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Out of Africa

Monday, November 14, 2011

Originally published by Black Business Quarterly



Occupy Africa – the land wars.

When South Africa’s ruling ANC last week banished to possible political oblivion its enfant terrible, Ju Ju, perhaps better known as Julius Malema of the ANC Youth League, the party may perhaps have thought it had silenced Malema’s fiery demands for taking land from white South Africans without compensation. But it certainly did not kill the debate around land redistribution. In fact, all over Africa it has become a cry of considerable anguish.

Across the entire continent of Africa, emotional debates around land redistribution and usage abound, with the words “land grab” having two very distinct and opposite faces.

There are, on the one side, the wealthy landed gentry, large commercial farmers, corporate land-owners and sometimes the state who view the threat of land grabs in terms of the vast communities of landless peasants with their ever-growing land hunger who want to invade, occupy and seize the land, or who exert pressure on their governments to do so on their behalf.

This applies as much to land for agricultural use as to land where an impoverished family might wish to erect their humble shack of tin, planks and plastic. This is pretty much the focal point of current land debates and activities in countries like South Africa and Zimbabwe.

But in many other parts of Africa the debate centres on that other face of land grabs, namely multinational corporates who are pushing villagers, small farmers and peasant or subsistence farmers off their land, and therefore robbing them of their only means of survival. And in the vast majority of cases these land grabs on a grand scale are facilitated by governments mesmerised by the slick presentations of the corporates about economic benefits, growth and development. And in many cases by the payment of healthy backhanders to politicians and officials.

At the risk of generalising, one could perhaps say that to a majority of Africans land represents almost their entire raison d'être, a connection with the land that encompasses their roots, ancestral lineage, status, wealth, survival, sense of belonging, cultural expression and so much more.

However, the often ill-informed and one-sided land demands by people like Julius Malema mostly fail to resolve such issues. In Zimbabwe, for instance, they led to murder, mayhem and economic collapse, turning this erstwhile bread-basket of Africa into a basket case.

In South Africa it recently led to the invasion of privately owned land in KwaZulu-Natal, with the invaders telling the owners they were settlers, that their land would be seized and that “the land belongs to Julius Malema”.

In another recent incident hundreds of people invaded 57 hectares of church-owned land outside Mthatha in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, forming a committee that parcelled up the land and sold it for R7 000 per site. And near Cape Town some 1,000 illegal residents became aggressive when authorities tried to remove their illegal structures from an empty field they had occupied.

Meanwhile the South African government has drafted a new land reform policy as it desperately tries to speed up the process against this background of land hunger, growing impatience and wild demands for land seizure.

However, big as this problem may be, the invasion and occupation of African land by large multinational corporates is rapidly becoming an even bigger one.

The California-based Oakland Institute recently reported that in early 2011 nearly half a million hectares of farmland in Sierra Leone, a small West African country of about 6-million people that emerged from a devastating civil war in 2002, had been leased or was under negotiation. The land had been transferred to foreign companies under favourable conditions created by the government of President Ernest Bai Koroma, who makes no secret of his desire to lure foreign investment. The country relies heavily on its agricultural sector.

"These private-sector enterprises have not only made substantial investments in the agricultural sector but have created thousands of jobs for our people," said Koroma.

But this has left the former occupiers of this land, mostly small-scale farmers, destitute, while the World Food Programme estimates that about half the population remains food insecure.

Recently some 100 people were arrested in Sierra Leone after they protested their removal from 12,500 hectares of land the government had given to a Belgian company without consulting them.

Joseph Rahall, of the Sierra Leonean NGO Green Scenery, was quoted in an Inter Press Service report as saying that local government and landowners were most vulnerable to exploitation, and that talk of employment and economic development is simply "the bell they (governments) ring to sweet talk people into accepting these things”.

A recent study on foreign land grabs in newly independent South Sudan called “The New Frontier” which was commissioned by the Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) found that in the period 2007 to 2010 “foreign interests sought or acquired a total of 2.64 million hectares of land (6.52 million acres) in the agriculture, forestry and biofuel sectors alone”. That is a land area larger than the entire country of Rwanda.

To date foreign companies have taken over a total of 5.74-million hectares of land in South Sudan, their focus being on agriculture, forestry, biofuels, eco-tourism and carbon trading.

Since 2005 – long before South Sudan’s secession from the north – major companies from the US, China, India, Norway, Malaysia, Turkey, and even African countries such as South Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, had already “invaded” the Juba region of South Sudan. South African interest in the region was spearheaded by Mechem a subsidiary of Denel (the South African state-owned arms manufacturer) that started demining operations there.

The rush for land in Africa by large foreign investors has intensified dramaticly since the food and fuel price crisis of 2008. Most of the land deals were for export commodities, including biofuels, minerals and luxury export items such as cut flowers, rather than for food production Oxfam International reported in a new study this year.

According to the Oxfam report as much as 227-million hectares of land has been sold or leased in developing countries, much of it in Africa, since 2001. Other reports concur and note that the loss of land, livelihoods and food security will have major negative impacts on the rural populations of Africa.

These developments led to the UN Committee on World Food Security trying to draft a set of guidelines on tenure of land, fisheries and forests to protect poor communities and farmers. However, finalisation of the guidelines has been delayed due to those involved in the process failing to agree on details of conditions for large-scale investments.

Corruption is also rife and various researchers and development agencies report that government ministers and officials facilitate transfers of land to foreign companies on bribes being paid or other arrangements that further their own interests.

No longer willing to patiently wait for governments and international agencies like those of the UN to take up their cause, in one response some 200 farmers affected by such land grabs in Mali and belonging to the National Coordination of Farming Organisations have joined forces with the international farmers’ movement Via Campesina, researchers, political leaders and NGOs to host a conference on 17-19 November in Sélingué in Mali with the purpose of strengthening the fight against land grabs. They see the “enemy” as being large businesses and hedge funds, among others, that undermine the ability of people to feed themselves.

One cannot ignore the fact that land grabs – in different guises – have become a heavily contested new front in Africa’s battles for survival and development.