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JOHANNESBURG, 29 March 2023. The Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) hosted the Southern African Regional Land Policy Dialogue to disseminate the findings of its multi-country research project on the privatisation of customary land and implications for women’s land tenure security and livelihoods. 

The event in Johannesburg, South Africa, was attended by members of parliament, government officials, traditional leaders and civil society representatives from the four focus countries – Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. We had a representative from the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Professor Cliff Sibusiso Dlamini, the Executive Director and Head of Mission for Centre for Coordination of Agricultural Research and Development for Southern Africa (CCARDESA) an instituion of SADC. Also in attendance were PLAAS director Professor Andries du Toit and PLAAS senior researcher Dr Phillan Zamchiya, who was the coordinator for the research project. 

Professor Cliff Sibusiso Dlamini, the Executive Director and Head of Mission for Centre for Coordination of Agricultural Research and Development for Southern Africa CCARDESA) an instituion of SADC.

The Land Policy Dialogue, which presented empirical analysis and evidence-based policy recommendations, was the culmination of a three-year action-research project implemented in partnership with civil society organisations and rural women’s movements in the four countries. 

The discussion was guided by the findings of the project, which was funded by the Austrian Development Agency and launched by PLAAS in July 2020.

Delegates from South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Delegates from South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Zamchiya, who gave the keynote presentation, reiterated the need for researchers to investigate how and why the formalisation of customary land rights is affecting tenure security for rural women in the four countries, and the implications for policymakers. 

For context, Zamchiya identified some of the leading trends and global narratives on gender equality and land ownership rights, saying: “Most countries, including in the global north, are struggling with how to improve land tenure security for all – especially women – and deepen democracy. A number of global instruments have been put in place to secure women’s land rights.”

He continued: “In sub-Saharan Africa and in the global south, one of the most dramatic developments is the rapid drive towards formalisation of property rights through surveying of boundaries, and registration and documentation of customary land rights, as a way to improve tenure security.” 

Dr Phillan Zamchiya addresses the delegates to the regional policy dialogue.

Dr Phillan Zamchiya addresses the delegates to the regional policy dialogue

Using the above points, and others, as examples, Zamchiya emphasised the theoretical limitations of global trends and conflicting narratives, asking, “Is the story as rosy as being suggested in all social contexts?” 

He concluded: “Given the contested nature of outcomes, we realised that the debate can no longer be enriched through ideological persuasions but by solid field-based case studies.” 

What did the women say? 
Gender equality, in terms of women’s access to land and secured ownership, is highlighted in policy recommendations based on the study’s findings. 

One example reads: “Establish a property rights framework with secure land rights for different categories of women legally equivalent to those of men, and provide clarity on the shared land

rights between women and men – that is, not undermined by other laws such as marital, family, succession and inheritance, and patriarchal practices.” 

Of note, the study found that on average – across all four countries – most women respondents want to retain customary norms on land ownership. In part, this is because they feel formal titling “is less open to patriarchal and state abuse once rights are agreed”. 

Delegates from four countries in the study in a discussion at the regional policy dialogue.

Delegates from four countries in the study in a discussion at the regional policy dialogue.

This is not to say women are satisfied with the way customary systems operate: an overhaul of patriarchal norms and practices was a key issue. Respondents also identified the need for “governance institutions within customary tenure systems” to be more democratic, gender equal and accountable. 

Widows without children, single women without children and divorcees, on the other hand, are resentful of customary tenure systems, saying they are usually treated unfairly by traditional leaders and community members.

Geographic Coverage for Research Study: Southern Africa

Geographic Coverage for Research Study: Southern Africa

Key Partnerships and Collaborations 
The research relied on country partnerships with local civic organisations and NGOs. 

In Mozambique, PLAAS worked with Livaningo. During the National Policy Dialogue, executive director Sheila Rafi noted concerns about a lack of respect for national policies, community rights, and particularly women’s land rights. Given the potential for land conflict, Rafi said civil society should ask itself if these investments can contribute to developing rural communities and women’s rights. 

  • Read more on Mozambique’s research outcomes.

In South Africa, the project partner was the Nkuzi Development Association, which made nine policy recommendations. The association is an NGO in Limpopo that works on issues relating to access to land, security of tenure, food security, management of natural resources and integrated local economic development. 

  • Read more on South Africa’s research outcomes.

In Zambia, PLAAS partnered with the Zambia Land Alliance (ZLA) and focused the research on how privatisation of land affects women in the Nyimba District of the Eastern Province. The ZLA is a network of NGOs working for pro-poor land rights and justice in land policies. It was formed during a process of land reform in the 1990s and engages in lobbying and advocacy for secured access, control, and ownership over land. 

