Could South Africa and Namibia go the way of Zimbabwe?

It seemed as if these chiefs — who would otherwise prefer secure property rights — were suffering from distributive conflicts over land and a lack of information about their boundaries and the extent of allocations. Common sense seemed to dictate that if lands were dutifully surveyed, demarcated, and adjudicated, and chiefs were given registers in which they could record allocations, they would surely avoid infringing on each other’s parcels and end these problems. So I asked Muntari [the local Ghanaian planning official] what the state was doing to help chiefs solve these distributive conflicts and information problems.

Muntari’s response was unsettling. He claimed that, after working with chiefs for seventeen years, he had come to the conclusion that chiefs did not want clear boundaries, functional property registers, and an environment devoid of disputes. He argued that the chiefs would sabotage any effort to provide these features. According to Muntari, in the absence of such mechanisms, cash-strapped, land-hungry chiefs could conveniently “mistakenly” allocate the lands of neighboring chiefs or sell land that their ancestors had sold earlier. Further, where tenants engaged in subversive political behavior, chiefs could conveniently award their rights to more loyal subjects…

Simply put, chiefs did not want property rights security.

That from a new book by Ato Onoma on the politics of property rights in Africa.

“Institutions rule” is the new refrain in economic development. Onoma might agree, but his book is a frontal assault on the simple notion that property rights reforms will  produce de Soto-style development and prosperity — or that land reforms will ever be honestly executed in the first place. So the book is not just for Africanists, but (maybe more importantly) anyone interested in modern institutional development, policy reform, and the state.

Onoma’s example from rural Ghana sounds a lot like like the national scene in Zimbabwe. Possibly the best bit of the book is the conclusion, where he extends his argument to Zimbabwe and shows why South Africa and Namibia could go down a similar path.

The basic argument: there are forces in these societies that can benefit from using land as a political weapon, and conditions like large-scale land hunger and a sense of historical injustice make a dramatic switch possible, from progressive land reform regime to polarizing pariahs. It pays to remember that,  not so long ago, Zimbabwe was considered a model for peaceful land reform.

It’s a pity the publisher hasn’t released a paperback or Kindle version. Academic publishers like Cambridge need to shed their crusty ways. Check back soon if the hardback price makes you wince.

5 thoughts on “Could South Africa and Namibia go the way of Zimbabwe?

  1. I personally think this touches a most interesting field of study. I can warmly recommend Violence and Social Orders by Douglass North et al.

  2. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that that’s true. After spending some time talking with villagers in Oblogo — where Accra’s landfill was located against their will (but with the absentee chief’s backing) — it was pretty obvious that ambiguity benefited both the chief, and the City officials. The Chief got paid, the city got its dump, and the villagers got leachate in their river (most of them being fishers, naturally)…

  3. Not to diminish the economic and political incentives for chiefs to maintain weak territorial property rights, but the anecdote makes me think about the social prestige derived from chief’s dispute resolution skills. Outsourcing the adjudication of disputes, even if the actual number of disputes falls, to courts and lawyers might be a big threat to people whose social standing and esteem come from their (and their lineages) historic ability to wisely manage conflicts over land rights.

  4. This story reminds me of behaviour I often see in India. At various levels – individual, municipal, provincial, or federal – decision-makers act in ways to benefit one particular constituency – their own family, caste, religion, political party and so on – and not for the greater good. Maybe it’s just my subjective experience, but many of the discussion around many issues has become much more “local” than it used to be – shorter-term, constituency-based thinking vs. longer-term and more encompassing thinking. And it saddens me terribly to feel that the country has regressed in some ways – although external pressures (ie drought, famine, risk of war) have lessened, internal pressures have increased (my land, my job, my university education, all based on caste, for example, or my x% of the water, vs. overall water management increasing total water available).

    But then again, I have hope that different parties can overcome these differences and work together for a greater good, based on engaged and mobilized stakeholders and an effective dispute-resolution framework. As long as the democracy isn’t sabotaged, I think it could work out well.

  5. Jacob Black-Micheaud made the same point in his classic study Feuding Societies. Feuds (or, in this case, allocation of land rights) are the currency of power, and constant adjustments test and reflect the current balance. It’s not just the chiefs – all those in the power system have a stake in maintaining ambiguity, in the same way that elections keep oppositions alive and waiting.