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Tinkering on the fringes? Redistributive land reforms and chronic poverty in Southern Africa

Admos O. Chimhowu



Land redistribution is often seen as a powerful tool in the fight against poverty in areas where a majority of people are rural-based and make a living mostly, if not entirely, off the land. In Southern Africa, landlessness due to the asset alienation that occurred during colonial occupation has been acknowledged as one of several ultimate causes of chronic poverty. Strategies for poverty reduction therefore tend to focus on addressing the resultant imbalance in access to, and ownership of land resources. Land redistribution is thought to offer poor people secure livelihoods, as well as impartible assets to bequeath to future generations, hence reducing inter-generational transfers of poverty. In addition to redistribution, tenure reform is thought to help some landed but vulnerable households secure their livelihoods through enhanced rights to land. This has been known to spur poor households to increase investment on land, and lead to better production and higher productivity. This paper looks at land reforms in Southern Africa, making five key observations with respect to land reforms and poverty in the region: First, although there is political appetite for deracialising land holding, there is little evidence to show a commitment to link this process to poverty reduction. In all three countries under investigation - Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe - policy rhetoric on land as a poverty-reducing asset often has not been followed through with a serious commitment of resources, either for enhancing access to land or for supporting those that have been 'assetted'. Second, as currently designed, land reform efforts extend poverty 'traps' in the space economy rather than creating new opportunities. The quality of land provided and the terms of access both compromise the ability of beneficiaries to make a living as envisaged in plans. Third, in all three countries there has been policy capture of land reform initiatives by non-poor political and bureaucratic elite at the expense of the poor. Fourth, in all three countries, there has been reluctance to meaningfully reform customary forms of tenure seen as safeguarding the interests of the poor, yet at the same time there is growing evidence of commoditisation of land under such customary tenure that may not always work for poor households. Fifth, there is paucity of good quality data at country level for the systematic monitoring of the impact of land reforms. Monitoring and evaluation systems emerge as afterthoughts. The paper concludes that although some poor people have had their lives transformed by access to more land in the short term, there is no systematic linkage between the programmes for land reform in the region and poverty reduction. As a follow up, the paper calls for systematic research that can produce good quality qualitative and quantitative data on the impact of land reforms on the livelihoods of the beneficiaries (vulnerable non-poor, poor and chronically poor) especially in Type-1 (redistribution) and Type-2 (tenure) reform countries.

Publication Type(s)

CPRC Working Paper


assets agriculture policy politics rural Zimbabwe land reform Africa southern Africa

ISBN: 1-904049-57-5


Tinkering on the fringes? Redistributive land reforms PDF 767.0 KB

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