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The BBC's George Eykyn in Namibia
"No one is forced to sell land, but if they do the state has first refusal"
 real 28k

Friday, 4 August, 2000, 14:10 GMT 15:10 UK
Namibia's burning land issue

White farmers own half the arable land
George Eykyn examines how Namibia is addressing its own land crisis.

Ten years on from independence Namibia's economy is on the slide. A third of the workforce is unemployed.


We know that we are sitting on a powderkeg.

PM Hage Geingob
This former German colony is now confronting the problem facing all its neighbours: How to redistribute the land.

Prime Minister Hage Geingob admits the government is worried saying it is the one issue that could disturb Namibia's peace.

"We know that we are sitting on a powderkeg. It is an emotive issue. But it has to be handled by leadership with care and in a fair way."

Farming

About 4,000, mostly white, commercial farmers own just under half the arable land.


Unemployment for school leavers is a potential time bomb
For men like Helmut Halenke, a third generation farmer of German descent, it's a struggle.

Returns are a tenth what they were 30 years ago.

Mr Halenke and others like him were alarmed by the violence they saw unleashed in Zimbabwe under the banner of a demand for land.

Namibia's Swapo government is committed to the principle of "willing buyer/willing seller" - which means no one is forced to sell up, but if they do the state gets first refusal.

Hundreds of farms have been offered. But few have been bought.

About half of the money the government set aside to buy commercial farms during the past five years has not even been spent.

White farmers blame the slow progress on government bureaucracy.

White farmer Helmut Halenke
Helmut Halenke: Concerned at events in Zimbabwe
Mr Halenke said he was worried when he heard the ruling party talk recently of expropriating land, legally forcing farmers to sell.

"It's very political, it just stirs up the political mood of the farmers and other citizens, " he says.

"Because today it's a farm and tomorrow it's a mine or a bank or whatever. So this is not the right way, and I don't think they will do it because there are a lot of farms they can buy."

In May, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe stood alongside his close friend Namibian President Sam Nujoma, in the north of this country.

He urged black Namibians to copy Zimbabwe's solution to land reform and was cheered.

The government's silence caused concern among its own white farmers, diplomats and investors.

It insists it won't interfere in the way that Zimbabwe has chosen to deal with the land issue.

But Mr Geingob has told the BBC that Namibia would not tolerate illegal invasions of farms. He said the rule of law would apply, and unlawful actions would be put down.

Zimbabwe revisited?

On the streets, land reform is not yet the hot issue.

Unemployment has risen to 35% and is probably higher among the young.

PM Hage Geingob
PM Hage Geingob: Has ruled out farm invasions
Each year as many as 20,000 school leavers emerge to compete for just 3,000 new jobs.

Public debt is also climbing - the result of successive years of budget deficits.

About 75% of Namibians live or work on communal farm land, owned by the state.

Their representatives, who want to see swifter progress on the land issue, argue that the distribution of farmland is inequitable, and that the government is treating white commercial farmers with kid gloves.

Paul Vleermuis of the Namibia National Farmers Union says there will be a lot of social dissatisfaction if there isn't speedy progress on redistributing land to those without.

"We might have something like what Zimbabwe is happening now. But we are not saying it will happen. It is now the right time to pro-actively look at alternative ways of land distribution," he says.

Alternative

One alternative would involve employing thousands of people to clear the bush which is encroaching rampantly on farms.

The reclaimed land would be split between the original commercial owner and black Namibians.

It is Stan Webster's idea and he has $1m from the African Development Bank but that depends on his own government backing it too.

He requires about $150,000 to kick-start the proposal.

The idea, which Mr Webster wants to turn into a pilot project, is ecologically sound: every twig and blade of grass cleared is recycled to make brickettes which can be either be burnt, or used for building.

Stan Webster, who was raised in Zimbabwe, says Namibia's white farmers and government alike should have no illusions over how fast the land issue could become explosive - a channel for anger and frustration, caused by unemployment and economic hardship, but vented on the farmers.

"Six months ago, Zimbabwe was not a lawless country. But within a very short time, everything literally collapsed in tatters," he said.

"We were too idle. We saw the candle burning, and we didn't do anything about it. We should be very conscious of that here in Namibia - our candle is burning."

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See also:

03 Aug 00 | Africa
Mugabe denies farm truce
26 Apr 00 | Africa
Who owns the land?
18 May 00 | Africa
'No land crisis in SA' - Mbeki
09 Jun 00 | Africa
Crying for the return of land
21 Mar 00 | Africa
Namibia's Nujoma sworn in
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