HAVING IT ALL: African tribal leaders continue to do as they please with communal land. Picture: EPA
HAVING IT ALL: African tribal leaders continue to do as they please with communal land. Picture: EPA
Communal land, vested under control of traditional leaders, chiefs and kings rather than individual owners, is one of the biggest obstacles to development, industrialisation and economic growth in Africa.

In most African countries, traditional leaders, chiefs and kings run communal land as if they own it, use it for patronage purposes, and punish those critical of them by depriving them of communal land rights.

To unlock Africa’s potential, giving communal land to individual owners should be the key pillar of land reform programmes.

The communal land system locks the majority of Africans into poverty, undermines their individual entrepreneurial spirit and make them subservient to mostly tyrannical traditional leaders and kings.

Control of communal land must be immediately taken away from traditional leaders, chiefs and kings. This would herald the greatest transformation in Africa since the end of colonialism, apartheid and white-minority rule.

It would be the single most catalytic policy, will overhaul the structure of the economy, the societal distribution of resources and bring about social equality - the lack of which is one of the greatest obstacles to development, democracy and peace in Africa.

Africa’s development, industrialisation and economic growth is stunted by the fact that in many countries some people - particularly traditional leaders, authorities, chiefs and kings, and increasingly the leading families of independence and liberation movements - are perceived to socially, culturally and ethnically have more social status and value than ordinary citizens.

Reforms would unleash energy, entrepreneurship and initiative not yet seen on the continent.

Without individual title deeds, individual rights to property and ownerships, Africa will be unable to release the continent’s untapped development potential. In fact, without individual ownership, African communal farmers cannot take “time and effort”, take risks and create “value” - namely producing at scale for the market, beyond providing for themselves and their families.

Any “value” that would be created by individual farmers on communal land is in danger of being siphoned off by unscrupulous traditional leaders, chiefs and kings. Yet, unless Africa’s vast numbers of peasant farmers shift gear and begin to go beyond producing monocrops they have grown up with or just grazing cattle for meat and milk for themselves, to add value to these or to produce new products not available in their communities and countries, Africa will remain poor, underdeveloped and needing to import basic foodstuff and products. At the moment most of Africa’s genuine entrepreneurs are in the informal sector producing monocrops or grazing cattle.

These grassroots entrepreneurs need to innovate in their own contexts - producing new crops or new products not available in their communities or country, or adding value to existing ones. But they must also look at new ways to manage their enterprises, whether pooling their savings, to scale-up, and to add value to and securing new markets for their products.

Given the fact that most African countries after independence inherit economies without much advanced industry, skills and financial resources, entrepreneurs, who could add value to raw materials, leverage technology to come up with new methods of production, introduce entirely new industry sectors and manufacture products, were desperately needed.

Most African countries are dominated by a public sector and an informal sector - the latter often mostly agriculture. Most of the employment in many African countries is in the informal sector, specifically agriculture, where households eke out a living as subsistence farmers on communal land, producing just about enough for their families.

The formal sector, or the private sector in most African countries, is often very tiny. During colonialism, all colonial powers used the communal system to great effect to keep Africans in poverty, in subservience and debasing their value as human beings. Colonial, apartheid and white-minority governments deliberately ran a dual governance system, whereby whites were served separately by the colonial, apartheid and white minority governments and by representative institutions and laws applicable in the “mother country”.

The “natives” or “subjects” were served by traditional authorities, chiefs and kings. The colonial, apartheid or white-minority governments’ strategy was that the traditional chief, authorities and kings would implement the colonial subjugation policy on behalf of the colonial government.

Colonial, apartheid and white-minority governments chose the traditional authorities, chiefs and kings, if they were absent, or if the existing ones were not docile enough, they established new ones. These traditional authorities, chiefs and kings were expected to pliantly follow the colonial government line.

The traditional authorities, chiefs and kings were allowed to run communal land as if it was theirs, treat their “subjects” autocratically, and interpret existing traditional customs, customary law and rules in whatever way they saw fit, as long as this did not undermine the colonial government. In some cases, these traditional leaders, authorities and kings would even create their own “traditional” customs, customary law, courts and rules.

Any of the “subjects” who objected would be severely punished, paying a heavy fine, deprived of grazing rights or even driven off the communal land. Colonial, apartheid and white-minority governments would often endorse or reinforce the most autocratic elements of “traditional” customs, customary law and rules.

Sadly, at the end of colonialism, apartheid and white-minority regimes, African liberation and independence movements adopted the same dual system, this time allowing traditional authorities, chiefs and kings to rule their local “subjects” on condition they get their “subjects” to vote for the independence or liberation movement government or leader.

In return for having untrammelled feudal power, African traditional chiefs and authorities made sure that their “subjects” voted for the ruling party, repressed and isolated critics of the unequal system, accusing them of wanting to be “white”, of “rejecting” their own culture and of being “agents” of the colonial or Western powers.

In many post-independence African countries, traditional leaders and authorities retained their power over communal land, their “subjects” and traditional culture.

More often than not they abused such powers for their own enrichment, leaving the vast majority of Africans living in rural areas as feudal “subjects”, living in abject poverty, as well as controlling almost every part of their lives, and even who they should vote for.

A key to African reforms of the traditional system must be to cancel the colonial-era system of a separate “customary law”, traditional customs and rules for the “natives” or indigenous people.

Unless African countries drastically reform the system of communal land, giving the ownership directly to individuals, families and households, entrepreneurship will remain stagnant, countries will continue to be underdeveloped and economic growth will remain stunted.

* William Gumede is chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation. His latest book is Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times