Botswana's Freehold Land Problem(Part 5):The Solution?

 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.


Over the last four blog posts, I have written about major freeholds in Botswana and how they came to be. The reason I decided to do this freehold land series was that, like many Batswana, young and old, the issue of acute shortage of land is one which concerns me and comes off as rather bizarre considering the fact that the country has a landmass of about 581 730 square kilometers and a population of a little over 2 million people.

Throughout my research for the blog series, one pattern became apparent. From the freeholds in Ghanzi to Tati and Tuli Block, it became clear that the reason that land in Botswana became freehold was mainly the result of the Protectorate administration which allocated land, through the British South Africa Company owned by Cecil Rhodes, to white settlers for different reasons as discussed in the respective blog posts.

Though it has been almost 54 years since Botswana acquired independence, the remnants of the Protectorate administration land grabs to this day still affect citizens whose ancestors lost the land many decades ago. Hundreds of thousands of citizens continue to wait for periods exceeding a decade just to be allocated a residential plot while descendants of white settlers who acquired land through dubious and mostly racist policies sit on and benefit from hundreds of thousands of hectares of land in the country.

What then can be done to address this issue of freehold land in Botswana? Throughout southern Africa, the land debate has over the last few years made its way to the front of most national conversations. This started in the early 2000s when the then Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe decided to try to rewrite the land injustices of the colonial period by expropriating, without compensation, land from white farmers who had acquired it during the colonial period.

Most recently, the Economic Freedom Fighters(EFF), the South African political party led by the eccentric Julius Malema, has made expropriation of land without compensation the tagline of their campaign if not existence as a party and as evidenced by the results of the last general elections, they are gaining a lot of ground.

Coming back to Batswana, the immense economic value of freehold land and the inequality of its ownership makes it a necessary topic to start a national dialogue on. Following the expropriation without compensation path that her neighbor Zimbabwe took might seem like the most logical way to right the wrongs created by the Protectorate administration but this path, as seen before in Zimbabwe, can do more harm than good.

When President Mugabe's administration took land away from white settlers, it was supposed to be redistributed to the people by the state, the same idea being purported by Malema and the EFF. What instead happened was that the land ended up in the hands of mostly the ZANU-PF elite and their cronies who, through lack of expertise of what to do with their newfound wealth, devalued the land, severely affecting the country's agricultural sector and eventually crippling its food security and the entire economy.

This is the main problem with the expropriation of land idea. The government. In Botswana, can we really trust a government that for over half a decade has continuously looted public funds and resources and has also failed to efficiently allocate state and tribe land under its control to be able to redistribute freehold land once it has been expropriated? The answer is no. Absolutely not. Like the Zimbabwe situation, what we are going to get, should the land get appropriated, are the political elites getting richer whilst the rest of the citizenry continue to have land problems.

A more viable option, in my opinion, would be expropriating the land, not into the hands of the state but to the tribal administrations who the land was taken from in the first place, but this again has its own shortcomings. It is important to note that before independence and the introduction of land boards who are now responsible for administering tribal land, Dikgosi were responsible for administering tribal land. With land boards, who are really a branch of the central government as they fall under the Ministry of Land Management, Water and Sanitation Services, the expropriated land will still be under the government, a situation which should be avoided at all costs. To get around this, there will be a need to have more autonomous land boards that won't be dancing to the tune of the central government and its looters.

The argument that should land get expropriated, it will be get devalued as the new owners will not have the expertise to maximize its value, is really a no issue. When the Ghanzi white settlers were given hectares on hectares of land by Cecil Rhodes towards the end of the 19th century, they did not know anything about agriculture the same way the Tuli Blocks did not know anything about tourism when they got their land. Just like how the Protectorate administration went out of its way to help the settlers learn how to maximize their land's value, the same thing can be done for the black citizens who the land will be expropriated then redistributed to.

To achieve this again circles back to the need for administrations, in this case, land board administrations, which will be removed from political influence and whose main mandate will be ensuring that expropriated land is not rendered a white elephant and devalued. This is easier to do in theory than in practice because land boards being completely autonomous does mean that no corrupt activities will be able to permeate through them. Even if the concept of land boards is dropped and tribal land is assigned to Dikgosi like in the pre-independence era, a problem of tribalism in land allocation is likely to arise as citizens not belonging to the tribe in whose land they stay in might get hard done.

As has been evident over the course of this blog series, Botswana has a major freehold land problem and as it has also been evident in this post where I was discussing possible solutions to the problem, it is not going to be an easy problem to fix but it still needs fixing nonetheless. In conclusion, I believe the best way to find a solution is a national dialogue including every affected party from the government, citizens, and the freehold landowners themselves. Only through that dialogue can we map a meaningful way forward in the freehold land conversation.