  • Read more on Zambia’s research outcomes. 

In Zimbabwe, PLAAS collaborated with the Platform for Youth and Community Development (PYCD), a non-partisan, membership-driven organisation which mobilises and empowers communities in Manicaland Province through lobbying, advocacy and capacity building in order to promote social transformation and sustainability. 

  • Read more on Zimbabwe’s research outcomes.

Empirical Findings: What we Found on the Ground: 

  1. Who has authority over land? 
  • Across the four countries, decision-making and authority over customary land are largely vested in the executive (responsible minister and president), rural district councils and customary authorities rather than in women and men, who are the real land rights holders and users. 
  • This stems from distorted versions of African customary law as part of the apartheid and colonial legacy. 
  • A declaration by the government in any of the four countries automatically renders land the private property of the state. 
  1. Absence of consent 
  • The Southern African states are reluctant to domesticate the international principle of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC). 
  1. Women experience land tenure in socially differentiated ways 
  • Some women have lower tenure security and are the lowest-ranked beneficiaries in the tenure reforms. 
  • Single women are expected to leave family land once they are married and tend to be considered “transient” in rural cultures. 
  • A divorcee is expected to leave her husband’s land and return to the family land from which she came. 
  • Young women, in general, remain excluded as only 8.45% of respondents who acquired land in the past five years were aged between 18 and 35. 
  • Even when a married woman’s name is on the land certificate, it does not always transform gendered power relations over who controls the land. 
  1. Commodification 
  • In all four countries, formalisation is accelerating the commodification of customary land, leading to the rise of informal “land markets”. 

5) Hybrid land governance 

  • The privatisation of customary land shows there is a shift in decision-making power away

from families and communities and towards state officials, private consultants, traditional leaders and local “big men”. These individuals are sometimes connected to governing parties which challenge the authority of traditional rural “big men”. 

6a) Formalisation and access to bank loans 

  • The research found no evidence of certificates or customary land and houses being used to apply for loans from commercial banks. 
  • The land laws in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Zambia do not provide for the use of customary land as collateral. 
  • All the managers of commercial banks we surveyed said their institutions only recognise state-issued leaseholds or title deeds as proof of land ownership. 
  • On average, only 2.5% of respondents across the four countries had obtained loans using either customary land or the certificate as some form of collateral.The distribution is as follows: South Africa 4.3%, Zimbabwe 4%, Zambia 1.7% and Mozambique 0%. 6b) Formalisation and investments 
  • The data show that the acquisition of a certificate (Mozambique and Zambia) and the individualisation of property rights (South Africa and Zimbabwe) was not, on its own, sufficient to make people feel secure enough to invest. 
  • Most respondents ( 51.1%) said they were continuing to invest in their land as a way of legitimising their stay and ensuring security of tenure. This is as follows: Mozambique 34.1%, South Africa 49.7%, Zambia 60.7% and Zimbabwe 76%. 
  • Thus, although insecurity of tenure is a disincentive to invest, it is paradoxically often also an incentive because people feel investment will increase security. 

6c) Formalisation and productivity 

  • The research found no evidence directly linking agricultural productivity to the acquisition of certificates (Mozambique and Zambia). The dominant story was that the certification programme could not be linked to increased production. 
  • As a respondent explained: “The certificate will only help me to reduce conflicts over boundaries. It cannot help me to have [a] bumper harvest. But state-subsidised fertiliser will help me to have a bumper harvest. If the government can also help us with markets, because some traders short-change us…” 
  • To many women, what mattered most was linking tenure reform to large-scale state programmes that support agricultural productivity. 

7) Social conflict 

  • There are intensifying conflicts over land across the region, revealing deepening social and gendered divisions. 
  • Almost one in three households (30.3%) said land conflicts have increased over the past 10 years. The distribution within countries is as follows: Zimbabwe 59%, South Africa 49.8%, Zambia 10% and Mozambique 2.3%. 
  • The most prevalent conflicts relate to double allocations of the same parcel through corrupt practices; access to common property resources; boundaries; inheritance; divorce; new settlers and returnees; eviction by the state and private investors; and gender. 

8) Perceptions over tenure security 

  • Across our study sites, 27.5% of respondents feel insecure on their land and fear they

may lose it in the next five years. 

  • The distribution of respondents who fear losing their land to the government is as follows: Zimbabwe 84%, Mozambique 58.3%, South Africa 20%, and Zambia 20%. ● The distribution of respondents who fear losing their land to private investors is as follows: Zambia 53.3%, South Africa 40%, Mozambique 16.7%, and Zimbabwe 10%. ● Most households said common property resources such as forest land, rangelands, community grave sites and rivers are the most insecure and most likely to be grabbed by government and private investors. 

