Buried deep in a section on land, “redistribution” draws no particular attention to itself with radical supporting statements and can be easy to miss. However, this word may speak volumes about how a future Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) government will tackle the acute land shortage problem in Botswana. Noting the acute land shortage in urban centres, the party says that in the event it assumes official power in the upcoming general election, it will introduce “new mechanisms and instruments” to correct this anomaly.
One such would be “a more comprehensive purchasing of land around urban centres, for servicing and re-distribution to make available for the tens of thousands of ordinary citizens.” In the southern African context, “redistribution” has a particular meaning. Not too long ago, Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, seized land from white farmers and redistributed it among a section of the country’s black population. Next door in South Africa, the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, Julius Malema, said as recently as this past Wednesday when making his maiden speech in parliament, that the government doesn’t have to buy back land that was stolen in the first place. While the statement about the land having been stolen is true, the approach Malema suggests (and which Mugabe applied) is not pragmatic. Those who inherited the stolen land are so powerful that they can cripple a country’s economy (like they did with Zimbabwe) if their interests are threatened.
To an extent, that would explain the position that UDC has taken on this issue – buying back land from those who have hoarded it and parcelling it out to among those who need it the most. “Land is a sensitive issue that deserves to be handled with care. Failure to resolve it fairly could evoke undesired emotions and repercussions on the peace of our country,” says UDC Policy Director, Ndaba Gaolathe. Such caution notwithstanding, he is mindful of the fact that “there is a general sentiment that land ownership is inordinately skewed in favour of a few wealthy individuals while the majority of citizens have no access to a dwelling place or a place to till or pursue a worthwhile economic activity.” He notes the oddity of it all: that Botswana has a population of just over two million and a land area of 581 730 square kilometres. “This is the size of France with a population of over 65 million. How can we then talk of shortage of land in Botswana and accept that people have to wait for over 20 years to get a dwelling place or that businesses have to wait for years (or forever) to get land to start their business? This is not reasonable and there are means to do much better than this,” Gaolathe says. The means a UDC government will use will entail conducting a comprehensive land audit to determine land ownership structure, use of land across the country and potential best use (tenure) of all land pockets in Botswana. The findings will guide process on how to best allocate that land and for what purposes. “This, along with the long land application waiting lists, the masses of landless citizens and land-starved potential economic ventures, will form the basis for land management and land re-distribution as necessary.
Our government will purchase land on a willing buyer-seller basis, and will not unlawfully repossess land. Where government feels ordinary citizens have been unduly and unfairly prejudiced in land ownership, then authorities will pursue legal avenues to seek redress on behalf of concerned citizens,” Gaolathe says. In the current scheme of things, the available legal avenue for compulsory purchase is charted in the Acquisition of Property Act which empowers the state president to acquire “any real property” in the interest of the public. In instances where a party whose land has been acquired in this way is unhappy about the compensation, the law recommends taking up the matter with the courts. The UDC manifesto identifies city and towns as epicentres of the land crisis.
“Even middle-class groups who are able to afford land are not able to secure it at reasonable cost without joining the multi-year queue for land with the Government. Urban centres in particular are sandwiched in between farms, to make the land, especially serviced land, scarce. Consequently, the prices of both land and housing are high,” the manifesto says. The manifesto doesn’t mention names but Gaborone, Francistown, Selebi Phikwe and Lobatse fit this description to a T. The farms in question were established during the colonial era and a verbal exchange during a hearing on racial discrimination provides an insight into how far back the current land problems go. UDC says that, in addition to being already privileged, the few individuals who own vast expanses of land, also “receive preferential treatment in the acquisition of virgin land for their development, especially in lucrative areas such as the urban centres, and the tourist hot-spots of the Okavango, Chobe and the Kalahari.” With regard to the latter, the manifesto says that “a leading tourism company, for example, controls more than half of the known lucrative land pockets of the Okavango Delta.” It adds that under UDC government preference will be given to “first time applicants, and/or for applicants in which local communities are involved.” By giving the issue of land a prominent position in its platform, UDC (a coalition of three opposition parties: the Botswana National Front, the Botswana Alliance Movement and the Botswana People’s Party) is touching a raw nerve of an electorate that, as the manifesto says, is unable to secure land “at reasonable cost without joining the multi-year queue for land with the government.” This deprivation has fuelled inequality in a country that already has among one of the highest geographic concentrations of income inequality in the world.
Faced with this situation, some young people constituted themselves into a loose lobby group and petitioned the Minister of Lands and Housing over the land issue but to no avail. The organisation of the group may be wanting in certain respects but what comes across loud and clear is that the citizenry is within a heartbeat of reaching its tolerance level. The current land problems predate the coming into being of Botswana and the Botswana Democratic Party government. In 1963 when the Bechuanaland Legislative Council appointed a select committee to investigate racial discrimination in the protectorate, future president Seretse Khama, who was a member of the committee, could not contain his revulsion when the Registrar of Deeds, a Mr. Myers, testified about how Tati Company and the British South Africa Company (BSAC) had imposed discriminatory conditions in title deeds.
“A typical example of these conditions is as follows,” Myers said before quoting from a copy of a title deed he had before him: “The land is sold subject to the conditions that the registered owner undertakes not to transfer the land or any part thereof to Asiatics or other Non-Europeans without the previous consent in writing of the company.” He proceeded to tell the committee that although what he had read out was the typical condition found, there were many variations in wording in different title deeds relating to lands which are owned by or have been owned by Tati or BSAC but that import was basically the same. “I have not come across a deed yet in which there has not been a provision of this nature,” Myers said. Khama asked him if it was correct that a clause of this nature could not be easily removed from the title deed. In response, Myers said that once a condition is inserted into a title deed and the land held by such title is subsequently transferred, that condition automatically goes forward into the new title deed and only the person who imposed the condition is able to cancel it. “Does not the government consider such a condition to be obnoxious?” Khama asked rhetorically.