Namibia was a German colony from 1884 to 1914. In the decades that followed to independence in 1990, it was administered by South Africa, which imposed its oppressive system of apartheid on the population. During this time, thousands of Namibians were expelled from their lands. To this day, a large portion remains under the control of Germans and South Africans, or other foreigners: approximately 70 percent of Namibia's farmland is owned by whites. According to the Namibia Statistics Agency, socially disadvantaged black or colored citizens own only 16 percent of the land.
Up until now, white farmers only had to sell their lands back to the state on a voluntary basis. But this principle had not worked. By 2020, Namibia plans to return 43 percent of its 15 million hectares of farmland to the black population. At the end of 2015, only 27 percent of the land was redistributed, according to the Namibia Agricultural Union.
A scramble over land is currently unfolding between the socially vulnerable and another class termed the 'new elite' — those who have often have close ties with the government and international investors and who frequently benefit more compared to the poor. The government is using the policy of national reconciliation to justify this status quo.
Leader of the Landless People's Movement in Namibia, Bernadus Swartbooi, thinks this week's conference on land issues will not change anything. "The landless will remain landless, the homeless will remain homeless, nothing much will change in terms of the return of ancestral land," he told NBC state television. His organization is not participating in the conference — he was not invited to voice his concerns.
"Traditional groups are being infiltrated in this process, and our proposals are not in line with the ideology of the governing party," Naita Hishoono, the director of the Namibia Institute of Democracy (NID), told DW. She thinks that returning farmland to its original owners could have happened long ago and low-income earners from the cities should receive a piece of land from the government without payment. "We want to fundamentally restructure society and restore peoples' dignity," she says. "Civil society, academics and key country representatives are all boycotting this conference because only government institutions have any say there," she says. "It's just a public relations act." This isn't too surprising considering presidential elections are set to take place next year.
The big question over who really owns the land is still difficult to answer, Hishoono explains. "The indigenous people of Namibia do not view land as their own property — rather, it is something that belongs to everyone."