Blog – Property Rights and the Agrarian Question in Africa

Property rights[1] are foundational in different forms of society and in different modes of production. They define who has what powers over what kind of resources, for what purposes. In many societies ‘property’ has not been defined outside of specific social relations. It has not been seen as something separate and distinct from the predominant model of organizing production and reproduction, and from a society’s norms and values, or ‘culture’. It is embedded directly in society. In pre-capitalist societies, ‘communal’ forms of property, in which social identity is key to gaining access to resources, are often the main form, or at least one key form, that property rights take.

In contrast, in the modern world, and in the capitalist mode of production in particular, ‘property rights’ are seen as quite distinct from other aspects of social life. They are defined mainly by elaborate sets of laws and regulations, and are ‘socially dis-embedded’. This is particularly the case with the dominant form of property in the world today – individual private property. Marx distinguishes capitalist private property from pre-capitalist forms of private property, and outlines the shift from common property to capital private property in the making of the modern world, as in the ‘enclosure of the commons’. He also emphasises the foundational character of private property for the capitalist mode of production

One policy response to poverty and underdevelopment in the former colonies of the capitalist countries of the north is to recommend the privatization and commoditization of the commons, through individual land titling and the promotion of markets. This stance is founded on the idea that the large areas of land in the developing world that are still held in common to some degree, usually within ‘customary’ systems of land and resource rights, act as an impediment on development. However, critics of land titling see privatization and commoditisation of the commons as a means to promote capitalist relations, which they view as the root cause of poverty and underdevelopment.

What are the alternatives to individual land tilting (i.e. privatization)? They include the defense of the commons and ‘customary’ systems of land tenure community titling (legal recognition of community-based rights), and the promotion of other kinds of ‘social tenure’, including co-operatives, communes and democratic forms of village ownership. Critics of capitalism see the alternative as being the complete re-organisation of the relations of production, abolishing private property in the ownership of the means of production in favour of social ownership (as distinct from state ownership). This is the socialist vision of property.

[1] This blog is an introduction to the sessions on the “Property Rights and the Agrarian Question in Africa” delivered by Prof Ben Cousins during the theory workshop on the “Character of the Agrarian Question in Contemporary Africa” Jointly organised by YARA and the Institute for Poverty, Land, and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at the University of the Western Cape on 13-17 May, 2019 for young African academics.