Africa’s prosperity lies in ownership

The rule of law, a Constitution, their faith and freehold tenure.

HOW often do we think about the issue of ownership as we traverse this world and history? Not enough, I think, yet it is so critical.

My first experience of the change that this can make was when I was about 12 years old. My father had become an alcoholic and my mother, with a very limited education, was raising four kids on a secretary's salary. We lived in a low-income suburb of Bulawayo, the second largest city in the country in a house built to accommodate British servicemen who were training as airmen at the nearby Airforce base in Khumalo in the Second World War.

We paid rent for our home which was owned by the municipality and it was very run down. As children we went to a local government high school by bike. Then out of the blue we got a letter from the city fathers to say that from then on our rent (which did not change) would become a payment on a bond which would pay for the home we lived in. The place was ours, we could sell it if we wanted to  move.

The change was immediate and dramatic. The suburb became a hive of activity as people repaired their homes, painted walls and put in additions and improvements. In five years, you could not recognise the place. We were homeowners and a few years later, we sold the property and bought elsewhere. I have never forgotten the experience.

Much later, when I was working in the capital city, the then Prime Minister Ian Smith decided to experiment with home ownership in the high-density suburbs built on the outskirts of the city. He gave people ownership of the small houses built by the local authorities and government. It had an immediate impact, it was a time when there was growing instability as the different factions of the nationalist parties fought each other. Violence was widespread, but it was largely confined to those areas where rented accommodation dominated. Where ownership reigned, the people resisted the violence in defence of what they saw as theirs.

Later on when I was working in the rural areas, I found vast areas of the country resembling semi-desert. Under traditional law and practice the traditional authorities held sway and controlled access to land rights. Nobody owned anything and as a result the areas were almost universally overgrazed and desolate. Most often population pressure was blamed and the cry was more land. I spent several years resettling people from overcrowded areas to State land.

But much later on when I was working as an economist, I was asked to write a paper on agriculture for the first donors’ conference after independence. I think that was one of the most important tasks I have ever tackled because I was able to draw on all State resources and write a paper on a clean sheet. I was shocked to discover that the commercial farming districts in the more intensive farming areas had populations little different from the rural areas in the same region. But without exception, a fence would divide the former from the latter and on one side would be devastation and degraded land conditions while on the other side of the fence was grass, conservation and relative prosperity. The difference was not weather, it was ownership.

At the time I warned the commercial farming communities that this was dangerous and a threat to them in the long term. Poverty and prosperity could not subsist divided by a barbed wire fence. This was especially so when political power crossed the fence!

When the Europeans crossed the Atlantic and settled in the United States, they brought with them many things of value. The rule of law, a Constitution, their faith and freehold tenure. When the main drive west took place, they settled on the land with small farms held by families with freehold rights. Fences went up across the land. Eventually most of the land was forcibly occupied and settled. The government was forced to create “reservations” for the indigenous people who survived. Today these reservations are almost universally poor and degraded, islands of poverty in the richest country in the world, based on ownership, capital and enterprise.

In Canada, Australia and New Zealand it was the same. In Africa, the European settlers brought the same potent mix, but unlike the above examples, did not wipe out the indigenous people, they tried it in Namibia under German tutelage, but nowhere else. As a result the indigenous people of Africa and India eventually overthrew their colonial masters and in Africa, in nearly every country, freehold title rights were maintained in urban areas but destroyed in the rural areas. Today freehold farm rights are only observed in Namibia and South Africa and are under threat in both countries.

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