Blantyre - Malawi has passed a new land bill which enables commercial farmers who acquired huge farms during colonial era to continue owning their land under freehold category.
The new bill has been passed amidst heavy criticisms from opposition parties and land activists who accuse government of failing to correct historical injustices, the way Zimbabwe did through its controversial land reforms.
During the debate of the land bill, only 70 ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislators were present in Malawi’s 193-member Parliament, as opposition lawmakers protested against some provisions of the bill.
Leader of the opposition Malawi Congress Party, Lazarus Chakwera, told journalists that the land under freehold category should be under leasehold agreement.
"The gist of the matter is that we have to approach the issue of land acquisition and utilisation in a manner that serves Malawians well. The problem has been that some of the pieces of legislation have anomalies," said Chakwera.
He added: "We have freehold land, much of which was acquired before independence. Then we have the issue of customary land which ordinary Malawians use. According to the bill, customary land has to be registered. What we are looking for here is fairness."
Commenting on the same issue, People’s Party acting president Uladi Mussa said it was strange that the new law was strict on customary land while leaving out descendants of colonialists on freehold land.
"There are so many restrictions on customary land. Our chiefs will no longer have control over land. Yet the bill is just leaving those people under freehold category," Mussa said.
In Freehold Land category, title holders enjoy outright ownership of the property and land on which it stands. A freehold estate in land is where the owner of the land has no time limit to his period of ownership, unlike leasehold, where lease lengths vary from 99 years, upwards.
Malawiian Land Minister Atupele Muluzi said he was surprised about the decision of the opposition, considering that freehold land was not much, but contributed a lot to the economy.
"The land in question is only three percent of the total land. We need to be extremely careful. If possible, we have to consider introducing land taxes for land under freehold system. This issue of freehold is a lesser evil. This is a constitutional matter, nothing personal. We can pass the bill and then revisit the issue of freehold category," Muluzi said.
Most of the current tea estates owners in southern Malawi inherited their vast tracts of land from their parents and grandparents who acquired the land during colonialism in the 1890s.
Malawi was established as a British protectorate in 1891 and, following that development, the ruling British monarch gave early settlers the option to purchase land that had been acquired from Africans, either as leasehold or freehold.
History give accounts of three individuals who were instrumental in land loss during the early years of the protectorate and are largely responsible for a huge amount of land taken from Africans and used to benefit the British.
One of them was Eugene Sharrer, who seized 363 034 acres, Alexander Low Bruce, who took 176 000 acres, and John Buchanan and his brothers, who grabbed a further 167 823 acres. There were many others.
Up to this day, such land is used as commercial estates, mostly growing tea in southern Malawi districts of Thyolo and Mulanje, and tobacco and coffee in Zomba and Chiradzulu.
Having observed that colonialism had created serious inequality in land ownership and land use in Malawi, some organisations have started demanding land reparations.
A local group, known as the People’s Land Organisation (PLO), says there is need to clear past mistakes by asking the current colonial estate owners to pay the descendants of the real owners of the land.
"We are demanding a fee for the use of their land on rent, starting from 1914 to the present, at a rate of US$87 per acre per year," said PLO leader Vincent Wandale.
He told News24 that they were also demanding that all the colonial estate owners who used forced labour (thangata) to develop their plantations should pay a wage of US$8 per hour per individual for each person involved from 1914 to 1963.
"We also demand that any further expansion of colonial estate infrastructure into the 25 000 hectares of idle colonial estate land need to be stopped immediately because we the owners of the land need the land now," he said.
Malawi’s 2016 Land Bills were aimed at solving the challenges of land ownership and acquisition but the opposition MPs strongly believe that the new legislation has failed to correct past land injustices.
Some traditional leaders have criticized the bill arguing that some of its sections contravene cultural values which says only chiefs have powers to decide on land issues.
The current bill recognises the head of state as being in charge of land governance in Malawi.
Malawi has been avoiding taking the path of "land grabbing", as taken by Zimbabwe.
To avoid the Zimbabwe scenario, Malawi in the past few years implemented Community-Based Rural Land Development Project (CBRLDP) in which it relocated peasant farmers from highly populated districts to low-density ones.
Land reform in a number of African countries continues to be a long and complex process.