History of property rights and Draft Constitution


Ben Freeth, Harare

1 October 2012

The history of property rights and the flawed Zimbabwe Draft Constitution

Titled land and the protection of property rights is not a recent phenomenon.  It has a long and fascinating history that is especially relevant today while the highly flawed new draft constitution in Zimbabwe is debated, causing dissent and division.

Acclaimed Russian author Ayn Rand notes in a 1964 collection of essays, “The Virtue of Selfishness”, that the right to life is the source of all rights – and the right to property is their only implementation.    Without property rights, no other rights are possible.”

Rand also notes that, “Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life.  The man who produces while others dispose of his product is a slave.”

In a 10-page document released today by Ben Freeth, executive director of the Mike Campbell Foundation, he explores the early history of titled land and property rights, starting with the earliest documented transfer of property rights in Hebron in 1675 BCE – 3,678 years ago.  This transaction is described in detail Genesis, the first book in the Bible.

Freeth, a committed Christian, lists the three Biblical principles relating to property rights:

• The prohibition of theft, enshrined in the 8th commandment in Exodus, “You shall not steal”
• The world ultimately belongs to God (and not to the state)
• Humans are temporary tenants upon God’s property – in effect, custodians.

With respect to Zimbabwe’s new Draft Constitution and property rights, Freeth discusses the contentious section on land.

This section relates specifically to land that has been acquired already, as well as to land to be acquired in the future.  It allows land to be taken without compensation, without the owners being allowed a hearing in court, and on a discriminatory basis.

“Such draconian clauses that allow theft to take place on a discriminatory basis and without a hearing in court, need to be looked at in the light of property rights throughout history and what the Bible says in this regard,” warns Freeth.

He explains that at the dawn of civilisation in Samaria and Babylonia (where the prophet Abraham had come from) the right of holding property was already in force.  Careful surveys were made and anyone who interfered with property rights could invoke the curse of “the gods”.

As a result of the protection of property rights, sophisticated irrigation schemes could be set up and an agricultural revolution occurred. Detailed laws protecting private property were written, administered and enforced – more than 4,000 years ago.  Consequently, the people flourished.

Freeth says that studies have proved that property rights are central to the prosperity of all great civilisations, notably the ancient Greeks and Romans. Disciplined life and hard labour on the thousands of small, independent Greek farms developed Greek character, generated wealth and defended their city states.  This was the precursor to private ownership in the West.

In Africa, private ownership of land was established in ancient Egypt as early as the middle of the third millennium BC.  Long before the dawn of democracy, laws relating to private property were in place and the sense of private ownership was well developed.

In Zimbabwe, the consequences of the chaotic farm invasions, which began in 2000 immediately after President Robert Mugabe lost a constitutional referendum which would have further entrenched his power, have been catastrophic.

Substantial, well-run agricultural enterprises, many involving sophisticated irrigation schemes, have been replaced largely by erratic subsistence farming.  As a result, Zimbabwe has become dependent on food aid, ironically from the West which Zanu PF politicians malign.

In the Bible, property rights and titled land was already a given more than 2,600 years ago.  Without property rights the Bible says, the land becomes a desolate waste, without men or animals.  Zimbabwe has become a wasteland for exactly this reason.

Title deeds in the Bible were scrupulously protected – Jeremiah stored his in a clay jar, which proved to be an extremely effective method of preserving ancient documents.

In the book of Ruth, written in 1,000 BC, over three thousand years ago, people worked the land diligently and it was privately owned land, not a communal system of patronage.

In Deuteronomy, God promised curses on anyone who moved his neighbour’s boundary stone and stole his land.

The New Testament is also very clear about the rule of law and property rights.  Jesus accepted that the private ownership of land was God-ordained for the ordering of society and feeding of the people.

The Jubilee laws of Leviticus 25 ensured that a family would always have land.  Furthermore, a father could not dispossess his family from the land because of poor stewardship, carelessness or debt. Fathers were instructed to lay up an inheritance for their children.

Every attack on private property is an attack on a man’s liberty, says leading theologian, Rev Rushdooney.

In every dictatorship, there is a tussle between Godly law in private ownership of property and man’s law in State ownership, notes Freeth.

If the State becomes both sovereign and owner, it displaces God, he says.  Private property encourages the wise use of scarce resources, while nationalisation provides no such incentive.

Nationalisation of land in China led to starvation and the deaths of more than 70 million people over a period of four years.  This was the result of Mao spurning God’s laws on property rights, cautions Freeth.

In the USA, with only a third of the arable land of Africa, approximately 320 million tons of maize are produced annually, while Africa produces just 60 million tonnes.  In Zimbabwe since the land invasions, wheat production has fallen by more than 90 percent.

Jesus’s parable of the good shepherd demonstrates that the owner will lay down his life for his sheep, while the hired hand will run away if a wolf comes, because he lacks the commitment.

“Faith is fundamental to our spiritual lives and is synonymous with a title deed, which is fundamental to our physical lives,” says Freeth.

“It is abundantly evident that as a country, the further erosion of property rights – as contained in the draft constitution – offers little hope to Zimbabweans for feeding themselves, educating their children and developing as a nation,” he contends.

“Such is the curse of nations that choose to go against the holy and immutable laws of God.”

Freeth says that Christians and Christian leaders are obliged to stand up and speak out for righteousness.

“If the highest law of the land is to go against God’s law, we cannot vote for it or urge others to vote for it.”

Freeth calls on the drafters to come up with a constitution that does not allow theft, that does not allow discrimination and that does allow recourse if Zimbabwean’s homes and livelihoods are taken away from them – because continued theft will not bring blessing to anyone.”

He reminds Zimbabweans that God promised to cut off Ahab and his descendents, just as Jezebel had dispossessed Naboth of his vineyard – and his descendents.

“When we look at what God did to Ahab and Jezebel, our politicians would do well to listen,” concluded Freeth


Submitted by/For further information:

Ben Freeth
Executive Director
The Mike Campbell Foundation