Masvingo exceptionalism? The challenge of case studies

One of the main complaints about our book is that it’s mostly about Masvingo, and that it does not tell the whole story of land reform in Zimbabwe over the past decade or so. On all counts we are guilty. As we are clear in the book we are not making wider claims. This is a case study – of 16 sites in one province over 10 years. As Professor Terry Ranger remarks in his recent review of our book: “Patterns emerge but the book pays admirable attention to variation and variety”. Such a province-wide case study is still important, we maintain, as a basis for more in-depth comparison where contrasts and convergences can be teased out.

The Commercial Farmers Union of Zimbabwe and their supporters often make the point that Masvingo is ‘exceptional’, and that somehow are results should not be taken too seriously. They argue that this was not a ‘real farming’ area, and that something different happened there. Well, if this was not an important part of the commercial farming sector, why on earth did they not give up the land for resettlement many years before? Of course other areas in the Highveld are different, as we clearly state in the book. But, as we equally argue, there are some important broader patterns. And indeed, wider work that has emerged since has challenged in similar ways the five myths we lay out in the book.

A number of points are made about Masvingo ‘exceptionalism’. First, of course, Masvingo is in the drier part of the country, where certain cropping and livestock rearing patterns prevail. This agroecological difference is of course important, but let’s also remember that geographically the largest portion of the country is dry, with poor infrastructure and reliant on rainfed production, even in the former commercial sector. Second, the proximity to Harare is seen as a key factor in affecting the degree to which land was grabbed by elites through processes of violence and patronage. This again is true, and many of the high-profile cases where whole farms were taken by those well connected to the political-military elite are in these areas. But, as argued before in this blog, the pattern of ‘cronyism’ remains much under dispute. Third, as Terry Ranger argues in his review, the longer-term histories of particular places are important both in the processes and outcomes of land reform. This is absolutely correct. As we point out in the book it is these micro-political contexts, influenced by histories – of the liberation war, chieftaincy and political party allegiances – that have had really important influences on what happened, where. He admonishes us for not referring more to a set of important historical district studies (by for example Alexander, Kriger, Maxwell, Moore, Ranger, Schmidt), but all of these fall outside Masvingo (all are from Manicaland). In Masvingo there is a perhaps surprising absence of such studies, beyond the important study of Great Zimbabwe by Fontein, although we have some fantastically rich pre-colonial accounts from Gerald Mazarire and others.

These three factors will have a big influence on land reform processes and outcomes. But to what degree do these specificities (all variable indeed within Masvingo as we point out) affect the broad challenge of the 5 ‘myths’? We now have a growing body of work available to assess this, including the AIAS 6 district study led by Sam Moyo, the 3 district study by Ruziwo Trust led by Prosper Matondi, and the growing array of more focused, farm-based studies by research students and others, supported for example as part of the ‘Livelihoods after Land Reform’ small grants call, and some collected together in the important synthesis volume of the Journal of Peasant Studies by Lionel Cliffe and colleagues. These studies cover an increasing number of locations across Zimbabwe, with perhaps Matabeleland North and Midlands provinces being the least covered to date.

While the results from this now large body of work show wide variation, there are also some important common patterns. Overall, our analysis of the 5 myths is supported by other studies: all are rejected. A more detailed and systematic cross-study assessment would certainly be valuable, but the deployment of the ‘Masvingo is exceptional’ narrative in order in some way to reject the validity and applicability of our findings is clearly inappropriate. And so is the argument that ‘we need much more data from other places in order to take the wider significance of the Masvingo study seriously’. We have this data, and the body of work is growing: to date no one has dealt a killer blow to our study!

But what these other studies have done is nuance, extend and challenge some of the implications of our analysis. This is important. This is good research and how understanding progresses. Avoid the point-scoring, the summary rejections, and the attempts to side-line, but engage. This is certainly my attitude. The contrasts between studies certainly highlight all three of the factors highlighted above – agroecology, location and history – in interesting ways.

Clearly agroecology has a huge influence on what is possible in agronomic terms, but also the returns to investment, and so the incentives to invest in infrastructure, including greenhouses, irrigation and so on. This in turn influences the style of farming – higher potential areas offer opportunities for more intensive farming, where farm labour is important, and is more linked to the (still struggling) A2 sector. Paradoxically, until investment gets going (and this requires market confidence and stability as well as credit and financial services), it is the lower potential low-input areas based on smallholder family farm labour that are the more successful. Of course the tobacco story offers a different angle on this, and there are important lessons to be learned for the A2 farms more generally from this experience.

Proximity to urban centres, and particularly Harare, is again important. The attraction of big chefs is one dimension to this. It is certainly the case that the Mashonaland provinces had substantially more A2 plots allocated during fast-track land reform. These were particularly prone to capture by elites as we have discussed elsewhere. But we also have to differentiate between this sort of patronage – through manipulation of bureaucratic allocation procedures, for example – to the large scale ‘grabs’ of whole farms. The high profile cases of these are almost exclusively in the high potential Mashonaland provinces, and although small in number they are large areas and the ‘grabbers’ are very high profile people, from the president down. These are now euphemistically called ‘large-scale A2’ farms, and have been accepted as part of the new agrarian structure. The big question is whether these players gain the upper hand politically and assert a new dualism in farming, just with new owners. This would be a regressive move, undermining the aims of the agrarian reform. As a result an effective land audit and a close social, political and economic analysis of these new farms (and their new owners) will be essential. Here there certainly are important contrasts between provinces, and this must be an essential part of the wider political analysis (see next week’s blog on ‘missing politics’).

Finally, longer term histories of people and places are, as Terry Ranger, argues essential. This may not have a big impact on overall production patterns, for example, but the underlying authority structures, the role of different local elites, chiefs and others, as well as the political dynamic will all be influenced by such histories. This will have had an impact for sure – as it did across our sites in Masvingo – on land invasion and acquisition processes, as well as patterns of violence. But it will also influence future governance arrangements, and the possibilities (or not) of ‘rebuilding public authority from below’.

As Ranger correctly argues there will not be a ‘Masvingo solution’, and our book “is not the end but very much the beginning of a discussion”. This discussion is now well under way, and supported by a range of scholarship mostly from Zimbabweans studying what happened where to build the bigger story of Zimbabwe’s land reform.

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2 responses to “Masvingo exceptionalism? The challenge of case studies

  1. Pingback: Missing politics? | zimbabweland

  2. Pingback: State, land and democracy: reflections on Zimbabwe | zimbabweland

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