African Land: Land matters

The decision by Zimbabwe’s President, Robert Mugabe, to seize white-owned farms – an issue in the recent election campaign – is a powerful reminder that land matters. It remains contentious in southern and eastern Africa because, to a varying degree in each country, it is a focus for the problems of economic inequality, ethnicity and race, rural poverty and land rights. Traditional and modern laws and customs co-exist, and legitimacy – acquired after conquest – is contested.

The World Today Published 1 August 2000 Updated 28 October 2020 3 minute READ

Alex Duncan

Senior Economist, Oxford Policy Management

Geoffrey Rockliffe-King

Freelance economist specialising in land and agriculture

If all the potential fault–lines coincide, the land issue can be very damaging. Historically, access to land was part of the attraction of liberation movements in countries where white ownership was an issue – Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and also Zambia, Mozambique and Angola. There is always the possibility of politicians using land reform for populist appeal. They may pay little attention to the very real complexities of the issue and the collateral damage that can follow poorly managed change.

Many of Zimbabwe’s neighbours share its key characteristics. There is a history of white rule, greater or lesser reliance on agriculture, large semi–arid areas with fragile ecologies and economic growth barely keeping pace with population.

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