What role can technology play in African Modern Land Reform Programs?
Last week, there was a discussion of land reforms in South Africa, very much in the background of Zimbabwe's Fast Track Land Reform Program; with both countries dealing with an inheritance of unequal land holdings where a few thousand European Settlers have for a long time (over 300 years in South Africa and just under 100 years in Zimbabwe) held most of the arable land. With decolonization in Zimbabwe (1980) and democratization in South Africa (1994), both Governments subscribed to a policy of voluntary "willing seller, willing buyer" in pursuit of land redistribution and restitution. In 1998, the Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union and the Zimbabwe Government in an international land conference in Harare restated their joint commitment to this policy. Nevertheless, outside that conference were political forces led by former combatants of the Liberation War who by 2000 had gone from "willing buyer, willing seller" to "unwilling seller, forced occupation". Last week, Agri SA (an organization founded in 1904 to represent farmers in South Africa) and the ANC Secretary General were reported as restating their commitment to the same policy of "willing seller, willing buyer"; although it is unclear where leaders of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EEF) were, and they have publicly stated their admiration of the "unwilling seller, forced occupation" policy.
Back in 1986, the Chavunduka Land Commission had floated the idea of a land tax to force individuals occupying under-utilized land to incur a cost for the under-usage. The idea had been that land taxes owed to government by farmers would be accumulated for a maximum of an agreed period (say 3 years), after which land equivalent to owed tax would be surrendered to the State in lieu of unpaid taxes. Over time, Government would either have collected enough revenue from land taxes to implement the "willing seller, willing buyer" policy, or it would have received enough under-utilized land to resettle the landless - without having to raise additional funds for the resettlement of landless Africans.
Today, any government interested in an efficient and economic utilization of land in Africa has access to technological tools that could make such a land tax policy possible, resulting in a fair distribution of a scarce resource. Based on ecological zoning of agricultural land and known productivity levels, the Global Positioning System (GPS) can be used to create a national electronic database open for inspection by all users (Government, buyers, sellers, and the general public). With electronic Personal Identification Number (PIN) system becoming a common feature of tax authorities in Africa, it is a fairly simple process to link tax records with land holdings, productivity, outputs, and other data that would enable the tax authority to calculate taxes due, and to either collect as cash or as land in lieu of taxes owed. While the GPS, taxation systems, and digital biometric data collection systems exist, much remains to be done by way of developing applications that can generate data on all these other variables that would link GPS data, Tax System, and biometric information to bring technology tools to any African government interested in a modern land reform program - where fully digitized personal, taxation, land-holding, and agricultural productivity data would be available.
For Africa in the twenty-first century, it should no longer be a choice between "willing seller, willing buyer" and "unwilling seller, forced occupation". A new policy of "unwilling indebted seller, voluntary surrender" is a viable option, and technology can play an important role in its implementation once the political will is there to formulate the appropriate land tax instruments.
Innovators and entrepreneurs stand challenged!