obvious that Botswana will not be able to achieve the Millennium Development Goal One- Eradicating Extreme Poverty and Hunger – by 2015.
The Poverty Survey states that the objective of the survey was to provide comprehensive data and update information on incomes, expenditure, poverty datum line and other household characteristics needed for socio-economic planning, monitoring and evaluation purposes (italics added). What I find most interesting about the Poverty Survey is that it was unable to detect the correlation between land tenure and poverty in Botswana.
In my carefully considered opinion, the biggest culprit in the poverty crisis that is facing Botswana is the country’s land tenure system. Simply put, a land tenure system refers to relationships (rights and obligations) of or between individuals in terms of access to land. There are different types of land tenure systems around the world, and in Botswana the prevalent form is the so-called communal land tenure system, which is governed by the Tribal Land Act. Under the communal land tenure system, individuals only have the right to use a piece of land, since the land is supposed to be owned by the whole community.
In Botswana the right to use a piece of land is granted through Certificate of Customary Land Grant, which is really permission to use a given piece of land, usually for residential purposes. Under this land tenure system the piece of land allocated for one’s use remains the property of the Land Board. I want to believe, however, that even in ancient Botswana, homesteads, masimo and meraka, were private property and were not owned communally, save for grazing land. I stand corrected.
Although the Poverty Survey is supposed to provide data on household characteristics needed for socio-economic planning, it does not say what the poor have in their possession. This is an unfortunate omission. I suspect that most of the poor will have a piece of land, such as ploughing field, morakana, a dwelling of some sort either at masimo, cattle post or in the village. But Botswana’s communal land tenure system, called native land tenure by the colonialists, is anachronistic, antiquated and archaic. It is as a bottleneck to Botswana’s economic growth and development.
It is a land tenure system that has locked hundreds of thousands of Batswana into a vicious circle of poverty and prevents them from converting their land holdings into assets that can be collateralized to grow wealth. These plots of land in the rural areas have the potential to enable the rural poor to crack out of the vicious poverty and into the virtuous circle of prosperity, provided of course the Tribal Land Act is scrapped.
It is interesting to note that the foreigners who own vast tracts of land and their politically connected citizen hangers-on that the Petitioners are referring to, will be found on freehold or leasehold land. Under freehold and or leasehold tenure system, land is regarded as an asset that can be used as collateral/security to assist one to grow their wealth.
But freehold and leasehold land tenure systems are not natural or God given, but were created by the colonial state, basically to assist white settlers to accumulate wealth, while the rest of us were confined to ‘tribal land’ in accordance with ‘native law and customs.’
I will wager that most of the 373, 388 poor persons identified by the Poverty Survey have land, but because it is tribal land, they cannot use it as asset. As one Herman De Soto has pointed out in his thought provoking book, The Mystery of Capital, the problem of poverty is not necessarily that the poor have nothing, but rather, the manner in which the little possessions they have (such as masimo, meraka and homesteads) are held in a defective form, that is with now no title deeds. He refers to this as dead capital.
Going forward, both the communal land tenure system and the Tribal Land Act must be scrapped and relegated to the museum of antiquities, where they belong, together with the loin cloth, mortar and pestle. Instead, a new Land Act must be enacted, one that will not be a bottleneck, but will usher in a new land tenure system; a Land Act that will be the neck of a bottle and a gateway to prosperity. It is also about time our leaders get out of this belief spread by visiting western social anthropologists about the traditional, timeless, unchanging and unchangeable native laws and customs.
Are we supposed to believe that only Africans have been caught up in a time warp, when the rest of humanity moved on? The communal land system was constructed at a certain point in the development of our society, and reflected those times and conditions, and not the current times and conditions. Presenting his budget speech in 2012, the Minister of Finance and Development Planning revealed that over a billion pula was spent on poverty eradication programs and projects like ISPAAD, LIMID, Ipelegeng.
But all that is required is that the same Parliament that Minister Matambo was addressing about poverty is requested to amend the Tribal Land Act and allow land in the rural areas to have title deeds. A little bit of the billions of pula that the government is spending on handouts can be used to assist the poor register their land and apply for title deeds, and own proper assets that they can use to better their lives and those of their children.
In the short to the medium term, once the new Land Act, now the neck of the bottle, is in place, people would be given title deeds and or land rights to their holdings, their masimo, meraka or homesteads, for whatever lengths of time can be agreed upon. In the long term, Botswana might borrow a leaf from South Korea’s Three Hectare rural agricultural policy, and introduce agricultural policy in which farms of varying sizes are demarcated preferably along major trunk routes to ensure access to services such as transport and water.
As not everyone wants to be as farmer, these farms can be allocated to individuals who have expressed interest in farming. I am told in South Korea the Three Hectare Policy worked well for the country and ensured economic security for the individuals and food self-sufficiency for the nation. Mohammad Yunus, of the Graemen Bank fame, argues that credit is the key to alleviating poverty, and people who have only their labour to sell, even under Ipelegeng, will remain forever poor.
But if their labour can be connected with capital (titled land) and their land holdings recognized by law as assets, this will allow them to overcome poverty forever. To me these options would be much better than the current very expensive but financially unattainable acts of charity we see under poverty eradication programs, well intentioned though these programs are. Give a man fish, and he will eat today, but show them how to fish, and they will eat forever, so goes the Chinese wisdom.
(Prof. Monageng Mogalakwe is with the Department of Sociology, University of Botswana. He is writing in his private capacity. His area of specialization is state-society relations.)