Ancestral land claims: The hot potato of land resettlement

A national consultation on the land question, culminating in the national conference on land reform held in June 1991. A significant development from this conference is the decision that restoration of ancestral land rights is not an option. The conference highlighted the complex and competing claims for land ownership that could not be harmonised, hence the decision that land would not be specifically returned or distributed to those directly affected by colonial land grabbing.

In spite of this consensus resolution, over the years there have been murmurings by some communities, calling for some form of restitution and calling for a second national conference to decide this. As we approach the second national land conference, the murmuring is turning to shouts and even threats.

We intend to approach our contribution to this discourse by being as dispassionate as we can, and limiting ourselves to ventilating the contrasting views distilled from interacting with different proponents and some literature. The idea is to bring to the fore, information that could help to address the delicate issue in a manner that is predicated on justice, fairness and equity.

The concept of ancestral land rights is itself controversial, more so in Namibia, where overlapping land claims exist and where there may be difficulty in establishing the rightful first occupants of a community dating back over at least a century.

This may explain the concern of the President Hage Geingob when he asked the question to the effect that we may have to state how far into history we are prepared to go, to establish ancestral land rights. Taking South Africa, as an example, a base date of 1913, the year of the Land Act, was used as the symbolic date.

To give an insight into a possible lacuna with the ancestral land claims, we will use one example, the changing demography of the current Omaheke Region.

We will be using an excerpt from a paper Poverty, Land and Power in the Omaheke Region written in 1995 by James Suzman for this illustration. According to this author, ovakheruwa, meaning roughly the first people, is one of the labels used to address the Ju'/hoansi people who were the first residents of the Omaheke Region, prior to the major migrations of pastoralists into the region.

The Ju'/hoansi were stated to have been trading within themselves and occasionally with outsiders for about two thousand years, and were until the eighteenth century, the only permanent residents of the Omaheke Region. The demography of the area was to change, following the migration of Tswanas, the Oorlam, and Ovaherero.

This short historical background of the current Omaheke Region illustrates some inherent difficulties in deconstructing the concept of ancestral land rights. For example, in restituting ancestral land right in Omaheke, does one ignore the current reality and restore the land to the ovakheruwa (Ju'/hoansi people)?

To simplify matters, we are therefore constrained to introduce a terminology which we think would be less complex and less complicated.

We get a general feeling that when people talk of ancestral land rights, they mostly mean land rights of those who were dispossessed of their land during the colonial era, comprising the German occupation and that of the South African apartheid regime. If that is the case, we can change the tune and focus on victims of land dispossession by the colonial regimes who we will subsequently refer to as Colonial Dispossessed Communities (CDCs).

These groups are easy to identify and we can put a date stamp to it. Following this detour from ancestral land rights, all we will be discussing further on will be based on the concept of CDC.

Having set out the premise of this article, we will now focus on the different shades of opinion being canvassed by the different stakeholders. In doing this, we will limit ourselves to the views being canvassed, without any value judgement, one way or the other.

There is a generally held view by the proponents of restitution that the resolution to foreclose ancestral land rights claims during the first national land conference should have been complimented by making CDCs, one of the priority categories of the National Resettlement Programme (NRP).

Those who hold this view further argued that for national reconciliation to work, it was not enough to focus on transfer of white land ownership to blacks but also to address the historical differences shaped by differential land dispossession.

There is also a more radical view that only those who suffered dispossession should be considered as beneficiaries of NRP.

This latest view is countered by those who argue that the war of liberation was about land and was fought by all Namibians, as the struggles affected all colonised communities equally. They further argue that not all groups suffered the same in terms of sacrifices with their lives.

There is also those who hold the view that building an integrated Namibian nation from a system characterised by spatially and politically divided ethnic homelands should take precedence over specific demands for restitution. For the holders of this view, acceding to historical facts and contradictions would run the risk of perpetuating past divisions. They therefore, will prefer that land reform and NRP be used as tools for national reconciliation, building of national unity and an integrated nation.

As we ponder on the issue of restitution, it will be germane to benefit from the lessons learnt from our neighbours, South Africa. In doing this, we will avoid the pitfalls and not repeat the same mistake. To do this, we wish to rely on a well-researched paper, (Konrad Adenauer Foundation Occasional Papers Johannesburg April 2003) by Bertus De Villiers in which he compared land reform experiences in Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa and Australia and highlighted the frustrations expressed with respect to the restitution process in South Africa. His studies showed that ancestral land rights require rigorous search and it is adversarial in nature.

Before concluding this piece, we wish to admonish all stakeholders to approach this potentially divisive issue with cool heads and sense of patriotism devoid of anger and hate.

As the October conference opens with the singing of the national anthem, we should note that we cannot honestly claim to give our love and loyalty together in unity, if we sacrifice the national interest to advance our parochial agenda.

Source: New Era Newspaper Namibia