Missing politics?

In a highly perceptive review of our book, Blair Rutherford from Carleton University in Canada, argues that our work has been “pivotal” in the “shifting of the debate on land reform” in Zimbabwe. But in so doing, he argues, we have created a new narrative which, while capturing the local and the specific, misses some of the bigger picture. This is an important challenge, and one that is worth exploring. It chimes, in a rather more sophisticated way than others, with the assertions that we have missed out on politics in our account, and that the wider processes of violent nationalism associated with ZANU-PF’s desperate holding on to power have been ignored (see some other book reviews).

Rutherford argues that our “immersion in the material details .. limits the book”. At the same time, he states “This book provides an incredible wealth of detail of the diverse economic practices emerging from and intersecting with the social relations and environmental conditions shaping the agrarian dynamics in Masvingo, while attending to the uncertain and disputed authority relations seeking to govern diverse farming areas”. The “exemplary strength” of the book, he says is that the book shows a “refined analysis of the particular socio-political and class positioning of individuals and households and some of the shifts over the last 10 years”.

Yet, despite this, he argues that the book ‘occludes’ and ‘limits’ analysis. What does he have in mind? He notes that we were reluctant to draw wider generalisations on the land invasions from the specific cases – each site was different, with a different dynamic, political history. We kept instead to the “empirical particularities”. However, when we looked at the ‘outcomes’ – the focus of the study – we did find some emerging patterns, embedded in huge diversity of course. And this was the focus on class-specific patterns of agrarian change that Rutherford commented on favourably.

This highlighted a group of ‘middle farmers’ accumulating from below on the basis of petty commodity production, employing labour, selling surpluses and investing in the land. This was not everyone in all places (and therefore highly qualified), but a broader pattern we noted, especially across the A1 schemes. We contrasted this with the patterns in the 1980s, and noted favourably the potentials of this dynamic both for production, and development more broadly. Rutherford argues that this in turn emerges as a emergent narrative – a new myth – based on a valiant picture of “yeoman effort”, around which the book positions itself. This is certainly one strand of our argument, but this is based on analysis, rooted in highly detailed empirical data, and certainly does not have the status of the ‘myths’ we were debunking. These were based more on ideology than fact, and although some have claimed that these were “overstated” in the book, any cursory look at the media, and much of the wider ‘academic’ commentary will show that they were not (just take a look at the sections on land in Daniel Compagnon’s otherwise useful book, Zimbabwe: A predictable tragedy, for a typical example).

Ours is therefore an emergent, interpretive narrative – but it is not simply “a position”, “a stand”, but a narrative based on findings and analysis. In many respects it was unexpected and emerged from our detailed studies through rigorous empirical study, and in this sense diverse, complex, nuanced and situated ‘realities’ did contrast with mainstream ‘myths’. Our new narrative around land and livelihoods is, we argue, of a very different status to the ‘myths’ being peddled elsewhere. Of course all narratives are partial, positioned and in need of unpacking. Rutherford does a good service in this regard. But, as discussed in this blog before, I don’t believe our method or our team was unreasonably biased. Our politics were and remain incredibly diverse, and were not, I would argue, “masked” by the book.

So what then is occluded and limited by the book’s focus? I think there are certainly some things which deserve further empirical investigation, analysis and scrutiny. Rutherford identifies a few.

For example, we did not include many of the experiences of those excluded from land reform post 2000 – the farm workers who were evicted, the white farmers who lost their land or the communal area people who were excluded, for example. This is a fair point. In respect of farm workers and former white farmers we certainly tried to locate them, but they were relatively few (unlike say in the Highveld) and difficult to trace, and even if found unlikely to talk – although we did devote a full chapter to issues around labour. Those white farmers who stayed in the district we have re-engaged with, and they appear in the book, although anonymised. In terms of the impacts in nearby communal areas, we made the choice (partly through issues of logistics and resources) not to do a comparative analysis of outcomes in the resettlements and the communal areas (along the lines of Bill Kinsey’s classic earlier studies). We are now filling this gap with a more focused study of what happened in nearby areas, including issues of inclusion/exclusion.

Even in retrospect, I do not regret our focus on a detailed site-by-site analysis of what happened to livelihoods after land reform, focusing on the specifics of each case within the ‘fast-track’ areas. When we started this work in 2000 – and even when we finished a decade later – there was a shocking absence of this sort of detailed work. It was not easy work to do, and there were many risks and challenges. But directing a forensic spotlight on these empirical particularities through a case study focus was (and remains) essential. We were, as Rutherford notes, interested in outcomes (what happened to who, where), but we were also interested in the processes which account for these outcomes. We do not, I think, present an “explicit disavowal of the debates and processes of land reform”. Far from it. In fact, Rutherford concurs: “this attention to the history, to the process, is another strength of the monograph, as they are able to analyse the differential consequences of land distribution on class, gender and productivity axes”.

