There have been two excellent commentaries on Zimbabwe’s political situation recently by Brian Raftopolous and Joost Fontein. Both point to a ‘politics of despair’, a sense of despondency that no alternative is possible at least in the short-term. They make rather depressing reading. I agree with their analysis in broad terms, although as I point out below, they miss out another more pragmatic politics of hope. They focus on (mostly) a view from the metropolitan middle classes, committed to a democratic transition. In different terms, this is the view expressed widely in the diaspora. The excitement around the potential for change that was seen in the late 1990s and into the 2000s, has dissipated.
Raftopolous points to the changing global configuration of power and interests that frames the Zimbabwe situation. Contrary to the last decade, he argues, “calls for democratisation are being pushed back by the statist imperatives of securitisation and stabilisation with few attempts to confront the constraints of neoliberalism”. This is apparent amongst western nations whose concentration on southern Africa has been diverted to the concerns with militant Islamic insurgency in eastern and west Africa. SADC as a body seems not to be pushing a democratization agenda, and with Mugabe at the head of the AU this year, his focus will be on other questions, not least the threats of Boko Haram and Al Shabaab. As Raftopolous points out, the Chinese, now major backers of the Zimbabwe state, with bilateral trade reaching $1.4 billion, are not, despite claims to the contrary, interested in disrupting a neoliberal status quo that benefits their commercial interests.
Given this, “the challenges for the opposition in developing an alternative vision for Zimbabwe are immense”, comments Raftopolous. “At a domestic level the opposition has to confront the combined coercive and patronage structures of the ruling party. On a broader regional and international plane the opposition must contend with Zanu-PF’s capacity to combine its nationalist and Pan Africanist invocations with the ‘normalisation’ discourse of neoliberalism and the clear international trend towards re-engagement with the Mugabe regime”.
Combined with the “constant bickering” of the opposition parties, there does not seem much prospect of an organized opposition response, even in the 2018 elections. With the opposition in disarray and key leaders on sabbaticals in the US, writing biographical reflections of their earlier heroic struggles, and the ‘Renewal Team’, at least for now, being expelled from parliament, there does not seem to be much likelihood of early regrouping.
This is the politics of the long-haul. A view reflected in the commentaries picked up by Fontein. He reflects on the hope that characterized the mood of the early 2000s. Correctly he observes, this was far from universal, “but the doom and gloom of ‘authoritarian nationalism’, and the ‘end of modernity’ for a ‘plunging’ Zimbabwe, that preoccupied scholars, did not always match the confidence in new and better futures that one also encountered on Zimbabwe’s streets and resettled farms”.
He, however, observes that with hindsight, “all this hope seems profoundly misplaced”. He goes on to paint a rather dismal picture, where no hope for change is offered. He concludes “Despondency is prevalent and a new timescale of hope and aspiration has taken hold that makes both the present and any immediate future appear equally uninspiring. If people are just waiting, as many have suggested, most have resigned themselves to the long haul”. For his friends working in local government in Harare who had not been paid for months, this is indeed the reality (although perhaps offset by the growth of an excellent underground strand of satirical comedy).
Raftopolous points to the underlying factors leading to this politics of despair. These range, he notes, “from the re-organisation of Zanu-PF and its political machinery of patronage, coercion and electoral chicanery, to the massive dissipation of opposition energies in the context of large-scale changes in Zimbabwe social structure since the 1990s”.
But it is these changes in social structure – rooted in the land reform – that I think have been missed in these analyses. Maybe I am overly optimistic, but while these portrayals – of the international setting and for the employed, urban middle class – are unquestionably accurate, I don’t think they reflect the whole picture.
In our work in the resettlement farms of Masvingo, Mvurwi and now Matobo, we come across a spirit of optimism. Yes there are hardships and frustrations, and often damning tirades against the elite political class (but also, as noted last week, examples of resistance). People point to how things are better than they were, and are improving. We have been recently analyzing data from our surveys in Mvurwi, and you can see where this comes from. Across five years from 2010, all households across three A1 farms have been averaging production of maize at 3.2 tonnes (although with much variation), and tobacco averaging nearly a tonne. Around half of all households sold over a tonne of maize in 2014, many considerably more. And the numbers of cattle, cars, combis, tractors, trucks, cell phones, solar panels, pumps and more that have been bought in the last five years is phenomenal, according to our data.
These figures far exceed anything possible in the communal areas from where many came. And those who came from jobs in town swear they will never go back. Perhaps surprisingly, even though extremely income and asset poor, farm workers still resident in the compounds on these farms registered improvements, with many increasing cultivation, and acquiring assets. They all mentioned many problems of an often fragile existence, but nearly 60 per cent indicated that things had improved since land reform.
The contrasts with the depressed and demotivated discourse in the urban areas, where hope of change had been offered by the MDC in the 2000s, the resettlements seem a world away. Many problems remain, but things seem more hopeful and positive, focused as they are on the day to day travails of farming rather than on uncertain government salaries and a failing old, core economy. In a month or two (probably in June), there will be a blog series on our data from Mvurwi to illustrate the underlying patterns of livelihood change that generate this. But this is not just in the higher potential areas such as Mvurwi; even in Matabeleland where I was last month, and in the midst of a poor rainy season, many expressed a sense of achievement and potential when talking about their farms, and the future.
Generating a new sense of hope, out of which a new politics might emerge, will have to come from the fields and farms of rural Zimbabwe, and especially the resettlement areas. The opposition’s failure to engage with the realities of the land reform, and for much political commentary to ignore it too (including the otherwise excellent pieces from Brian and Joost) means that the other side of the Zimbabwe story is not heard, and another, more positive, future is not imagined.