Table 8: Total land in Southern Africa
  Total area Arable land
  (in million ha) (in million ha)
Angola 124.7 3.0
Botswana 58.2 0.3
Lesotho 3.0 0.3
Malawi 11.8 2.1
Mozambique 80.2 3.9
Namibia 82.4 0.8
South Africa 122.1 114.7
Swaziland 1.7 0.1
Tanzania 94.5 4.0
Zambia 75.3 5.3
Zimbabwe 39.1 5.2
Total 693.0 139.7

Source: SADC 2000

Southern Africa covers a total land area of 693 000 million ha, of which approximately 20 per cent is arable as shown in Table 8 (SADC 2000). Arable and domesticated land is used for agriculture, forestry, wetlands and wildlife conservation, and human settlements.


Economic growth in the sub-region is closely linked to land resources. The strongest growth was in Angola which grew at 11.5 per cent in 2004 (linked to oil and diamonds) and 8.3 per cent in Mozambique (strong agricultural performance and donor support). South Africa, which accounts for one-fifth of Africa’s total GDP, grew at 2.8 per cent in 2004. Increased mining activities was the key growth factor in Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia; agricultural expansion was an important factor in Mozambique and Zambia, and increased tourist activity in South Africa and Zambia.

Crop production is the dominant land use, contributing about 34 per cent to GDP (Chenje 2000). For this reason, the performance of crop production has a strong influence on food security, economic growth and stability. As most economies in Southern Africa are based on agriculture, there is a big demand for arable land, mainly in the rural areas. Up to 62 per cent of the population lives in rural areas, depending on agriculture for their livelihood (UNEP 2002a). There is a growing trend towards export agriculture, influencing an increase in the production of cash crops including cotton, tobacco, tea, coffee, sugar and wheat. However, maize, a staple food for the majority of the region’s population, is still an important crop and is widely grown. Increased commercial agriculture offers important employment opportunities. However, where labour is gendered, as it is in much of Africa, with cash crops identified as men’s crops and subsistence food crops as women’s crops, women may not derive the same benefit (ECA 2005). Disproportional income levels are also a factor in the gendered nature of poverty.

Figure 7: Per capita meat production in Southern Africa Livestock farming is another common form of land use, although livestock production has fluctuated over the last three decades due to drought and diseases such as foot-and-mouth, cattle-lung disease and anthrax. Meat production per capita has generally been declining as shown in Figure 7.


Land tenure arrangements and associated equity issues are a major threat to the sustainable use of land resources. The communal land tenure system is the most widespread, in which individual property rights are weak. In some countries, particularly Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, colonial dispossession and weak land tenure rights are key factors in the high levels of unemployment and poverty (ECA 2005). Unemployment rates are particularly high in Namibia (34 per cent) and South Africa (30 per cent) (ECA 2005). The land tenure system is closely associated with social inequity, including high levels of income inequality. The Gini index, which is a measure of the extent of inequality in a country, is 50 in Zimbabwe, 59 in South Africa and 74 in Namibia, while the SSA average is 42.8 and the global average is 40.0 (UNDP 2004).

Table 9 shows the land tenure system in 1999. The situation has changed quite a lot, especially in Zimbabwe, where the government has made efforts to decongest rural areas, settle landless people and deracialize commercial agriculture by acquiring 10 million ha of prime large-scale farms for resettlement (SLSA 2001).

Table 9: Land tenure in Southern Africa in 1999
Private/Freehold Communal/Tribal/ Conservation/Minerals/
Country and Leasehold (%) Customary (%) Water Catchment/ Reserves/etc (%)
Angola 5.4 88.0 6.6
Botswana 58.2 0.3 6.6
Lesotho 5.0*** 90.0 5.0
Malawi 4.3 78.7 17.0
Mozambique 2.9 93.0 4.1
Namibia 44.0 41.0 15.0
South Africa 72.0 14.0 14.0
Swaziland 40.0 60.0** -
Tanzania 1.5 84.0 14.5
Zambia 3.1 89.0 7.9
Zimbabwe 41.0* 42.0 16.0
* includes small-scale farm leases and resettlements.
**includes Swazi Nation Land held under customary tenure and leased to companies.
***leases in urban areas.

Source: Cumming 1999

The major cause of tenure insecurity in the communal lands is the lack of devolution of planning and decision making, poor resource-mobilization, inadequate enforcement and inadequate administration of matters relating to the affairs of local communities (Katerere and Guveya 1998).

