Pablo Gilolmo Lobo*
In 1991, in the aftermath of independence, the Namibian government hosted a National Land Conference in order to tackle one of the main colonial heritages that motivated the liberation struggle and urged the new national project: land redistribution. In October 2018, and in the face of the rachitic record showed by land reform twenty-seven years after the first conference, the Namibian government organized a Second National Land Conference. At this Conference, the ineffectiveness of the 1991’s approach to land reform was evaluated and previously dismissed concerns discussed with a number of resolutions sketching a new direction for land reform adopted. Whether this Second Conference represents a genuine push for the acceleration of land reform, the effective elimination of the colonial/racist bias on land distribution, and the harmonization of the claims of the various social constituencies involved; or whether it is a mere exercise of propaganda in the context of a conflict of interest between sections of the ruling elite, is still a matter for debate.
Like other settler colonies in Africa, Namibia inherited from its colonial past an extremely uneven land distribution, markedly skewed along racial lines. The apartheid division between “native homelands” and commercial farms was the spatial expression of a racial division of labor that still oozes through the whole social and political life of the country. At independence, the commercial sector, roughly 58% of the country’s farming land, was exclusively white owned, while the homelands provided for the reproduction of the native labor force; the latter employed either in a regime based on “residential labor tenancy” (in the farms) or under the migrant labor system (mostly in the mining/industrial sector).
In relation to the redistribution of commercial farmland, the 1991 National Land Conference resolved to adopt a “market friendly” approach. The willing-seller-willing-buyer system (WSWB) simply granted government with a first buying option on farms otherwise freely put on sale. An Affirmative Action Loan Scheme (AALS) was also put in place to subsidize the private acquisition of farms by native Namibians. Although the possibility of expropriation with fair compensation remained open, this option was seldom attempted by the Ministry of Land Reform (MLR), while no comprehensive policy was put in place for the systematic implementation of expropriation. In contrast, WSWB and AALS were the object of an extensive administrative and regulatory apparatus. As for the other side of the coin of the apartheid system, the native homelands, the years following the 1991 Land Conference witnessed the adoption of the mainstream policies of the time: registration of communal land rights and creation of small-scale farms on individually-granted leases at selected sites. Arguably, both measures have the final aim of substituting customary tenure regimes for private property regimes by gradually transforming land into a marketable commodity. Somehow contradictorily, the implementation of these policies resulted in the reinforcement of the role and power of Traditional Authorities.
However, the main reason behind the executive decision to organize the Second National Land Conference was perhaps the little success of the WSWB system in effecting extensive land redistribution. Being such a politically sensitive issue, and a publicly debated one throughout post-independence decades, the lack of success and the absence of plausible answers on the side of government implied increasing political risks no longer possible to obviate. The Conference was initially scheduled for September 2017, but finally postponed to the last quarter of 2018. The postponement allowed for the organization of regional preparatory meetings. In this process some Traditional Authorities, political leaders and social movements such as the Landless People’s Movement (LPM) and the Affirmative Repositioning (AR) movement came with a strong revival of ancestral land claims. The anger produced by a general sentiment that the resettlement programme under WSWB had been elite-captured and ethnically-biased fueled claims to make publicly available the list of resettlement beneficiaries. The former Deputy Minister of Land Reform, Bernardus Swartbooi resigned from his post in December 2016 to become part of the LPM, while former SWAPO Party Youth League Secretary for Information, Job Amupanda, now leader of AR, pressed on issues such as the urban land question and, most of all, the truly agitating novelty coming with the South African winds: the claim for land expropriation without compensation.
