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PLAAS raises a red flag on the privatisation of communal land across the Southern Africa region

 Rural women across Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe are being dispossessed by corporates and state-backed land grabbers as well as urban and rural elites.

This was one of the key messages emerging from an online engagement hosted by the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) over the past three-days. The workshop is part of a three-year project funded by the Austrian Development Agency (ADA), the operational unit of Austrian Development Cooperation, which aims to secure women’s land rights and livelihoods by changes in land tenure policies and practices.

Discussions focused on rapid and ‘silent’ privatisation of customary land under the theme women’s land tenure security and livelihoods in Southern Africa.

Civil society participants from Mozambique, South Africa,  Zambia, and Zimbabwe were part of a multi-country study to explore emerging trends around land grabbing by traditional leaders for private use. Among the civil society organisations participating in the event were the Zambia Land Alliance, Livaningo from Mozambique, the Platform for Youth and Community Development Trust from Zimbabwe and the Nkuzi Development Association from South Africa.

Refiloe Joala, Researcher at PLAAS said, “Beyond the  large-scale land grabs that have been documented across the region, the engagement aimed to  explore less visible processes of change underway. These processes involve multiple forms of formalising customary land rights and the conversion of customary land to leasehold or state land in the interest of investments in tourism and infrastructure development by public and private actors; while  disregarding poor and vulnerable people’s informal and customary land rights.”

Evidence from civil society partners found that rural women are the most affected by these trends, and the dispossession is being driven by mining, tourism or agribusiness expansion in some areas, and in others by the growth of local elites or the urbanisation of rural areas.

Participants at the engagement explained that the biggest challenge is that traditional councils comprising of chiefs and traditional leaders, municipal leaders and other state organs are taking unilateral decisions relating to the use of communal land. The state is turning a blind eye to this as it benefits them – especially where mining is concerned.

A case in point in South Africa is in Limpopo province, where communities are being forcefully removed from communal land as a result of the introduction of mining operations and privatisation of communal land. The dispossessed communities often struggle to make a living in the relocated areas where the prospects for earning a living are very bleak.

400 families have been forcefully moved from orchards in Limpopo since 2004 and they have been forced to set up new homes in nearby towns, where they have to look for jobs. In some instances, people are being pushed to move into government-subsidised RDP housing with no title deeds.

Agriculture land is being converted into residential developments and upmarket suburbs are being set up across Limpopo, for example. Grazing land is being used for brick laying and construction projects and access to graves is restricted because of the commercialisation of communal land.

Participants noted that while community members are compensated, compensation does not take into consideration that people’s livelihoods were dependent on the land. This is leading to an increase in unemployment, especially among women and youth, who are largely dependent on land for farming and self-sustenance.

This is a trend across all provinces in South Africa. However, this has unfolded in a greater form in Limpopo, and the participants are concerned  that such phenomenon has not entered the wider policy debate.

Nkuzi Development Association cautions that there is a real threat of food security and an increase in environmental pollution remains among the biggest challenges, given the increase of urbanisation of agricultural land and dispossession of farming communities.

In Zimbabwe, chiefs are forcefully grabbing agricultural and communal land for commercial purposes, while in Zambia, the conversion of customary land to state land has resulted in the loss of access to residential and agricultural land. 

Joala summarised the situation as: “There is an assault on the land rights of ordinary South Africans underway. Poor rural communities are threatened by powerful political and economic forces. Women are the most liable to be dispossessed.”

“There is a gender-driven agenda within the framework of the changing tenure system. Women’s land rights are being exploited, and we don’t have enough defensive mechanisms to defend gender land rights. There is a clear alienation of women driving the agenda for dispossession of land.”

“What we are seeing unfolding is very worrying as these practices are entrenching gender inequality and land alienation,” Joala said.

Dr Phillan Zamchiya of PLAAS, who leads the research, observed that attention to particular big “land grabs” obscures much more pervasive changes that are converting customary land rights into private rights. What is becoming increasingly evident is that it is not only large-scale land deals that are driving dispossession, but also processes of formalisation and privatisation, including efforts to create local land markets, and transferable land titles. Formalisation typically focuses on conferring exclusive individual rights on men and leads to concentration in landholdings – whereas customary tenure provides a social safety net for community members.

Across the board, speakers acknowledged that although the form of the land grabs varies, the outcomes are the same – people are being displaced for self-serving interests of community leaders and their cronies.

Participants argued that the formalisation of customary land rights will lead to efficient uses of land and better management of natural resources. While this poses a solution, others are of the view that formalisation could lead to more insecure land tenure for the poor. Despite the contradictions and legal debates, the reality characterising the environment is that the prevailing land governance frameworks subject women to discrimination in land ownership, use and access.

According to PLAAS, there are policies in place in Mozambique and South Africa which purport to protect community and informal land rights yet are inadequate. In Zambia, a land policy process has been drawn out over more than two decades. And in Zimbabwe, people who got land through the fast-track land reform now face eviction in places. Overall, the studies suggest that policies and laws are inadequate, and that the problems extend beyond implementation. Rather, the model of securing rights through formalisation serves to exacerbate inequality and landlessness. In the context of deepening inequality and economic crises, including in the current Covid-19 pandemic, the loss of land becomes an ever more urgent issue to tackle.

The participants agreed that there is a need to investigate changes to customary land practices currently unfolding, to contest laws and policies that and to advance efforts to create awareness of the rights of communities relating to the laws on communal land and their application. Litigation may be pursued where necessary to challenge privatisation of community and customary lands.

About PLAAS 

The Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) is an independent policy research institute within the Faculty for Economic and Management Sciences at the University of the Western Cape. We do research, policy engagement, teaching and training about chronic poverty, economic marginalisation and structural inequality across Southern Africa. Our research concentrates on the role of land, agriculture, and natural resources in the livelihoods of marginalised and vulnerable people. We work to support social justice, foster inclusive growth and nourish informed and democratic policy debate in Southern Africa.

About the Austrian Development Agency (ADA)

The Austrian Development Agency (ADA) www.entwicklung.at  is the operational unit of Austrian Development Cooperation (ADC). The Austrian Development Cooperation (ADC) supports countries in Africa, Asia and Central America as well as in South Eastern and Eastern Europe in their sustainable social, economic and democratic development. The Austrian Foreign Ministry (FMEIA) plans ADC strategies and programmes, while ADA implements these together with public institutions, non-governmental organisations and enterprises.

ADA works across 11 focus areas and one of its regions includes the SADC region, where ADA is involved in the implementation of projects based on a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed with the southern Africa region; facilitated through a three-year programme running from 2019 – 2021 to support good governance with a focus on land issues; and infrastructure programmes focused on rail transport and renewable energy. ADA promotes access to natural resources, ownership and control over land and other forms of property and inheritance with focus on poor, marginalized and vulnerable people with the objective to ‘leave no one behind’. The organisation is committed to contributing to the achievements of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in particular SDG 1,4, and 5a.


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