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Is nationalisation and state ownership of land a solution? The Mozambique experience


Boaventura Monjane is a Mozambican postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS, UWC) and a fellow at the International Research Group on Authoritarianism and Counter-strategies of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

While everyone is rightly focused on the Covid-19 crisis, the land issue hasn’t gone away. If anything, people’s demands for better access and rights to land, both rural and urban, might increase as the full economic and social fallout comes to be felt.

In recent years, the ongoing land debate in South Africa has been drawing a lot of the world’s attention. One of the most controversial aspects in this debate is the question of whether or not the state should be the custodian of the land if expropriation (with or without compensation) is implemented. It seems to me, however, that the debate in South Africa tends to ignore the evidence from elsewhere on the continent, perhaps by over-emphasising the racial question and minimising the class and the role of the state. In this article I give an account of the complexity of the “story”, looking at Mozambique where land has been state-owned since its independence in 1975.

The Constitution of the Republic of Mozambique establishes that land is state property and cannot be sold or otherwise alienated, mortgaged or seized. As a universal means of creating wealth and social welfare, access to land was established as a right of all the Mozambican people. However, in land access and use, the “progressive” legislation that prohibits private ownership of land has not reduced the prevalence of rural poverty. Moreover, during the last decade, land conflicts have increased, as agribusinesses – in collusion with political and state elites – dislocated hundreds of peasant families. Even with state ownership of land, the Mozambican economy has broadly been ineffective and inefficient at reducing poverty and providing a broader social and economic basis for development.

A respected Mozambican scholar, Carlos Nuno Castel-Branco, argues that the dominant political economy of Mozambique is focused on three fundamental and interlinked processes, namely:

  • The maximisation of inflows of foreign capital without political conditionality;
  • The development of linkages between these capital inflows and the domestic process of accumulation and the formation of national capitalist classes; and
  • The reproduction of a labour system in which the workforce and the peasantry are remunerated at below their social cost of subsistence.

Moreover, agrarian capital has not proven to be able to reduce rural poverty. The segments of the proletarianised peasantry that were lucky enough to be employed have been in labour relations marked by exploitation through starvation wages, insecure forms of employment and poor working conditions (casualisation, unjust contract farming schemes, etc). Mozambican rural people, and peasants more specifically, are among the most exploited (by capital) and socially excluded. Despite producing much of the food they consume, they are the most affected by hunger and malnutrition.

Illiteracy and child mortality rates are higher in the countryside. There is no basic infrastructure for transport of people and goods and there is little support for agricultural production, such as extension services, seeds, etc. Many rural areas have no piped water systems and consequently drinking water is neither fresh nor safe. However, small-scale farming continues to overwhelmingly dominate the agrarian sector as a percentage of farms. And as a percentage of the population: Mozambique’s rural population was estimated to represent approximately 67% of the total population in 2017.

How can such “contradictions” arise if land is state-owned? 

I argue, on the one hand, that it is necessary to understand the historical trajectory that led Mozambique to where it is today. On the other, even when the state owns the land, agrarian capital takes advantage of neoliberal state policies to accumulate, either by exploiting the landed peasant’s labour or by controlling the processes of production. This can also be said of the case of the mining sector in South Africa, where the state owns the minerals but the private sector has excessive power over its extraction, processing and marketing.

From harsh colonial to ‘controversial’ socialist agrarian policies in Mozambique 

Mozambique gained its independence in 1975, after 10 years of an armed war against the Portuguese colonial regime. Frelimo, the Mozambique Liberation Front, was successful in mobilising the peasantry to join the anti-colonial struggle. The “liberation of land and man” was Frelimo’s motto, with the promise of implementing a land reform which would allow industrialisation and national liberation.

The colonial regime exploited the Mozambican peasantry through a set of harsh agrarian policies. This, in turn, led to widespread discontent, and ongoing resistance and rural revolts. Even though the Portuguese colonial system had taken a radically different approach as compared to South Africa’s apartheid system, there are many points in common in the hostility suffered by indigenous people as a result of the agrarian policies and measures in both contexts.

