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Town planners and the land revolution



Land reform in Lesotho has always been a turmoil-filled process since independence because the country uses the dualistic legal system, the statutory and customary laws, and of course the shaking of powerful interests that always accompany any reform process. You can just witness the amount of resistance for the current general reform sentiment in the country.

Since 1928, Lesotho has had two guiding legal systems regarding land administration and development.

The “natives” in the countryside were administered through customary law by their traditional leaders while the European settlers and Basotho elites in the urban reserves were administered through the statutes (in the form of colonial proclamations). Planning in the conventional sense was only the preserve of the elite Basotho and European settlers in the urban reserves.

The countryside was developed haphazardly by the natives without the guidance of any resemblance of planning professionals. Land and land planning laws were intertwined and fitted together in the late 1970s and early 1980s albeit with some shortcomings.

The Land Act 1979 and the Town and Country Planning Act 1980 were enacted. These pieces of law worked somehow well together, fit for the 20th century.

Fast forward to the early 2000s, land administration, management, planning, development and security of tenure were found to be wanting. There were now challenges which were not encountered in the previous decades.

Times had changed, the population had grown dramatically and demand for land and ancillary services accompanying population growth was increasing rapidly. The prevailing situation demanded radical changes to be implemented.

People were beginning to view land as something that could be traded, an economic asset that would yield dividends for the landlords and developers. This was what the classical economists had long argued but was just dawning on ordinary Basotho.

With the badly formulated security of tenure, corruption by land officials and unpredictable land transactions procedures, the dream of converting land to an economic asset seemed a distant one.

The solution to all these challenges was the reform of all land related systems in the country. Various land review commissions, research and stakeholder engagements were undertaken to determine if indeed land reform was appropriate. These processes all recommended a thorough land reform process.

In the spirit of land reform, the new Land Bill and Town and Country Planning Bill were drafted in the early 2000s. These two pieces of legislation were meant to be complementary to each other, fit for purpose and resonating with the demands of the 21st century.

As fate would have it, the Land Bill was enacted as law in 2010; Land Act 2010. The Town and Country Planning Bill was never enacted. This left us with the current predicament in the land development environment. On the one hand, one has a progressive, market and investor friendly Land Act.

On the other hand, there is a backward, development hampering, outdated and fossilised military era planning legislation that fails to take demands of the 21st century into consideration.

The Land Act 2010 is progressive, investor friendly and provides security of tenure to the land rights holders. It is the epitome of neo-liberalism even though land still remains nationalised and belongs to all Basotho and held in their trust by the King.

The Act is planning centred. Almost all land related transactions should first be ratified by the planning authority (read Commissioner of Lands).

All land allocations in both urban and rural areas should take place based on approved spatial development plans prepared by competent planners.

All sub-divisions, consolidations, changes of use and regularisations should at some stage be agreed to by the planner. The Land Act put enormous powers in the hands of town planners. It makes developers and regulators to seek some form of planning advice and guidance before major land transactions take place.

It brings shape into moribund planning by commanding adherence to it through heavy penalties for failure of compliance and through nullifying transactions that may take place outside of the Act.

What startles one’s mind is the arrogance and ignorance of the planners of their powers brought by this law. The backside of the current land policy is that the Act is the anti-thesis of the prevailing land planning system. It is rather ironic that progressive planning is advocated through the Land Act not the Planning Act. It brings to mind the proverbial expression of “putting new wine in the old wine skins”.

The consequence of that is the busting of the old wine skins. The Land Act’s neo-liberalism and market friendliness is the new wine while the Town and Country Planning Act is the old wine skin.

Expect more confusion, dysfunctional land markets and economic paralysis because of the failure to harmonise the two principal laws dealing with land administration, management and planning in the country.

With the above situation remaining intact, it is time that planners should take charge. They should demand immediate recognition from the powers that be. They should radically form a movement to take their revolution forward.

They should forcefully demand what is rightfully theirs (if there is such, by the way), taking centre stage in land development processes as espoused by the Land Act 2010. Planners should spearhead the total scrapping of the fossilized Town and Country Planning Act 1980 to be replaced by the revised up-to-date Town and Country Planning Bill 2004.

They should lobby policy makers, politicians, their planning bosses, civil society and the communities to support their call for full implementation of the Land Act 2010 and the enactment of the new Planning Act for the economic development of the country.

They should hypothetically put planning flesh to the land skeleton that is the Land Act.

A little bit of planners’ protest here, a little bit of planners’ go-slow there would make government[1] realise that planning means business. With planning brought into shape in the Lesotho land development regime, I think that poverty reduction, employment generation and economic growth would result from the planning revolution proposed above.

The potential of Lesotho’s land market is hampered by this anomaly of incoherent laws.

Kelebone Lekunya is a qualified urban planner and writes strictly in his personal capacity.

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