Policy Recommendations 

Policy Recommendation 1 

  • Provide for more explicit legal and social recognition and respect for customary land rights holders – both women and men – and their rights to use, access, control, own, and transfer land and other natural resources. 
  • This requires changing the colonial mindset of distorted versions of customary law and amending land laws and policies to shift the balance of power and authority over land to women and men, families, and members of the community living on customary land from traditional leaders, the executive and rural district councils. 

Policy Recommendation 2 

  • Legally recognise existing traditional and good faith occupation by individuals (women and men), families, and local communities who have been using customary land for at least 10 years. 

Policy Recommendation 3 

  • Establish a property rights framework with secure land rights for different categories of women legally equivalent to those of men, and provide clarity on the shared land rights between women and men – that is, not undermined by other laws such as marital, family, succession and inheritance, and patriarchal practices. 

Policy Recommendation 4 

  • Individualisation might work in some cases, but where there are other family members with rights, both residential and arable land rights should be vested in families to avoid the possible exclusion of other users – especially women and children – by one individual. On the other hand, common property resources should be vested in members of the community. 

Policy Recommendation 5 

  • Those who prefer to record customary land rights should – at least – first pilot cheap and context-specific geospatial digital technologies that can record multiple, nested, and layered property rights in land and flexible customary land boundaries to reflect realities of social tenure and the continuum of rights on the ground.
  • However, this should not lead to the invalidation of social tenure systems that are impossible to register. For clarity, there is still a need to recognise unregistered customary land rights. 

Policy Recommendation 6 

  • Enshrine the principle of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) in domestic land laws and policies. FPIC is an international principle that gives people (women and men) the right to give or withhold consent to developmental projects, therefore upholding the universal right to self-determination. 

Policy Recommendation 7 

  • Undertake comprehensive needs assessments to inform the development of context-specific dispute resolution frameworks that are gender-sensitive, effective, affordable, impartial, and accessible to all in order to find sustainable long-term solutions to rising land conflicts in the region. 

Policy Recommendation 8 

  • Promote equitable and secure access to and ownership of land for youth (especially young women) and women in general, as reflected in the 2009 African Declaration of Land Issues and Challenges in Africa and Aspiration 6 of the African Union Agenda 2063, intended to ensure 90% of rural women have productive assets, including land. 

Policy Recommendation 9 

  • Researchers, civil society organisations, communities, governments and development partners should develop context-specific land administration systems and gender-equal institutions that are cost-effective, transparent, and responsive to the needs of citizens in a participatory, gender-sensitive and democratic manner. Crucially, communities must be allowed the right to choose the tenure system appropriate to their circumstances. There is no “one size fits all” for the four countries. 

Policy Recommendation 10 

  • Capacitate state and non-state institutions that formulate and implement land laws and policies that promote women’s land rights, and promote gender-equal “ownership” and governance of land. 
  • Eradicating CORRUPTION in such institutions is important. 

Policy Recommendation 11 

  • Support the development or implementation of social and legal mechanisms which ensure that at least 50% of members of local and national land administration institutions are women of different statuses. 

Policy Recommendation 12 

  • Stop embracing narrow developmental policies premised on expelling women and men living and eking out their livelihoods on customary land, on the basis that African customary systems are backward and unprepared for the strict discipline of science and modern development.
  • An alternative path is to direct public investments to rural dwellers through investments upstream (inputs), midstream (production), and downstream (processing); provision of public goods; facilitation of access to markets, largely through parastatals; provision of extension services; support for institutional innovations to help rural farmers achieve economies of scale against monopolistic markets; and financial incentives that are not modelled on the credit facilities provided in the formal sector. This requires context-specific credit systems. 

Policy Recommendation 13 

  • Domesticate and ratify progressive international and continental instruments such as:
    • The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas (2018).
    • The UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (VGGT) (2012).
    • The African Union’s Guiding Principles on Large-Scale Land-Based Investments in Africa (LSLBI) (African Union, 2014).
    • The international principle of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC).

Issued by the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies 

For further information about the PLAAS study, please contact: 

Dr Phillan Zamchiya, Senior Researcher: 

About PLAAS 
PLAAS is an independent policy research institute within the Faculty for Economic and Management Sciences at the University of the Western Cape. 

About Austrian Development Cooperation 
Austrian Development Cooperation supports countries in Africa, Asia, south-eastern and eastern Europe in their sustainable development. The Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs plans the strategies. The Austrian Development Agency (ADA), the operational unit of the Austrian Development Cooperation, implements programmes and projects with public institutions, civil society organisations, as well as enterprises.