However, Rutherford argues that “this analytical positioning prevents them from addressing the wider-scale politics and power relations which have been so crucial for these micro-dynamics…. This, I would suggest, leads them to make some questionable analyses and prognoses”. This is an argument made by others, and one that is important to address (and in fact – partially – agree with). I definitely agree that the wider national political context is important. We addressed this as part of Chapter 1, but perhaps this was not brought back sufficiently as context for the later analysis. However, the importance of a case study approach – one province, 16 sites, 400 households etc. – is that we must relate what happened in particular places to the broader setting. Sometimes wider processes impinge, sometimes not.

Rutherford, for example, critiques our treatment of Operation Murambatsvina and the 2008 election violence. In our book, we always insisted on locating our discussion in the evidence from our study areas. So, when discussing Operation Murambatsvina we did not include a long discussion of the wider politics and implications, especially in some parts of Harare (although we offered the appropriate references), but focused on the impacts in our areas, which were very different. Equally, when discussing election violence we focused on experiences in our sites (where violence was actually rather limited), and located these in the wider picture.

Both these instances of high-profile, politicised events show how diverse their impacts were, and how geographically located experiences have been. This does not undermine, deny or ignore the wider political significance of such events both nationally and in other places; indeed both shaped very fundamentally the political context in this period. However, by focusing on particular localities and experiences, our aim was to contextualise them, and so provide a sense of proportion in a wider, often highly generalised discussion of the Zimbabwe situation.

Following others, and most eloquently Brian Raftoupolos who spoke at the Cape Town launch of the book, Rutherford argues that the broader implications of land reform for national level politics are not brought out. How this period has reshaped the politics of the state and its relationship with people has been fundamental. He argues that our focus on the micro-details of what happened in particular places runs the danger of ignoring these wider political processes, a point made equally forcefully by Amanda Hammar in her review of the book. This is true, and certainly such a broader analysis should be part of a much larger project of understanding reconfigured state-society relations and the politicisation of state practices in the post-land reform period, alongside the political, economic and social consequences of a massively reshaped agrarian structure.

This is work that some scholars have now commenced, with Sam Moyo’s recent contributions particularly important in relation to agrarian politics. Forthcoming articles by us in the Journal of Agrarian Change and African Affairs (due out in September/October – keep an eye on the blogs for some summaries) reflect on patterns of differentiation and political dynamics both in the core ‘fast-track’ areas and the marginal lowveld areas outside formal land reform areas of Masvingo province. This work allows us to explore alternative interpretations and future scenarios. We argue that in our case study sites we are seeing the emergence of a ‘middle farmer’ class who, while benefiting from the land reform, are not allied to the political-military elite and mostly reject what Hammar calls the “political project of hegemony and sovereignty of the (previous yet persistent) Zanu-PF party-state”, even if they don’t all vote for the opposition (although many do, if secretly). Indeed, we argue, this group may represent a progressive alternative to the elite ‘land grabbers’, one that opposition formations ought to mobilise and create a ‘narrative around land, agriculture and rural development’ around. By contrast, Rutherford forwards an alternative interpretation: that the successful ‘accumulation from below’ we observed is the direct result of the suppression of political opposition and the violence of state practice, making resettlement farmers dependent subjects of a violent, nationalist state. This is an important discussion, one again that needs contextualising in site-specific analysis. Indeed both interpretations may be appropriate, but in different places and at different times.

So, in sum, I agree this is a gap and one that requires more debate, a debate that Rutherford has usefully sparked. But this does not undermine or fundamentally challenge the findings of the book, as some seek to do. We had one main aim – investigating and telling the story of land reform from the ground. This required presenting lots of detail (which most, including Rutherford, seem to appreciate), and it already ran to 288 pages in horribly small type. What is surely needed for this wider assessment of current and future national political dynamics is a located understanding of diverse experiences in different places, as Rutherford correctly argues in his conclusion. A synthetic, analytical perspective must reflect such diversity – and the complex, contingent and specific “entanglements” that exist. As the recent Journal of Peasant Studies special issue showed, Masvingo is different to Goromonzi (Marongwe’s paper) and to Chipinge (Zamchiya’s paper), but there are some important convergences too, as Cliffe et al note, and as highlighted by the AIAS district studies. With this accumulation of empirical evidence, it is this wider analysis that becomes so crucial.

Any wider assessment must therefore root its analysis in these diverse local contexts or contingencies or risk the kind of simplistic over-generalisation that has characterised much writing on Zimbabwe in recent years. Unfortunately, the gap between broader national-level political analysis and field-level specifics has been massive in recent debates, and has exacerbated misunderstanding and prevented productive debate. This gap urgently needs to be narrowed, and the communities of researchers engaged at these different scales, often debating in different languages and frames, need to start working together more concretely. We look forward to participating in such a collective project, as it is most definitely needed as Zimbabwe looks forward.

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