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Pope Francis and the land issue in Africa

Pope Francis and the land issue in Africa


Days after he left, Kenyan newspapers are still full of the papal visit. His message is being analysed, digested and sifted for every nuance, particularly as it touches on increasing economic disparity in the country. At the Mass at the shrine in Namugongo, Uganda, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the canonisation of the Ugandan Martyrs, the pope’s message touched the importance of family life, support of those in need, and the importance of becoming evangelisers. Significantly for some, he did not broach the topic of increasing homophobia and persecution of LGBT people in Uganda.


The more sober Vatican websites focus on the message of encouragement and hope with which the pope has left Kenyans. They are understandably placing greater emphasis on the papal visit to Central African Republic riven by civil-religious-ethnic war since 2013, where the itinerary includes taking medicines to a children’s hospital, visiting a camp for displaced people, opening the holy door of Bangui Cathedral for the Year of Mercy, and as I write, visiting a mosque before his return to Rome. The text of this encounter is not yet available.


Kenyan media has been abuzz with the significance of the pope coming to visit the poor in their own backyard – in fact, in the Jesuit-served parish of St Joseph the Worker in Africa’s largest slum, Kangemi. At this enounter Pope Francis did not pull his punches. He spent some time analysing factors which cause poverty slums. Nothing new. But he was also highly critical of people in this country who amass great fortunes in land, deying access to land to millions of the poor. His remarks were particularly scathing when it came to “private developers” who grab land around the country. Of course he is too diplomatic to name and shame the Kenyatta family who obtained vast tracts of land at the end of the colonial period when the white farmers were leaving. They are not too distant from the people whose business interests annex school playgrounds, or who try to take over the playing fields in housing estates.


If the pope had been in Zimbabwe, he would no doubt have had similar words to say about the “nationalisation” of commercial farms – which have been in the hands of white farmers, sometimes for generations. Even Grace Mugabe, the wife of the president, who has been blessed with five former commercial farms now lying fallow, says that the beneficiaries of the land redistribution programme should make the farms productive, or return them to the state. The irony is that many of Zimbabwe’s former commercial farmers now work in neighbouring Mozambique, or further afield in Uganda, teaching skills, and making land productive.


On the other hand, if the pope had visited South Africa, he would be compelled to talk about the slow pace of land redistribution, promised by the ANC government 20 years ago, on a willing-buyer-willing-seller basis. Many South Africans are still waiting for their share of the land… Not that they have the slightest interest or skills in farming.


Rather, land carries vast symbolic significace: It is where the ancestors are buried, and thus a place with which to identify, a place to call home, a place where one hopes eventually to buried with one’s kin. Land represents security and a place to erect a home from which one cannot be evicted. Title deeds can be negotiable assets (although I question the wisdom of this in the case of people who have just received land for the first time) against which financial capital can be raised. Land ownership speaks of post-colonialism and unshackling the bonds of slavery, of independence and post-apartheid. Western (colonial) models of land ownership are somewhat novel in various parts of the continent, where previously all land was held in common. For example, Maasai pastoralists still reputedly regard all land as their own, and graze their herds wherever good pasture can be found – even in the city parks.


Pope Francis was not around during the great colonial land grab. But there is no doubt that he has something to say about contemporary latifundia. With Micah, he is exclaiming “Woe to those who devise iniquity. They covet fields, and seize them, and houses, and take them away. And they oppress a man and his house, even a man and his heritage.” (Mic 2:1f.) Land is one of those goods which God destined for the benefit of all people. It takes a papal visit to Africa to remind us of this.


Peter Knox SJ