For instance, the colonial regime granted large parcels of land to private companies to exploit them, the so-called majestic companies. In addition to expropriating natives’ land, these companies had extensive administrative powers, among them exclusivity in the exploitation of peasant labour and raw materials. The companies were based on the chibalo labour system, which obliged peasants to work in cotton fields, plantations, and public works. This work system prevented the indigenous population from growing economically and developing its own production. In the same way that the African National Congress mobilised black South Africans to fight apartheid, the colonial hardship black Africans endured pushed peasants to join the liberation struggle. The first Mozambican Constitution (1975, articles 2 and 8) stated,

“The People’s Republic of Mozambique is a state of popular democracy in which all patriotic strata are engaged in the construction of a new society, free from the exploitation of man by man. In the People’s Republic of Mozambique power belongs to the workers and peasants united and directed by FRELIMO, and is exercised by the organs of popular power.

“The land and natural resources located in the soil and subsoil, territorial waters and the Mozambican continental shelf are the property of the State. The State shall determine the conditions for their use…”.

The Constitution thus established Mozambique as a socialist People’s Republic. However, one year after proclaiming independence, a brutal counter-revolutionary civil war broke out and killed about one million people and many were mutilated. Most of the victims were peasants and rural people.

There was a direct relationship between the 16-year-long civil war and the agrarian policies in post-independence Mozambique as some argue that Frelimo “socialist” agrarian policies were inimical to the peasantry, which fostered widespread peasant discontent. The truth of the matter is, however, that Renamo (Mozambican National Resistance, a guerrilla organization that sought to overthrow Frelimo’s socialist government) was created and supported by the South African apartheid regime, Rhodesia and the US CIA. These regimes were against people-centred policies and popular power in general.

As the war intensified, agrarian policies were being relaxed. State farms returned to the private sector. In 1992 the civil war ended and with the introduction of a multiparty-system Mozambique also fully adopted neoliberalism as an economic option, betting on the privatisation of most sectors. The new Constitution of 1992, as well as subsequent ones, however, kept land ownership in the hands of the state.

In 1997, a new land law was promulgated, which created facilities for further penetration of capital in the countryside. When Mozambique adopted the Bretton Woods Structural Adjustment Programs, peasants found it necessary to initiate a national movement to defend the interests of the peasantry. The National Union of Peasants (UNAC) was created in 1987. The relevance of UNAC can be seen in several ways, starting with its considerable number of members (more than 100,000), placing it as the largest organised agrarian movement in Mozambique.

UNAC is an important player in rural politics. Prior to the enactment of the 1997 land law, a national campaign led by UNAC – and involving other sectors of the society – prevented the land from being made private. Without an organised peasantry, the strong lobby that advocated for land privatisation in Mozambique would have won.

A neoliberal state 

Even so, the peasant movement, strong as it claims to be, has not been able to halt agrarian capital, or to prevent the exploitation of peasants and the violation of human rights in the countryside. Why is that so? Because the state has positioned itself in favour of agrarian and extractive capital, using its prerogative as landowner against the majority of the rural poor. The idea that all means of production and national wealth are to be democratically controlled and benefit the people ought to be supported. Nonetheless, as David MacDonald and Greg Ruiters (in a book on Alternatives to Privatization) assert:

“unless it has been radically democratized, there may be little point in bringing the state back in since it can act as a crude instrument to reassert a neoliberal agenda and market ideology. Calling for state-owned/managed services is of little value in and for itself without considering how state and social groups are interrelated and how ‘empowered democracy’ and public ethics might be attained. It is the type of state, and the social, political, and economic milieu within which it operates that matter. We must, therefore, be careful what we ask for.”

State abuse of power over land, to the detriment of the rural poor, does not mean that the state should not have power. It is the question of citizen entitlements and challenging the power relations between state and citizens – and this is missing in the South African debate.

What conditions exist to argue for backing a state that seems to have been born in a deeply neoliberal culture and is choosing to stick to it? What popular and grassroots movements are there to defend the gains that might come from constitutional change, and which might be ready to revolt when the threat of reversal emerges? DM/MC


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