Kgalagadi land wars: Rich farmers vs Basarwa

Land is a highly contested resource in Botswana. In Kgalagadi District, the main groups competing for land are rich farmers, small farmers, farm workers and San groups. In Ngamiland District, the main competitors are rural communities of mixed ethnicity and tour operators.

We contend that the different groups of rural communities have over time been the main losers as land which they use for grazing and/or gather of veldt resources continues to shrink as it is sliced off for other uses.

The main problem is that there is no platform for all stakeholders to negotiate their rights and claims during the policy development process. The marginalisation of poor rural communities, notably indigenous groups, has arisen historically. In this respect, Mazonde (1998, 41) argues that “the policies of land allocation fall within the framework of the country’s overall development pattern”.

In Botswana, the political economy of the country has not only had a role in shaping the general development strategy, but has also had an influence on the policy choice for land management and land use. Dikgosi (chiefs) were pivotal to pre-colonial land distribution and use. Within the power given to them by the people, Dikgosi, headmen and elders allocated and administered land within their territories. This was a locally-based system which accommodated impressive levels of participation by the local people and their immediate leaders.

However, this changed as political power shifted from the people and Dikgosi to the colonial administration. The administration started to indirectly control land use by controlling Dikgosi. This shift set in motion a process that has, subsequent to Independence, defined the path of land management and access in Botswana by making it centralised.

The centralisation of land resources management has meant that a complex web of sectoral institutions is used to manage land resources, excluding the communities and their leaders, rendering them losers in the land competition.

As a result, other users such as the rich farmers in Kgalagadi and the tourism industry in Ngamiland (and the government in both cases) are winners in the contest for access and ownership of land.

At the same time, the concept of sustainable development advocates fairness and equal access to resources by all user groups. This is aimed at ensuring equity in the distribution of costs, benefits, decision-making and management, which at least in theory is expected to eradicate poverty.

In the case of land reforms in Ngamiland and Kgalagadi districts, sustainable development has been completely ignored as the needs, views and wishes of the rural communities were not taken into consideration. A top-down approach in land management and reforms was adopted by government as observed by the adoption of the Tribal Grazing Land Policy of 1975, National Policy on Agricultural Development of 1991, Wildlife Conservation Policy of 1986 and related land policies.

The failure to include all stakeholders – particularly local people – in the decision-making process reflects the tendency in national policy-making in Botswana to disregard multiple interests and the knowledge systems particularly of the indigenous poor. Magole (2009) notes that often policy processes do not create a platform for all stakeholders to negotiate their stake or to contribute and influence decisions.

Government only seemingly listens to “experts” who rarely have to live with the consequences of their own advice.

The resulting land reforms therefore have significantly reduced the amount of land accessible to communities for collective use, especially for grazing in Kgalagadi and Ngamiland Districts. While it is often argued that crown land reverted to communal after Independence, this is only true insofar as major tenure classifications are concerned; otherwise no new areas were opened up for use by the people in these two districts. In both districts, the process of regressive land reforms continues, as more and more communal land is converted into leasehold ranches under the fencing policy of 1991 and by way of tourism activities as new conservation and tourism development initiatives are pursued. This has severely reduced chances for sustainable land use and management. We argue that the current land management system is unlikely to help the nation achieve the three pillars of sustainability (namely, social justice, economic progress and environmental integrity) and in fact it is a barrier to sustainability.

*The article is an excerpt from Land Struggles and Civil Society in Southern Africa edited by Kirk Helliker & Tendai Murisa (first published in 2011, Africa World Press)


Land conflicts: A timeline

While land conflicts have simmered over the decades, in recent years, a few have hit the newspaper headlines, stunning and depressing land-hungry Batswana

2011:  The initial Tlokweng land allocation raffle for 285 plots is held amid controversy, following the interview of candidates in 2009. Batlokwa argue that they should be given first priority and feel disrespected by the raffle system

2012: The Tlokweng raffle is held afresh, causing even more controversy as well as friction between the Land Board and villagers. Tribesmen approach the Land Tribunal for intervention

2013: Thousands of people throng the Malete Land Board in order to apply for the 385 advertised residential plots. Thousands camp outside the Land Board offices in Ramotswa overnight awaiting their chance to submit applications

2014: Seventeen appellants who dragged the Tlokweng Land Board emerge victorious at the Land Tribunal, in their suit challenging the authority’s raffle system

2014: A 20-year dispute between the Tlokweng Land Board and the Matlapeng family over a piece of land in the village, takes a new turn when the land authority forcibly removes a fence erected by the family around the property

2014: A near stampede catches Mahalapye Sub Land Board authorities off-guard as thousands gather in hopes of grabbing application forms for plots to be awarded in Mokoswane village

2014: A sea of people besiege Oodi Sub-Land Board offices following the land authority’s announcements that it will receive applications for residential plots. Thousands participate in a night vigil outside the offices, hoping to snap up at least one of the 400 plots on offer

2014: Assistant Minister of Trade and Industry, Vincent Seretse stuns Batswana when he says the nation is divorced from reality and Batswana should accept that not everyone can own land. Some will have to rent, he says

Editor's Comment
What about employees in private sector?

How can this be achieved when there already is little care about the working conditions of those within the private sector employ?For a long time, private sector employees have been neglected by their employers, not because they cannot do better to care for them, but because they take advantage of government's laxity when it comes to protecting and advocating for public sector employees, giving the cue to employers within the private sector...

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