Geographies of violence in Zimbabwe

Lloyd Sachikonye has written several powerful articles and books on violence in Zimbabwe. His book, ‘When a State turns against its citizens: 60 years of institutionalized violence in Zimbabwe’ is particularly important. It documents what happened particularly around the elections in 2008, and how state led terror, deeply embedded in a particular political culture, was unleashed on the population. While graphic and harrowing, the book, as many accounts, gives the impression that this is what happened everywhere. In fact, there is an important geography of violence in Zimbabwe, which requires explanation, and this explanation helps us to nuance and differentiate are accounts of recent Zimbabwean politics in important ways.

There is little doubt that state-led violence, largely perpetrated by agents of ZANU-PF, increased during the 2000s, and peaked in particular around the 2008 elections. But there has been less commentary on the geography of violence – where it happened, and why. The uneven distribution of violence – including 161 cases that resulted in death – is highlighted in the dramatic maps produced by civil society monitoring groups and reproduced on the Sokwanele website. As these maps graphically show, violence of all sorts was massively concentrated in Mashonaland Central and East (1341 cases, around 60% of the total for the country), with ZANU youth being the main perpetrators. Masvingo, bar the series of incidents associated with election intimidation by war veterans in the communal area, Zaka, was by comparison relative unscathed.

It is this geographical difference that reflects the very different perceptions of politics in the country. As discussed in other blogs, our study has been accused of underplaying violent state politics as a factor in land reform, but even the civil society and human rights group monitoring even at the peak period in 2008 shows how limited this actually was in the province. We just reported what we found, and it seems to reflect what other data shows. But this is not to undermine or dismiss the 33 incidents (including 8 deaths) that were recorded in Masvingo province. Nor is this to suggest that the Mashonaland violence was isolated or unusual: it wasn’t – it was systematic and terrifying. However, it does push us to – yet again – nuance our analyses by place and time.

History is particularly important. Different provinces and districts have had very different political histories. The contrasts between Mashonaland and Matabeleland are obvious, usually cast in starkly defining ethnic terms. But Manicaland is different again, as is Karanga or Shangaan Masvingo. But even within these areas, there are further differences reflecting long-standing divides in political formations, histories of the liberation war and affiliations to particular leaders. This is not the place to go into these, as they are immensely complex and require the sort of detailed district histories that Terence Ranger commented on in his review of our book. Only with these histories do we get a sense of the social and political history of particular places, and how this affects contemporary patterns of politics, patronage and violence.

Ranger is therefore absolutely right that the Masvingo story is peculiar and particular – just as every area of Zimbabwe is in one sense. And the more fine grained you go, each village and farm is different in other ways, as we explained in our brief histories of jambanja farm invasion experiences. So explaining the politics of land acquisition, who benefited and why requires this sort of analysis.

Arnold Chamunogwa has completed a fascinating MA thesis at IDS at the University of Sussex, using different theories of politics to explore the different dynamics and outcomes in three different cases all recently presented in the Journal of Peasant Studies special issue – in Goromonzi near Harare (based on the PhD work by Nelson Marongwe), Chipinge in Manicaland (based on the work of Phillan Zamchiya) and Masvingo province (based on our work). He argues that theories of ‘instrumentalisation of disorder’ (drawing on Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Deloz among others) characterises some areas, while theories of ‘neo-patrimonialism’ (based on work by Nicholas van der Walle and others) characterise others, and in other areas theories of ‘informal politics’ (based on arguments by David Booth, Richard Crook, Christian Lund and others) are more appropriate explanations. These politics emerge from particular histories, social configurations, state relations and experiences of land reform, as well as the particular characteristics and values of the farm systems concerned. The experiences in Goromonzi, Chipinge and Masvingo were as a result very different.

That’s no surprise, I hear you exclaim! Well in a way, no. But it’s important to point out, and the theorisation is helpful to differentiate between different forms of politics in practice – none conforming to the standard liberal good governance mode. So why then did ‘the instrumentalisation of disorder’ dominate in Mashonaland Central and East? This was the core of the Zezuru support base for ZANU PF, and with Goromonzi so close to Harare, there were rich pickings for the elite who were able to create disorder actively and manipulate the process, grabbing land as a result. In Chipinge, with a different political configuration and a historically strong opposition from ZANU Ndonga, a political-bureaucratic network formed to allocate high value land to try and consolidate ZANU PF support, attempting to create a support base in the midst of opposition, ousting land invaders in the process. By contrast, in Masvingo a more informal politics emerged, particularly around the invaded A1 and informal farms where a mix of people were involved, led by war veterans and traditional leaders. The factional politics of Masvingo meant that the imposition of a strong centrist party line was impossible, and locally negotiated solutions emerged. In all settings, attempts at political capture were incomplete, often failing dramatically, and war veterans and others who led invasions often turned on leading party officials attempting to grab land, accusing them of undermining the objectives of the ‘Third Chimurenga’. Politics, as ever, was highly contested, yet the styles and patterns differed due to very particular, and often very long-term socio-cultural and political histories of the different sites.

As we assess the changing nature of Zimbabwean politics, it is important to take these differences into account, and avoid the generalisations that so much commentary resorts to. Just as Zimbabwe as a whole is not explained by what has gone on in Masvingo, so too is the wider political story not explained by referring only to Mashonaland and the highly contested farms near Harare. Explaining this diversity in the geographies of violence is not to condone it, but it does help explain why the recent past has been experienced so differently in different places across the country.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland

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3 responses to “Geographies of violence in Zimbabwe

  1. Pingback: Know your constituency: a challenge for all of Zimbabwe’s political parties | zimbabweland

  2. Pingback: Beyond White Settler Capitalism: Zimbabwe’s Agrarian Reform | zimbabweland

  3. Pingback: Catch up time: the top 20 blogs from the past year | zimbabweland

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