Botswana's Freehold Land Problem (Part 1):Ghanzi

Although freehold land makes up a seemingly meager 5-6% of all the land in Botswana, the economic value of the land cannot be overstated enough. From most of the country's beef produce coming from the freehold farms and ranches in Ghanzi, to a majority of the country's tourism activity taking place in the freeholds of Tuli Block to the sprawling and magnificent real estate in the Phakalane and Ruretse freeholds, it is clear that freehold lands hold major economic significance.

However, as a result of numerous historical happenings including pre-independence colonial administration which demarcated most of the country's desirable fertile and valuable land to white settlers, most freehold land, despite its unquestionable economic value, serves as a constant reminder and enabler of the country's dire income inequality. In this blog series, I will be exploring the history of numerous major freehold lands in Botswana, how they came to be, and the impact their being had and continues to have in the country's various socio-economic issues.


Ghanzi land distribution

When the first batch of Afrikaner settlers arrived in Ghanzi in 1895 and then later again in 1898 on their "Great Trek" to escape British rule in the Cape, 41 families were granted land amounting to over 5000 morgens each which equate to over 4000 hectares by the then Ngamiland Resident Commissioner, Major Francis Panzera with the insistence of the British South Africa Company(BSAC) owned by Cecil Rhodes.

Most scholars concur that the Bechuanaland Protectorate was actually set up to offer protection to Rhodes and the BSAC's plan to set up a British empire stretching from the Cape to Cairo through the Protectorate which explains why Rhodes had control, together with the colonial administration, on who could occupy land in the Protectorate, in this case, Ghanzi. Rhodes was already providing Border Police services for the Protectorate. The eventual plan, which failed for several reasons, was to give total control of the Protectorate to Rhodes in order to defer administrative costs of the useless Protectorate.

Although the land was already occupied by mostly Basarwa as well as some pastoral farming tribes like the colored people from the Northern Cape, Bakgalagadi, Baherero who had fled German colonial rule from neighboring South West Africa (now Namibia) and the Barolong who had fled British colonial taxation laws, the colonial administrators as well as the BSAC classified the land as uninhabited and unused and proceeded to allocate it to the arriving white settlers.

Initially, the colonial administration and the BSAC granted the land to the white settlers on a leasehold basis to serve as a buffer against German expansion from Namibia to the West which would have derailed Rhodes' ambitious "road to the north" plans. The settlers then had no agriculture use for their newfound vast gift as they were mostly unskilled in the field and chose to rather used the land as holdings for cattle purchased from natives which were then sold in neighboring South Africa.

Despite an increase in the number of white settler farms by around 130 additional farms in the 1950s, the white settlers were still not pulling any muscle in the agricultural sector. Apart from the lack of skilled knowledge, the settlers were also severely undercapitalized to attempt any significant development of their gifts from the colonial administration and the British South Africa Company. Almost half a century from their arrival in Ghanzi, the settlers remained socially, economically, and politically impotent.

From the late 1920s, the white settlers had been given a lifeline by the colonial administration with the establishment of the Land and Agricultural Loan Fund which conveniently excluded native farmers. Through the fund, the unskilled settler farmers were able to weather the turbulent post-Great Depression and drought period in the 1930s.

So while the settler farmers used the capital from the colonial administration which they did not need to pay back though it was classified as a "loan" to produce ensilage and also construct boreholes, native farmers saw most of their stock wiped out by a combination of factors include poor markets as a result of a weak economy post the Depression and the ensuing drought period. The settlers' newfound comparative advantage allowed them to purchase a lot of livestock from the natives at ridiculously low prices as the latter could not sustain their herds without any access to capital and the presence of drought. Impoverished, the natives had to accept their new reality which was being relegated to mere wage-labor force on the settlers' farms.

As aforementioned, initially, the colonial administration had allocated the land in Ghanzi to the white settlers on a leasehold basis but this, however, changed from the mid-1950s with the Land Settlement Scheme. Under the scheme, the administration aimed to enable the rapid commercialization of the Ghanzi land by way of ranch development. Prior to this period, ranch development had been nonexistent as it was difficult for settler farmers to acquire capital by way of loans and bonds as they were mere leaseholders of their granted land. The Land Settlement Schemed aimed to convert most of the land held on lease into freehold land and sell it to settler farms, allowing them more room to embark on large scale commercialization.

To facilitate this process, the colonial administration embarked on a quest to survey and fence most of the previously leasehold land. This aroused a lot of interest from mostly white South African farmers who heard of this cheap land through newspaper advertisements. This success was evidenced by the over 127 farms which had been surveyed, fenced, and sold to the white South African farmers on a freehold basis by January of 1960, these white settlers becoming the first wave of cattle barons currently present in the Ghanzi area.

In 1965, more farms measuring between  4000 and 8000 hectares were again surveyed, fenced, and sold by the colonial administration on a freehold basis. To make the land more viable for commercial use, the administration went as far as building cattle routes and drilling boreholes along the cattle route from Ghanzi to the Lobatse abattoir. It was clear that the colonial government was determined to do anything to assist white settler farmers to commercialize whilst native farmers had to either do with what they had or sell their herds to the settler farmers and proceed to work for them.

To make it even easier for the settler farmers to develop their land, the government allowed rebates to be given on boreholes which were found to be blank and this was deducted from the total price of the farm, significantly reducing the installment the settler farmer had to pay. Secondly, a Crown grant was given to farmers who had paid at least fifty percent of the total amount for a farm. Thirdly, the colonial administration used money paid for sold farms to set up the Agricultural Loan Fund which allowed undercapitalized farmers access to capital to purchase farms themselves. 

Other measures afforded by the British administration included setting up an agricultural bank (later became the National Development Bank) to extend credit to farmers, deliberate underpricing of land to enable easy purchase by white settlers, easing of loan payment terms, guaranteed markets, government subsidies, availing agricultural demonstrators to educate the settlers and investment in veterinary resources on cattle trek routes among many others.

Through the backing of the colonial government, white settler farmers who had arrived in Ghanzi without knowing a thing about farming, let alone large scale commercial farming were elevated to highly successful commercial farmers while native farmers, on the other hand, were swallowed up by the new elites. In hindsight, it is clear that through affording the settler farmers so much help, the colonial government aiming to kill off competition from native farmers and relegate them to settler farmer peasantry and cheap farm labor.

Despite efforts by the new government post-colonialism to undo the inequalities in land distribution caused by the racist policies of the British colonial government, the inequality still lingered on. A few years post-independence, on average English-speaking white settler farmers still held about 25 000 hectares of land each in the Ghanzi area and Afrikaner white settler farmers held about 8500 hectares each.

Today, of Ghanzi's 117,910 square kilometers area, freehold farms occupy about 18530 square kilometers some, if not most of which are still occupied by the descendants of the white settlers who got the land not by the sweat of their brow but by virtue of the racist policies of the British colonial administration at the expense of native farmers whose descendants still toil in the same farms their grandparents toiled in.

PS: This article would not have been possible without the work of  University of Botswana scholar Wazha Morapedi on his paper titled "The Settler Enclaves of Southern Africa and The African Peripheral Areas (Reserves): The Case of The Ghanzi and Tati White Farming Districts of Botswana,1898-1970

Please purchase it HERE.


  1. Hmmm,pretty interesting.
    Looking forward to reading more on these.

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  4. Wow! Such a nice blog, thank you for sharing this informative article with us and please continue to make valuable contributions like this. Looking for any erp software in chennai with free consultation.

  5. Enlightening read. Maybe the colonialists should assist Botswana in buying back thier un used landl , especially the Tati land ,on a willing buyer willing seller basis


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