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Frustration Growing in Namibia Over Land Reform

Namibia is among the southern African countries undergoing land reform. Communication between the government, white farmers and blacks seeking land has been open. But the pace of reform has been slow and frustration is growing.

Namibians know all too well that land can be used as a weapon. Tens of thousands of indigenes died when German settlers pushed them off their property and into the desert more than a century ago.

Hendrik Witbooi, a leader in the revolt against the Germans, summed up his people’s struggle matter-of-factly in a letter to a German imperial officer in 1894.

“I really do not see any guilt or wrong in a man refusing to give up what is his own merely because another man demands it,” he said.

In all, about 80,000 indigenes, including Mr. Witbooi, perished during German colonization. Germany ceded control of the region after World War I. South Africa took over. The South West African People’s Organization, or SWAPO, waged a guerrilla war against white minority rule in Namibia for nearly 30 years - almost until independence in 1990.

Since then, progress on land reform has been slow. Like South Africa, the Namibian government is using a “willing seller, willing buyer” program to restore land to blacks.

Alfred Angula, general-secretary of the Namibian Farmworkers Union, blames Namibia’s white commercial farmers for the delay. He says their prices are too high and the land offered of poor quality. The union in June threatened Zimbabwe-like land invasions after a small group of white farmers vowed to fight land expropriations.

“We’re saying make it available,” said Mr. Angula. “If you don’t what other options are there? We say sell you don’t want to sell. We say share you don’t want to share. What should we do? And we say ok we cannot have people that are poor while others are becoming rich at the expense of the others.”

Mr. Angula echoes the spare reasoning of Mr. Witbooi about the white landowners. “How did they own those lands? We have to go back to history and probably they did not buy it,” he said. “Why should we now today be compelled to buy it?”

About 4,000 mostly white commercial farmers own almost half of Namibia’s arable land. Yet they make up only eight percent of the population. Some blacks have received loans to purchase land and training is also available for inexperienced farmers.

The government recently has tried to speed up the land reform process by announcing plans to expropriate a handful of farms.

“We realized that the pace was indeed very slow," said Chris Matongela, liaison officer at the Ministry of Lands. “That’s why all along we have been embarking on the willing seller willing buyer whereby you have to wait for when would the next farm will come in. And then we realized because of the slow pace that’s why we also embarked on the expropriations.”

Plans for expropriation further raised fears of a Zimbabwe-like “fast track” approach to land reform in Namibia. But Jan de Wet, president of the majority white Commercial Farmers Union, says he believes this is unlikely.

“Zimbabwe is quite different,” said Mr. de Wet. “Their process of independence and our process of independence is quite different. And, very important, the Namibian Agricultural Union that represents the commercial farmers, we do have very good relations with government and we’ve got an open door to government. That’s why I’m very positive. As long as one can talk and everybody’s reasonable we can reach a solution.”

Mr. de Wet denies that the farmers are stalling. He says that the government needs to define exactly what it means by “just compensation” for property. And, he says, other issues need to be addressed before land reform can be accelerated.

“On willing seller willing buyer there is a negotiation to get a price but what is just compensation when expropriation comes into practice? And that is market value plus a lack of income over a period,” he said. “So just compensation actually means market value plus a percentage. That has not been determined. These are the gray areas we’re going to address now.”

Wrong color, according to Mr. Angula of the Farmworkers Union. “It is a question of black and white,” he said. “Unfortunately. Now the haves is the whites and the have-nots is the black. That is unfortunately the situation. How do you balance this? The balance should be that we need to share all of us.”

About 240,000 black Namibians are waiting to be resettled. Mr. Matongela of the Lands Ministry says so far there has been a healthy spirit of consultation on land reform. He cited the composition of the Land Reform Advisory Commission as an example.

“You talk about Namibia Agricultural Farmers Union, which is composed mainly by whites,” said Mr. Matongela. “You have the National Farm Workers Union, which is composed mainly by blacks. And then you have individual business personalities that include individual persons that form the commission.”

But when asked if land invasions could occur independent of the government, Mr. Matongela said it was difficult to predict. The pace of reform is expected to accelerate one way or another after presidential elections this year. The SWAPO candidate is expected to win and he is the current Lands minister.