State, land and democracy: reflections on Zimbabwe

Last week I was in Italy at the invitation of the University of Bologna to talk at a day conference on ‘State, Land and Democracy in Southern Africa’. The morning was taken up with discussions on Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia, while the whole afternoon was devoted to Zimbabwe.

It was a great discussion, and it was interesting how many of the themes from the wider region resonate in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe clearly does not have a monopoly on land being used as patronage, uncertainties around tenure regimes, debates about the role of large-scale farms, ‘land grabs’ and the role of private investors, or even the use of land as a tool in electoral politics. This seems to be standard fare across the region. Yet the fascination with Zimbabwe remains, and the debates framed by extremely polarised narratives and poor understanding of empirical contexts continue.

The Zimbabwe debate however seems to be maturing. There is a recognition that, whatever the fiddling, the elections of 2013 represent a turning point. The future is uncertain, but the land issue, and with this the role of rural electoral politics, is crucial. In my paper I argued (as I have done before in this blog) that the emergence of a new class of ‘middle farmers’ on the resettlements (both A1 and A2) is important to the understanding of the new political dynamics of the countryside, and any assessment of the 2013 election.

This group represents diverse interests, coming from both ‘peasant’ (communal area) and urban worker backgrounds, as well as having a fair share of the salaried class of civil servants. Yet, despite their disparate origins and class positions, they are bound together by a continued commitment to rural production, investment and accumulation, as ‘petty commodity producers’ and ‘worker-farmers’; even an emergent ‘rural bourgeoisie’.

Pitched against an elite group connected to and benefiting from ZANU-PF party, military and business networks, there is a tussle between different visions of the future, linked to very different patterns of accumulation – from below and from above. These on-going contests over land and styles of production are central to the future of the Zimbabwean state, and wider polity. I discussed two broad case study areas in Masvingo province: the ‘core land reform areas’, where land was taken from white commercial farms, and where there is a high density of A1 and A2 settlements in relatively better agroecological potential areas, and what I termed the ‘peripheral areas’ of the lowveld, where land reform was more contested – on the sugar estates, the large state farms and trust lands and in the wildlife areas. Here attempts at elite capture by big ‘chefs’, connected to capitalist interests in sugar, ethanol and wildlife production for example, are being resisted actively by those who demand land. The balance of power is uneven, but surprisingly we see repeated victories by those who are seemingly less powerful, and the state and its allies often find it difficult to see through their vision in these areas, given the volatile politics and uncertainty on the margins of state power.

What of the longer term future given this political dynamic? Of course, as discussed so many times before, Masvingo doesn’t reflect the situation everywhere, and there are a diversity of contexts and outcomes. However there are some basic patterns that the Masvingo cases give a window on. One scenario for the future sees a capture by the elite, and the extension of patrimonial relations between elites and national/international capital, ultimately excluding the alternative voices and futures, and quashing future resistance. This can be achieved of course only through the persistence of violent, non-democratic and ‘obstructive politics’ typical of the ZANU-PF regime. Another, more optimistic scenario, sees the emergence of an organised middle farmer group with economic and political clout, and crucially with a key role in feeding urban populations and providing foreign exchange through producing strategic crops (currently of course primarily tobacco). They in turn push the state to respond to their demands resulting in a regearing of state efforts in rural areas. This scenario thus offers the opportunity of rebuilding a responsive, more democratic state from below.

I argued that we should not reject the latter scenario, even if the former remains currently the more likely default. The shifts in electoral fortunes in 2013 might indeed indicate the power of such a voting block. And unlike the rural populace before, such people may not be kept quiet with sops in the form of food aid or subsidised fertiliser. They will demand more and, like the forms of resistance seen in the lowveld for instance to elite grabs, they may become more assertive and act to hold the state, and associated elites, to account.

Ultimately a rebalancing of political forces will be required, and here a revamped opposition will be key, as they may be able to appeal to an entrepreneurial, middle farmer class in the rural areas. To date, without a convincing narrative on land and rural development, the MDC has failed dismally, but hopefully as they lick their wounds from the 2013 defeat, there is some thinking going on about how to engage a still largely rural electorate in issues that matter to them. In particular, this will require thought about the type of constituencies that are emerging now as a result of processes of differentiation and class formation following land reform.

The relationship between state, land and democracy in Zimbabwe is far from settled, but we may be getting glimpses of the future, beneath the current turmoil that are worth looking at in more depth. Developing this conversation at a regional level, as this conference did, is especially useful.

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

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One response to “State, land and democracy: reflections on Zimbabwe

  1. Pingback: Links zum Wochenende #55 | Claire Grauer

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