Last week, I introduced my column. I averred that it places Botswana’s land issues within the context of a democracy. I submitted that Botswana, though some people are in denial, faces a serious yet artificial problem of access to land by many. Interestingly, the country is under-populated. This week, I focus or rather introduce the access to land as a human right issue within an international legal framework. This would inform the reader about his/her rights over land. This, I hope, would compel the ordinary Motswana to ask politicians about these rights as we move towards the general elections. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 considers the ownership of property as a human right issue. So, land constitutes property.
Many Batswana submissively believe that it is the government’s benevolence to allocate land to (them) citizens of this country. It is not. The government has to. It is not a matter of choice. It is my right and your right. Some land board officers pretend, annoyingly, as if they do us some favours by allocating land. Similarly, by its care-free but unrealistic manner in which it approaches the land issues, the government fails to fully take into account the fundamental human rights into context. Many of you have watched disturbing scenes of ‘yellow monsters’ demolishing squatter settlements on the basis that the so-called squatters have no rights to occupy such land. One wonders if it takes 30 years for the government to recognise this. Is demolishing the best solution? In some areas, the Senthumule Ramadeluka squatters, people have been forced to relocate despite the fact that they have lived in such places for decades, and voted for some politicians whilst living in those so-called slums. Do Botswana and Batswana recognise that access to land is a fundamental human right? Access to land is linked to human rights such as the right to water, right to food, right to housing, right to work, indigenous rights to land and cultural rights and identity. Then, if it takes citizens 20 years to be allocated a residential plot in Gaborone or Harare, what happens to their other rights linked to the access to land? If we have the landless because they have been displaced by various socio-economic and political forces, what happens to their other rights?
Secure ownership of land provides ample opportunities to wealth generation for the current and future generations. When an individual has security over his/her land, in terms of title deeds, it is easier to secure credit for investment. Internationally, land has played a critical role in the economic advancement and political stability of some countries. In Japan, for instance, a successful land reform, amongst others, has ensured that the country becomes a global power house. Hernando de Soto has argued that the land with security (e.g. title deeds) can play a critical role in poverty alleviation. Though his thesis has been criticised for lacking the historical, socio-cultural and political context, it remains fundamental in understanding the ways in which land can be transformed into a credit worthy property. Similarly, access to land is linked to the right to food. Many people in the rural areas, worldwide, directly depend on the land for food. Those in towns too, they depend on the rural areas to provide them with food. The rural areas are the food producers, while cities are the consumers. It is, therefore, counterproductive that globally landlessness is rife in the rural areas. By denying the rural people access to land, our governments are condemning them to death as they depend on it for survival. The right to water is also directly linked to the right to land. Water is a vital resource which has caused conflicts amongst communities and nations. We have learnt of the struggles over the access to the Nile River between the countries that the river passes through.
The right to housing or shelter is an uncontested human right issue. It is not the government’s kindness to allocate residential plots. It must. It is your and my right to have a place we call a home. With the prohibitive prices offered by the Botswana Housing Cooperation, the government should ensure that access to residential plots is a priority. Squatters should also know that they have a right to be housed not to live like visitors in their own land. South Africa, a new democracy, is doing far much better than Botswana when it comes to the provision of houses for its impoverished citizens. I am talking of the popular RDP houses littering Alexandra, Soweto etc. Access to land is also tied to identity. Landless people risk being considered vagabonds and or even stateless in some extreme contexts. For instance, the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group found in Myanmar, have no legal rights to their land. They found themselves in a predicament. Since they are landless, unwanted by their country, Myanmar, and also unaccepted by Bangladesh, their temporary host, they are considered ‘stateless’. This is an extreme case, indeed. A stateless person is restricted from exercising his/her political and civil rights. Yet, it is the responsibility of the state to protect fundamental human rights of its citizens at all times. If a country can deny its citizens access to land, surely the country in question becomes a rogue state. The right to land is one of the gateways to poverty reduction, not eradication, hence one cannot eradicate poverty. It is important that programmes aimed at alleviating poverty are directly linked to the rights to land and water. If they are divorced, the results are unachievable. I explained the nature in which access to and ownership of land are fundamental human right issues recognised internationally.