Trade liberalization and globalization are putting severe pressure on the livelihoods of the people, resulting in many having to depend further on land and other natural resources. Notable among these factors are a fall in formal sector employment, privatization of key resources and enterprises, reduced levels of state support to agriculture, and the continuing marginalization of the non-commercial or peasant sectors. Chapter 1: The Human Dimension considers how economic change impacts on the environment and livelihoods and specifically looks at some of the challenges associated with structural adjustment programmes (SAPs). Chapter 8: Interlinkages: The Environment and Policy Web discusses the link between economic policy and environmental change, and considers the need for interlinked responses.

Declining per capita landholdings and the general skewed land ownership pattern in Southern Africa have been accompanied by a fall in human well-being indicators, such as per capita food production. The production of cereals, root crops and livestock, which form the primary staple food in Southern Africa, has been increasing since 1970, but has not kept pace with population growth, resulting in overall per capita food production falling by 25 per cent since 1980 (Cumming 1999). While the declining trends in per capita food production are largely attributable to declining landholding sizes as shown in Table 10, other factors have also shaped the trends over the past two decades. Drought is one factor that caused a significant decline in the per capita food production index for Southern Africa following the poor seasons experienced in 1991-92, 1994-95, 2001-03 and 2004-05.

Table 10: Per capita access to land and food production trends 1980-2000
Per capita arable land area (ha)   Food production per capita (index trends)
Country 1980 1990 2000   1980 1990 1995 1999
Angola 0.5 0.36 0.28   120 98 104 105
Botswana 1.5 1.06 0.70   108 100 92 79
DRC * * *   101 101 90 68
Lesotho 0.2 0.18 0.12   112 111 80 83
Malawi 0.4 0.28 0.36   137 97 100 140
Mauritius * * *   86 101 100 77
Mozambique 0.3 0.20 0.21   119 107 89 104
Namibia * * *   142 96 96 77
South Africa * * *   112 98 79 888
Swaziland 0.3 0.21 0.14   110 97 76 69
Tanzania 0.3 0.19 0.18   102 100 86 83
Zambia 0.9 0.62 0.21   94 94 82 83
Zimbabwe 0.4 0.29 *   105 104 68 92
* data unavaliable

Source: Cleaver 1993

Soil erosion is the most widespread form of land degradation, and one of the biggest threats to agricultural productivity in Southern Africa. It is estimated that about 15 per cent of the land is degraded through erosion (UNEP 2002a).

Land policy debates are characterized by a range of challenges:

  • The privatization of resources, including both communal and state resources;
  • The retreat by the state from key areas of the economy, including both productive activities and services;
  • The pursuit of FDI;
  • The sweeping deregulation of markets;
  • Dealing with the emerging issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs); and
  • Effectively reforming the land sector.

As a result there is convergence of policy in key areas that can be attributed to the growing exposure of the sub-region to globalization, which has seen an accelerated phase of regional integration and intergovernmental programmes such as the Regional Indicative Strategic Development Plan (RISDP). Box 7 shows the food security objectives of the RISDP.

Box 7: Food security objectives of the Regional Indicative Strategic Development Plan
  • Improving food availability. Member states are required to promote agricultural production and productivity, take measures that increase competitiveness and promote trade and also promote the sustainable use of natural resources.
  • Improving access to food through rural non-farm income generation. Member states are encouraged to adopt policies which will generate the maximum employment gains and incomes, introduce measures that improve income stability and equity, and develop safety nets (such as food for work, cash for work and targeted distribution of inputs or food) for vulnerable groups. Most of these measures require public, private and non-governmental organization (NGO) partnerships.
  • Improving nutrition. Member states are urged to adopt strategies that improve the nutritional value of food, minimise food losses, particularly for the resource-poor, and address food safety.
  • Disaster-induced emergencies. The objective is to improve forecasting, prevention, mitigation and recovery from the adverse effects of natural disasters.
  • Enhance institutional frameworks. The objective is to strengthen the institutional framework of the relevant institutions and expertise, as well as build capacity for implementing food security programmes in the SADC region.
  • Source: SADC 2004b

    The Southern African Development Community member states have demonstrated strong commitment to implement the UNCCD by ratifying it and by developing national and sub-regional programmes to combat desertification. The SADC Sub-Regional Action Programme (SRAP), which was approved by the SADC Council of Ministers in 1997, provides a collective response to problems of land degradation, drought and desertification, especially those of a transboundary nature.