Ignorance is the root and stem of all evil, said Plato
To produce something, you need capital and labour. If you have capital only attempts are made to hire someone ready to sell their skills.
If you don’t have capital, you try get a job. How much you are paid depends on many factors. The skill level is one of them. It could also be determined by the supply of labour. If there is an abundance of labour, the odds are in favour of capital.
A global fact is real. Capital earns more than labour. There is often a trap in the comfort that comes with a decent job. I don’t suggest that we should quit our jobs and become capital owners.
Capital to some extent depreciates and, therefore, has some risk. It is also true that some capital assets appreciate over time. Land is one asset that does appreciate unless there is some catastrophe such as nuclear contamination.
Otherwise it does not. Inequalities in the ownership of assets that appreciate over a time is a catalyst for poverty in the sense that one group is often pushed down the income ladder.
In Malawi, one does not need data to see inequalities. Certain inequalities are very much observable. Of course, facts are facts. We should not ignore them. Income inequalities are high as official figures show. Behind income inequalities there are many underlying factors.
Low-income earners have many things in common. Worse still, they are a majority. Common factors include lack of decent education and, therefore, cannot get a poverty bursting. Inability to own an asset that can increase their income. So there goes the trap.
I like to observe the pattern in land ownership and how inequalities in the ownership of land is fuelling poverty and trapping the most vulnerable to a corner of dependence and poverty deepening jobs. The peripherals of our four major cities are a classic example with Lilongwe being the hardest hit.
Areas outside the cities have been traditional family lands and these villages have almost vanished. The area under Traditional Authority (T/A) Njewa has become a warehouse hub for various businesses often foreign-owned.
The average person has never realised the real value of their land and it has been sold for peanuts in transactions that are regarded morally illegal. Illegal in the sense that one party knows exactly what they are doing while the other party is desperate to feed his or her family. It has become a commonality.
We have let ourselves down to enforce some of the laws. It is so simple for a foreigner to go to a chief and buy land or some individual. Some suburbs of the capital city are being completely taken and one wonders whether Malawi will continue to exist, landownership wise. Are we all going to be tenants on our land?
Like Plato argued, ignorance is the root and stem of all evil. Inequalities denote injustice. It is often that we look at inequality from an income perspective and ignore the underlying issues.
Levels of landownership inequality are rising fast and the odds are against Malawians. It should be an emergency. It should be an emergency because any attempts to fight poverty should be rooted in the ownership of critical non-depreciating assets such as land. They explain income poverty and give us a chance to rethink our approach to fighting poverty. Maybe any developer should permanently pay rent to families besides fees to government.
If all land is going, what is the sense of a fertiliser subsidy? It now becomes of interest to fertiliser companies and major food importers in times of food crisis.
While property rights are important to protect, I think a radical rebalancing should happen. It doesn’t make sense that all key land along the shores of Lake Malawi, for example, are foreign-owned and do we get any tax? If we do, I guess peanuts.
Much as our land laws are evolving, we should be reminding ourselves that the land Malawians call home or own is vanishing at a supersonic speed albeit silently and sometimes unnoticed. How many Malawians own land in the central business districts of our four cities? How many Malawians externalise foreign exchange? Maybe this is off-track but one can still connect dots and construct images that make some sense. You get it?
The peripherals of our four cities should give more insights in how inequalities in ownership of an asset such as land is being perpetuated. It should motivate the law maker and the leadership all the way to the top that some radical shift in how land is owned is addressed. We have no other Malawi and we should not condemn majority of Malawians to be a pool of cheap labour on businesses sitting on the land they once owned.n