President Robert Mugabe is correct that land ownership and the historical inequities left by colonialism are evocative. Fair redistribution of land is politically and morally necessary in many places in Africa.
But while Mugabe has captured global headlines, there are other stories of land reform in Africa that offer hope and valuable lessons.
Kenya, which has some of Africa’s largest commercial agricultural estates, suffered violent land grabs as part of pre-election pogroms in 1992 and 1997 that left thousands of embittered peasants nursing grievances. The politically powerful exploited connections to the ruling clan to transfer vast chunks of land – national parks, parastatals and government holdings – to private hands. Population pressures and age-old tensions between farmers and pastoralists further complicate the land issue. Despite demands for redress by ideologues citing Mugabe’s plan, the new Kenyan government has sought to diffuse tensions and put in place a rational, systematic reform process.
South Africa also has steadily worked to resolve an enormous backlog of land claims growing out of its apartheid past. South Africa makes clear that governments must focus far more attention on ensuring that the systems of delivering justice are smooth, fair and staffed adequately so that disputes can be settled in a timely way.
It is an unpleasant truth that agriculture extension programmes in Africa have been allowed to collapse due to inadequate staffing, poor salaries and insufficient transport. Successful transfer of the landless onto functioning commercial land requires large measures of technical and financial support and advanced planning. Government is seldom in a position to offer the skills and training to newly settled farmers, but can and must do more to create and fund collaborative efforts that nurture emerging farmers from previously disadvantaged backgrounds.
Successful land reform is more than just throwing people on patches of soil. It requires the hard work of helping newly settled farmers adapt to commercial techniques, build up working capital and improve knowledge of quality control and foreign markets.