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‘Ownership has the power to bring stability, democracy and prosperity’

How often do we think about the issue of ownership as we traverse this world and history? Not enough I think and yet it is so critical. My first experience of the change that this can make was when I was about 12 years old.

My father had become an alcoholic and my mother, with a very limited education, was raising 4 kids on a secretaries salary.

We lived in a low income suburb of Bulawayo, the second largest City on the country in housing built to accommodate British servicemen who were training as airmen at the nearby air force base in Khumalo in the Second World War.

We paid rent on our home which was owned by the Municipality and it was very run down. Us kids went to the local Government High School and rode there by bike.

Then out of the blue we got a letter from the City Fathers to say that from now on our rent (which did not change) would become a payment on a bond which would pay for the home we lived in. The place was ours, we could sell it if we moved.

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The change was immediate and dramatic. The suburb become a building site as people repaired their homes, painted walls and put in additions and improvements.

In five years, you could not recognise the place. We were home owners and when we left a few years later, we sold the property and bought elsewhere. I have never forgotten the experience.

Much later, when I was working in the Capital City, the Prime Minister Ian Smith decided to experiment with home ownership in the high density, low income suburbs being built on the outskirts of the City. He gave people ownership of the small houses being built by the local authorities and Government.

It had an immediate impact, it was a time when there was growing instability as the different factions of the Nationalist Parties fought each other for control. Violence was widespread but it was largely confined to those areas where rented accommodation dominated.

Where ownership reigned, the people resisted the violence in defence of what they saw as being theirs.

Later on when I was working in the Tribal Areas of the country, I found vast areas of the country resembled semi desert. Under traditional law and practice the Tribal authorities held sway and controlled access to land rights.

Nobody owned anything and as a result the areas were almost universally over grazed and desolate. Most often the population pressure was blamed and the cry was more land. I spent several years resettling people from overcrowded areas into State Land.

But much later on when I was working as an economist, I was asked to write a paper on agriculture for the first Donors Conference after Independence. I think that was one of the most important tasks I have ever tackled because I was able to draw on all State resources and write a paper on a clean sheet.

I was shocked to discover that the Commercial farming Districts in the more intensive farming areas had populations little different from the Tribal Areas in the same region.

But without exception, a fence would divide the former from the latter and on one side would be devastation and degraded land conditions while on the other side of the fence was grass, conservation and relative prosperity. The difference was not weather, it was ownership.

At the time I warned the commercial farming communities that this was dangerous and a threat to them long term. Poverty and prosperity could not subsist divided by a barbed wire fence. This was especially so when political power crossed the fence!

When the Europeans crossed the Atlantic and settled in the United States, they brought with them many things of value. The rule of law, a Constitution, their faith and freehold tenure. When the main drive west took place, they settled the land with small farms held by families with freehold rights.

Fences went up across the land. Eventually the great majority of the land was forcibly occupied and settled, the Government was forced to create “reservations” for the indigenous people who survived.

Today these reservations are almost universally poor and degraded, islands of poverty in the richest country in the world, built on ownership, capital and enterprise.

In Canada, Australia and New Zealand it was the same. In Africa the European settlers brought the same potent mix but unlike the above examples, did not wipe out the indigenous people, they tried in Namibia under German tutelage but nowhere else.

As a result the indigenous people of Africa and India eventually overthrew their colonial masters and in Africa, in nearly every country, freehold title rights were maintained in urban areas but destroyed in the rural areas.

Today freehold farm rights are only observed in Namibia and South Africa and both are under threat.

Globally the evidence of the value of freehold rights is evident everywhere. In the former Soviet Union, 3 per cent of the land owned by home owners fed the country.

Today only 18 per cent of all farm land in the world is held under freehold title, yet this small proportion produces over 70 per cent of all food. In the USA, only 3 per cent of the population is in agriculture yet they feed the world.

In Africa where freehold tenure has retreated everywhere in the past century, the deserts are all expanding at kilometres per annum. In the traditional Savanah areas on the continent, the land often resembles semi desert.

In Zimbabwe up against the Botswana and South African borders, sand dunes are burying the farm fences.

Rwanda is an interesting exception. There the Government which took control after the genocide have adopted a radical policy on freehold rights – they have issued 11 million title deeds in a country one tenth of the size of Zimbabwe. Kagame has granted title rights to everyone occupying land.

The transformation has been total, it has become the most banked country in the Continent. Everyone has property and with it came dignity and prosperity. Productivity has risen and this tiny impoverished country, land locked and without significant resources is outshining it larger neighbours.

Here in Zimbabwe, we have learned a number of harsh lessons from our history. When we took the land from 90 per cent of the Commercial farmers we saw farm output collapse, the domino effect collapsed our wider economy and we lost a third of our population to migration, life expectancy collapsed and our GDP fell by half. In 2008 we looked like a war ravaged country.

When he came to power, the new President made a number of key undertakings, he would compensate the old farmers, he would bring back some form of security of tenure and in the urban areas he would grant title rights to perhaps two million families.

All of these promises are being implemented and he launches the urban program next Saturday. I wonder if he really appreciates just what he is doing to the millions of people involved. This is transformational.

In 1992 a local academic, was made Chairman of a Commission of Enquiry into the state of the rural economy, Professor Rukuni spent two years on the study and its findings and recommendations remain seminal.

He recommended that a form of security should be granted to all rural families. Had his recommendations been adopted our situation would be completely different.

Ownership has the power to bring stability, democracy and prosperity. In many respects it is the key to the future of the continent.