FOR THE Xhosa community in northwest Zimbabwe, land is more than a geographical space, it is a culturally unifying resource. The Xhosa community, settled in the Mbembesi area, have for more than 100 years enjoyed documented land rights.
But, while this position has fostered their cultural development, it has not been the expected ticket to economic benefits.
Holding title to land has placed the Xhosa in a position of advantage that many other Zimbabweans yearn for. Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, instituted sweeping land reforms in 2000 and the manner in which it sought to correct past colonial land inequalities became an international controversy.
More than 4 000 white commercial farmers owned nearly 15 million hectares of arable land and wildlife conservancies in Zimbabwe before 2000.
As a result of the government’s FastTrack Land Reform Programme, today less than 400 such farmers remain and more than
300 000 black farmers have gained access to land — although some argue that only the elite have benefitted, as the great majority of Zimbabwe’s population of nearly 14 million live in rural areas but lack secure rights to land.
The Xhosa people, who trace their origins to the Cape Province in South Africa, came to modern Zimbabwe a little more than 100 years ago when their ancestors were relocated to the Mbembesi area by the then-coloniser and diamond magnate, Cecil John Rhodes.
A condition of their relocation was the granting of title to the land. This legal claim that has been recognised by successive white settler governments at times other people were forced to move from fertile areas and relocated to infertile low-lying areas to make way for colonial settler farms.
According to Xhosa Chief Neville Ndondo, at one critical juncture, the Xhosawere able to use their documented title to retain land they actively occupied, although white farmers nonetheless took over vast amounts of titled Xhosa land that was unoccupied.
The right to land has bound the Xhosa community as part of their heritage, which is preserved in the common language and celebration of their cultural festivities. One example of the connection between the Xhosa culture and land is the sacred initiation rite of passage where Xhosa boys are transformed into men through circumcision, known as ukusoka.
“As soon as a son is initiated as a man he has the right to marry and be given a piece of land to start his own family,” explains Xhosa Chief Ndondo.
This intimate association of entering manhood and receiving land is emblematic of the Xhosa and the closeness of living on the land they call their own.
Historian Pathisa Nyathi says the shared history, values and belief systems have reinforced the Xhosa as a community, proving the power of culture and a shared resource in the land ownership. However, these cultural practices that have glued the community together, have done so with little attention for women’s rights to land — which, in the long run, may undermine the community’s strength. Women in the community access land primarily by marriage to Xhosa men.
Community cohesion is, in fact, facing challenges, particularly as the population grows. There is tension between the communal nature of the titled land rights and individual land rights. Chief Ndondo says while possession of title deeds has given his people inalienable rights to their land,
“If the titles were given to individuals the benefits would be greater for the descendants to use as collateral, but all the same this right has enabled us to pass on the land claim to descendants of the original title holders over generations.”
More recently, expanding population is a growing challenge. “Our population has grown, but the land has not . . . leading to crowding,” Chief Ndondo, who became Chief in 2008 after having served for 14 years as career diplomat, says.
As each new generation marries and receives land, farming parcels are further subdivided, putting limits on farm productivity. The subdivision of farming parcels is not the only challenge presented by the growing Xhosa population.
Under the land resettlement program, some areas have been demarcated for communal grazing purposes, leading to conflict, as it requires the removal of the Xhosa people farming the land, who claim historic rights to it. According to Mandivamba Rukuni, a recognised academic and land policy analyst, many in the Xhosa community have refused to give up their farm land to make way for grazing.
The Xhosa community at Mbembesi continues to face these and other challenges related to the scarcity of land, showing that land titles alone are not enough to guarantee that the economic benefits that come with secure land tenure will materialise.
Busani Bafana is a Zimbabwean journalist specialising on agriculture and social development issues