Progress of what for whom in Zimbabwe?

‘Progress’ is a slippery term. It of course depends of what and for whom, and in relation to which alternatives. It is deployed to define all that is good, upholding particular visions and dismissing others. In development discourse it is often associated with all-powerful modernisation narratives, linked to a particular vision of civilisation, order and control. Lack of ‘progress’ is associated with all that is bad, backward and regressive. The result is that simple narratives of black and white, good and bad are presented, which fail to recognise nuance and complexity.

Professor David Moore in a recent special issue of the Journal of Contemporary African Studies launches into this debate (highlighted recently in African Arguments). This issue draws on a conference held in 2010 in Bulawayo. In his opening essay, Moore asks: “for whom (in late 2011) in Zimbabwe had “progress” unfolded? Very few indeed, it would seem”. Violent accumulation and the exertion of power have resulted in this lack of progress in Zimbabwe, he argues. Zimbabwe is portrayed as going backwards, in total chaos: forced migration, informal work, and corruption reign.

Of course this is part of the story. However, Moore unhelpfully does not define what he understands by ‘progress’, and how this is differentiated in contemporary Zimbabwe. Who are the winners and losers? Where and on whom is the violence being meted out? Who is accumulating through this? How is this restructuring social and political relations? And what are the implications of this for broader patterns of differentiation, class formation and political alliances? Instead, the overview paper – and most of the papers in the issue (with some good exceptions) – are based on broad-brush generalisations which, if backed up at all, reference newspaper articles and politically positioned commentaries.

Call me an old-fashioned empiricist (I am), but I was rather amazed that the now growing body of work on the post 2000 land reform which shows how significant numbers of people are ‘accumulating from below’ on the basis of new access to land, is so quickly dismissed. In a bizarre passage, our work is singled out. Moore says:

“The secular celebrants of the “land to the poor” litany maintain their beliefs (Scoones 2010…) but the statistical rebuffs to what appears to be their positivist rectitude are incubating”.

 I am not sure how our results can simply be cast as ‘beliefs’, nor where the rebuffs are incubating. Empiricism is dismissed as ‘positivist rectitude’, but in my view the lack of detailed field-based enquiry has plagued the Zimbabwe debate, and continues to do so as this contribution shows. Our theoretical understandings of the Zimbabwe situation are not going to be improved without a more solid empirical base, where contrasts and divergences are explored and analysed. The recent special issue of the Journal of Peasant Studies edited by Lionel Cliffe and colleagues was an important first attempt at this, yet this now broad body of work on land, agriculture and rural change in Zimbabwe post 2000 gets little recognition here.

Recent studies in Zimbabwe, including our own, do offer some insights into the concern of Moore and the contributors to the issue. Patterns of accumulation in the rural areas are highly diverse – some are accumulating ‘from above’ (sometimes, but certainly not always through violence), while some are accumulating ‘from below’ through hard work, ingenuity and persistence (see our forthcoming paper in the Journal of Agrarian Change). Who has been able to tap into the process of accumulation from above, and through what means is certainly an important question. But so is the question of who are those who are accumulating from below: building assets, income levels and with this social and political power in the countryside. These processes of differentiation, unleashed by a combination of land reform, political turmoil and economic collapse, are having important implications. Painting all this as simply ‘lack of progress’ and solely dominated by political violence, the result of a particular nationalist ideology (dubbed here ‘the Mugabe mode of accumulation’) is insufficient. Instead, a more sophisticated analysis is needed; one that identifies new social and political formations, and their relationships to elite military-political power.

As a number of contributors to this special issue argue, the form of authoritarian nationalism allowing for elite capture and control has been continuous since the liberation struggle within what became the core of ZANU-PF. The idea of a clean rupture in 2000 (or perhaps 1997) is of course inaccurate. Yet there are important new dimensions in the post 2000 period. These certainly include oppression, exclusion and violence, but they also include production, accumulation and innovation resulting from land reform. As in any dynamic, contingent and complex political process, there are winners and losers. Locating who these are, their networks and alliances – as well as, importantly, their geographic location – is a vital analytical task.

This might help us develop a more sophisticated assessment of ‘progress’ of what and for whom. In our work in Masvingo province, we asked different people about ‘success’ (a similarly slippery term, with comparable connotations), and it was fascinating to learn how the ‘new’ farmers on the resettlement schemes defined this in their own terms. If there is to be a debate about what type of progress is appropriate in Zimbabwe, this must move beyond broad-sweep generalisations to get to grips with these differentiated understandings based on field based research. In this regard, unfortunately, this collection is not as helpful as it might have been.

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