Class, politics and land reform in Zimbabwe

Many readers of this blog will have already read Professor Sam Moyo’s important pair of articles in the Journal of Peasant Studies (here and here) analysing Zimbabwe’s three decades of land reform. These usefully contextualise the post 2000 period, and help us understand the social and political character of the recent land reform.

In his recent edited book for Codesria, Beyond White Settler Capitalism: Zimbabwe’s Agrarian Reform, Moyo pulls much of this work together, and extends it, in a scene setting chapter on land.

He offers a periodisation of the land reform experience in Zimbabwe since Independence, thus:

Between 1980 and 1989, land reform was based on state-led purchases of land on the market and its allocation to selected beneficiaries, in the context of heterodox economic policies, which enabled increased public spending on social services and peasant agriculture. From 1990, neoliberal policies restricted state interventions in markets, in general and restricted social welfare subsidies. Furthermore, land redistribution slowed down, despite the adoption of land expropriation laws. In the third phase, an escalating social crisis, which culminated in extreme political polarisation by 1997, saw the land redistribution programme shift towards land expropriation, leading to extensive land redistribution and increased state interventions in the economy, alongside bitterly contested elections. (page 30).

In each of these periods, different political and economic imperatives were at play, and with these different narratives – about the role of land in economy, about farming and farmers, and about who should be the appropriate beneficiaries. This historical contextualisation is important as it situates the more recent period as a radical break with the past, shattering past relations of settler monopoly capitalism, as he describes it. The chapter offers a detailed overview of the main outcomes of land reform, and its impacts on gender relations, labour, elites and others. He shows that the post 2000 land reform unfolded through a number of phases – he identifies four – each with different political and economic characteristics. It is this more detailed, textured analysis that periodises, unpacks and contextualises that really helps push forward our understandings of the politics and economics of Zimbabwe’s land reform, and the chapter usefully complements the special issue and book edited by Lionel Cliffe and colleagues that pulls together much recent research on Zimbabwe’s land reform, showing the broader, but geographically and temporally varied, outcomes.

In the concluding sections, Moyo turns to the political consequences of land reform. Drawing on multiple research sources, he once again has to refute the popular assumptions about who got the land, in order to draw out the implications (see earlier blog, here). He notes:

Contrary to the media- driven assumption that only cronies of the ruling party benefited from land redistribution, empirical data demonstrate that more ‘ordinary’ people (poor peasants, workers and the unemployed) benefited from land redistribution . Over 75 per cent of the beneficiaries in A1 farms and/or the small-scale family A2 farm units were peasants with rather limited formal connections to political parties (page 57).

As also discussed in our work on land and social differentiation, this pattern of land ownership and the associated class positions that result, has important implications for wider politics, and the process of political mobilisation, including around the elections this week. Moyo observes:

Party political mobilisation and fragmentation over land has largely been a petty-bourgeois accumulation contest over A2 land allocations, more so since the leadership of the ruling party had reigned in its radical elements, particularly among the lower-echelons of the war veterans association from 2004. Power struggles within the ruling party shifted from the radical nationalist political unity associated with the Fast Track period towards factionalism associated with the succession contest. Currently, ideological differences across political parties are focused on the privatisation of redistributed land, with ZANU-PF being focused on maintaining the peasantry’s support, through providing access to farming inputs.

But political mobilisation and fragmentation over access to land between ZANU-PF and the MDC and within the former have been less visible than other divisions. Factionalism has not fully degenerated along the Shona-Ndebele ethnic line, although this partly obtains around electoral tactics, while the rural-urban divide continues to shape ZANU-PF vs. MDC political mobilisation. Despite this divide, party politics and ethno-chauvinism are more centred on differences over the regional distribution of state support to farming and class differences over the role of the state, although the fact of having promoted land redistribution still benefits ZANU-PF electorally.

Instead, local politics are being re-shaped by the changing local administrative and political power relations that resulted from replacing white farmers’ control over land, territory and labour…. Local power struggles mainly involve lineage-clan leaders, chieftaincies, farmer and social associations and local bureaucracies. The powers wielded by war veteran leaders of the land occupations have been displaced. Sparse local government authorities are ill-equipped to regulate the expanded land administration regime and ubiquitous natural resources and mineral extraction. The hereditary chiefs demand more powers to fill these regulation gaps (pages 57-8)

Power struggles between different players are therefore shaping a hotly contested rural politics, with both intra-elite struggles, and disputes between peasants, workers and new landed elites. The configurations of political actors in rural areas has dramatically shifted since 2000, and continues to change, affected by national as well local and regional processes. Ethno-regionalism continues to have an influence in some areas, as local claims over land are asserted, and this in turn feeds into wider political dimensions. The current electoral contest will reflect some of these machinations, and the wider implications for a longer term political settlement have yet to be realised. The main political parties really do not know their rural constituencies yet, as they have been reshaped, reshuffled and recast in recent years.

Overall, Moyo concludes, “The FTLRP land redistribution partly addressed outstanding national questions, which the decolonisation process evaded” (page 58). The Zimbabwe case is important, he argues, because land reform has been possible “despite the hegemony of neoliberalism” (page 70). Speaking to a wider audience, he argues that the Zimbabwe case shows that:

“… land reform can be mobilised nationally and involve various classes, while transcending other divides such as rural-urban, worker peasant and ethno-regional differences. Implementing radical land reform required decentralised structures and coherent leadership, which the liberation war veterans stimulated. Both direct popular action through land occupations and state expropriations, led by the petty-bourgeoisie within and outside the state, shaped the actual redistribution process by balancing the demands of popular and other classes (pages 70-1).

He is clear however that the contradications thrown up by land reform have not been resolved, and that the different groupings in the tri-modal pattern of land use that has evolved are far from agreed, and that struggles continue. He does conclude, however, that despite the failings and limitations that he is not shy to present, “agrarian structural change has opened up diverse, ‘productive’and ‘non-racial’ paths to rural social transformation” (page 63).

Let us hope that the difficult conversation around choices for development paths that will unfold following the elections this week, will take account of the complexities on the ground, but also capitalise on the successes and potentials of such radical agrarian change.

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

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4 responses to “Class, politics and land reform in Zimbabwe

  1. Pingback: Zimbabwe’s election aftermath: what next? | zimbabweland

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

  3. Pingback: Zimbabweland in 2013 | zimbabweland

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