"Land is a major resource in women's livelihood strategies. However, in general women are discriminated against in terms of the robustness of their rights in land, and this can create severe hardships for them and for those who depend on them. Generally their rights in land are secondary rights, derived through their membership in households and secured primarily through marriage," analyst Cherryl Walker said in a study on women's access to land.
Countries that were "settled" under colonialism - Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe - share a similar profile of racially skewed land distribution, dual tenure systems based on received law and customary law, and a dispossessed black rural population confined to degraded and overcrowded communal lands. Land is a highly charged issue. South African land expert Scott Drimie explained that, for Southern Africa, reform must be seen in the context of restitution. "The primary reason is about history. There are vast inequalities that have to be addressed for historical and economic reasons."
The reality has been that governments have failed to allocate the financial and human resources needed to address the land issue, said a think-tank of land experts who met earlier this year in South Africa. A common view is that governments in the region have been complicit in the preservation of land alienated by a powerful elite. Even liberation movements, once in power, are often accused of dropping their radicalism, preferring to join the privileged. Political commitment to land redistribution has been followed by a switch of emphasis to so-called economic goals, rather than the eradication of landlessness and/or poverty.
"Indeed, debates about land reform everywhere have seen a confrontation between those who believe that land reform must be centred on the redistribution of ownership (or land rights over) productive agricultural land in favour of the rural poor, and those opposed to extensive redistribution, who wish the reform to focus on measures to raise agricultural productivity and/or create a new class of (black) African commercial farmers," the think-tank noted. The received wisdom is that small is beautiful and small-scale farmers are invariably more productive than large estates. However, new comparative studies are beginning to suggest that in Southern Africa this might not always hold true, and small family farms may not be able to compete so well in increasingly liberalised and competitive markets. "Where rains are both unpredictable and unreliable, which is over much of the region, the mechanised farmer can readily take advantage of favourable soil moisture conditions... This flexibility is not available to small-scale farmers dependent on borrowed oxen or draught animals weakened by fodder shortages during the long dry season," the think-tank said. But Drimie believes the small-scale versus large-scale debate "may in many ways be a false dichotomy in terms of policy choices". Rather than a blanket model, a more nuanced blend based on location (climate, land suitability) and resources within a context of rural development would better achieve poverty alleviation.