The sensitivity of these issues became heated during preparations for the Conference in two ways. First, some SWAPO and government members affirmed that ancestral land claims should “not be entertained”, arguing that it would bring ethnic conflict and undermine the one-Namibia-one-Nation project. Leaders of social movements and Traditional Authorities insisted on ancestral land claims as a condition for them to recognize the legitimacy of the Conference. Regarding expropriation without compensation, the positions were less polarized. Influenced by the events in South Africa after the ANC and parliament had proposed constitutional changes to allow for this measure, voices for and against were heard from all the political constituencies in Namibia. Second, the organizational process of the conference was protracted and obscure. Just a few days before the opening, many stakeholders still didn’t even know if they were supposed to participate. When the final draft of the Conference program was leaked, it turned up that LMP and AR leaders had been left out. There was confusion over this issue, even though these leaders were finally included, they called for a boycott of the event, accusing government of organizing a face-washing hoax. The Civil Society Forum and several Traditional Leaders joined the boycott. However, not all of them kept their word. Anyhow, the credibility of the Conference was put into question even before it’s opening.
To summarize here the proceedings and outcomes of the Second National Land Conference would require more space. I will rather select some of the statements that I find more revealing. It is worth starting with the speeches of the two ex-presidents of Namibia, Sam Nujoma and Hifikepunye Pohamba. Somehow surprisingly given their inaction during their leadership, they both came up with the most (apparently) radical proposal heard at the conference: to nationalize all land. Socialist rhetoric is still common in Namibia, but actual socialist politics are not, as presidential terms served by both ex-presidents precisely show. However, some political interpretations might explain their positions. Nujoma and Pohamba are, arguably, main figures of what can be defined as the compradorial pact between a politically reformed SWAPO wing and the “international community”. A pact that led to the negotiated transition to independence. SWAPO’s turning point from socialism to politics of “reconciliation” was the acceptance of the UN-imposed constitutional principles in 1982. The comprador label fits well, as shown by the little disturbance suffered by white interests in independent Namibia. Needless to say, a compradorial pact implies the lack of promotion of an indigenous-led capitalist development.
In analogy with the observable contrast between Jacob Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa in South Africa, the current President Hage Geingob represents, on the other hand, the bourgeois wing of the ruling party. Geingob leads those interested in the development of an indigenous productive bourgeoisie that clashes with the political interests of the parasitic compradorial elite and competes with the white domination of the economy. Such a bourgeois class project is rather concerned about extensive land redistribution to the extent that control over land, in Namibia, is a necessary condition to undermine the white privileged position, become independent economic agents and ultimately get relatively freed from entrenched foreign interests. This thus enables the growth of a national class. With such depiction of the Namibian political scene, one can stay assured that in a comprador-dominated state, one where the nationalization of land would have little to do with a project of land socialization Examples abound elsewhere in Africa, as land grabbing proceeds with the connivance of comprador-dominated states. However, it might also be the case that the radical statements by Nujoma and Pohamba were just intended to satisfy part of the audience as well as to agitate white fears Anyhow, the message was delivered and land nationalization was not considered further at all.
Bluntly neo-liberal discourses were amply heard at the meeting. One could expect those warning about market instability, impacts on foreign investment and the sacred status of private property to come from financial institutions representatives, like the head of the Bank of Namibia. But scholars such a Wofgang Werner also joined this team. In advocacy of liberal common-sense, he argued that the main problem in communal lands is lack of credit and the best way to solve it is to make land “bankable” (in other words, to commoditise it). Regarding ancestral land claims, the known stark positions for and against were heard, although Willem Odendaal reminded the audience that in the previous Conference these claims were not rejected (as it is usually understood). Rather, the 1991 resolutions had only acknowledged that such claims would be difficult to satisfy “in full”, given their overlapping nature. The final proposal pointed to a possible reconciliation of the opposing stances. It consisted on granting a quota of 70% of resettled farms to the peoples who actually lost their land under colonialism, and leave the remaining 30% for peoples coming from other regions. This proposal recognizes the uneven nature of colonial land dispossession and the need for material reparations, but without excluding anyone. However, the final resolutions enclosed the proposal of the War Veterans Association to include them, and their dependents, into the 70% reserved for the dispossessed peoples. In Namibia most of the armed liberation struggle was fought in the north of the country, where no land dispossession occurred during colonialism. Therefore, the inclusion of veterans and dependents implies that virtually all the population from these northern regions qualify to the resettlement farms supposedly reserved for the descendants of colonial land dispossession and genocide. The matter is far from being solved.
