Herero perspective on land questions

Some passages of a conversation we were having with Mr Engelbert Matuzee, the pastor of Okandjatu, a town in the middel of Herero Country:

In the evening, Engelbert comes over to the fire in front of the house of Josh, a brazilian anthropologist we visit. When he wants to know what our group is doing in Namibia, this is the opening question to a discussion about the land question.

Mr Engelbert critizises strongly the governmental resettlement policy to buy up farms and then resettle people there that are not from the area. He points out that for example his people, who are confined to this Herero area east of Waterberg, could need an extension of their space to graze their cattle. They know how to use the land in this area. Additionally they feel strong links to their place, where they have their “holy fires” in front of their houses every night, as they are living there since they were brought there by the South African Administration in the Fourties (which he considers a long time). But one farm bordering to their area was given to Ovamo people from the north, although more than 1000 persons from the area applied for it. On the other hand a farm in Karas (more than 1000 km south) was given to Herero people who made an application to be resettled.

Engelbert makes out several points why the land distribution goes like this. First, the land commission that decides about whom to resettle is a governmental institution. We often heard that since the government is mostly Ovambo speaking, it favors Ovambo people. We could not make out how far this is true. We confronted once Sululu (see “landless take to the stage” on this blog) with the argument (that we read somewhere), that the Ovambo region is very densely populated and pressure on land is high there. This is because during apartheid homeland politics Ovambo, which are the biggest language group, were confined there without the chance of moving somewhere else. She conceded that that might be true and immediately opened her argument, saying that it is her idea to share the land between all the ones who need it.

Another problem seems to be that local leaders, who get the application forms from the land commission, give them to their family and friends first, and only then to the broader public.
“This is a problem with the land reform we have. Consider first the people who live next to the farm!”, Engelbert makes his standpoint clear.

Later, when we get to perspectives of especially the young people of Okandjatu, a new dimension of what is needed enters the conversation. “You see, if there is the government fund by which the government buys land. Don’t give me the money for the land. Give me the money for a hospital. Give it to me for a school. What we need is education. Those young people drinking and talking at the Shebeens (the local small bar), they are talking about computer courses and how to get it. But it’s not possible, they don’t have the money for it” Engelbert says.

Josh and he agree that for the development of the area the redistribution of land will not play an important role. But they agree as well that the land question can quickly mobilize emotions. Especially for the Herero people history plays an important part. It is widely agreed on to not call the land distribution generally into question, and that changes should be brought about peacefully and democratically. Some of the elder Hereros sometimes come up with the demand that the German farmers should give back the land to the Herero, though. Josh tells us about a celebration of commemoration of Hereros he attended. He remembers that one woman began her speech with the words “How much cattle did the Germans have when they arrived here?” “None!” the listeners responded. “How much land did the Germans have when they came here?” “None!” “So whose is the land?” “Ours!”

Brazilian anthropologist Joshua Castro in Okandjatu