Even less clear than the solution adopted about land reform beneficiaries, was the Conference’s resolution on the formula for land acquisition. According to the resolutions, The WSWB principle “should be abolished and replaced with alternative acquisition methods”. These alternatives were not made explicit, except for expropriation “with just compensation” of “foreign-owned farms, underutilized land, [and] absentee landlords”. Although constitutional changes were discarded, expropriation without compensation was not ruled out just as it was stated that the door remains open to define “just” in accordance to considerations of past injustices. To date, it appears that there is no general land acquisition policy in place in Namibia. The Conference also noted the urban land question in Namibia as a matter of “national humanitarian crisis”, while proposals to grant tenure rights to generational farm workers on retirement were included in the final resolutions. With regards to the veterinary cordon fence that isolates northern regions from international markets, it was decided to “gradually remove” it, as was the intention since 1991 and repeatedly postponed due to technical veterinary impediments.
Some elements at the conference initially proposed that the resolutions should be treated as mere “recommendations”, but due to stiff opposition, it was decided that what came out of the meeting should be resolutions. It can however be concluded that the resolutions were vague with regards to the burning land question in Namibia. This means that a solution to the Namibian land question might again not be implemented for decades to come, as was the case with the resolutions adopted at the 1991 Conference. However, one may expect that the bourgeois-led class project will demand otherwise, and that an effective and extensive land redistribution will finally take place in one way or another. What did not happen at the Second National Land Conference was the adoption of a new national pact on the land question. This national pact, given the political and economic relevance of land in Namibia, amounts to a renewed national project; one able to conciliate the different interests involved, cutting across a variety of social cleavages. Arguably, this new and widely agreed national project is what is needed if conflicts between Namibians, which only benefit the comprador-imperial alliance, are to be avoided and replaced by a genuine and inclusive path of national development.
* Pablo Gilolmo is a PhD Candidate in Human Rights in Contemporary Societies at the Center for
Social Studies, University of Coimbra; holder of an FCT scholarship (Ref.: PD/BD/114079/2015).
Editing: Freedom Mazwi and Boaventura Monjane
 Excluding protected areas and municipal land. Calculated from data in: Namibia Statistic Agency (2018). Namibia Land Statistic Bulletin. September 2018. Windhoek: NSA.
 See Chambati, W. (2017). Changing Forms of Wage Labour in Zimbabwe’s New Agrarian Structure. Agrarian South: Journal of Political Economy, 6(1), 1-34.
 And mostly with no success due to the legal challenges posed by farm owners (see Harring, S. & Odendaal, W. (2008) Kessl: A New Jurisprudence for Land Reform in Namibia? Windhoek: Legal Assistance Centre).
 Borras, J. & Franco, J. (2010). Contemporary Discourses and Contestations around Pro-Poor Land Policies and Land Governance. Journal of Agrarian Change, 10(1), 1-32.
For a more extensive analysis, see also: Moyo, S. (2008) African Land Questions, Agrarian Transitions and the State: Contradictions of Neo-liberal Land Reforms. Dakar: CODESRIA.
 Inevitably many of the topics addressed at the Conference will be left out here. All final resolutions are available at: http://www.mlr.gov.na/documents/20541/638917/Second+National+Land+Conference+Resolutions+2018.pdf/15b498fd-fdc6-4898-aeda-91fecbc74319
 See Kaapama, P. (2007) Commercial land reforms in postcolonial Namibia. What happened to liberation struggle rhetoric? In: Melber, H. (Ed.): Transitions in Namibia. Which Changes for Whom? Uppsala: NAI. Pp: 29-49.