The Native Purchase Areas were established as a result of the 1930 Land Apportionment Act, following the recommendations of the 1925 Morris Carter Commission. They were designed as compensation for the fact that Africans were not allowed to purchase land elsewhere. These were areas that had mostly been farmed by early settlers before the colony’s land was carved up into racial designations. Africans were given the option of buying newly demarcated properties, but the land was often in remote areas and of poor quality.
The Purchase Areas were slow to become established, as these were often in remote areas, without infrastructure. At Independence around 10,000 households had settled on around 1.4 m hectares, falling far short of the earlier promises of 50,000 Africans with freehold title. The vast majority of the acquisitions were by men, although some women did manage to buy independently, despite many obstacles. Initially, those living in the ‘native reserves’ were reluctant to shift, as the successful “reserve entrepreneurs” (as Terry Ranger called them for Makoni) had land, labour and markets where they already lived. Urban-based Africans, such as government clerks or messengers, were also encouraged to sign up, but again many sensed the leap into the unknown was too risky, as they after all already had rural homes in the ‘reserves’. The depression of the 1930s, put the squeeze on incomes, and few had the income or cattle to purchase land.
By the 1940s, the Purchase Areas were often criticised for being poor, backward, wasteful and inefficient. Rather than intensified production, extensification of low productivity mixed farms, opportunistic use of wetland ‘patches’ and resource extraction (of wood for timber and fuel) were the main trends, as described for Marirangwe by Allison Shutt. Many Purchase Area land owners were ‘absentee farmers’, and according to officials, were not taking care of their properties. They accumulated, but not in ways that the planners hoped. The commentary on both production efficiency and environmental degradation, peaking with the 1942 Natural Resources Board Inquiry, was damning. These were not the envisaged modern, commercial farming areas. Instead they were second homes of often urban employed Africans, where farming was a side-line. A few relatives and often a lot of cattle from the reserves, and as a source of saving from urban wages, were deposited there, and homes were used during vacations rather than as a permanent base for a farming operation. Today, the ‘cell phone farmers’ of the A2 resettlements are cast in a similar light.
Again – as with the A2 farms today – there were exceptions, including Purchase Area farm owners in Mshagashe near Masvingo hiring labour contractors and engaging in destocking auctions, as Allison Shutt describes. Some farmers later became members of Intensive Conservation Areas, presenting themselves as guardians of the land and conservationists, like white farmers. But the general narrative at the time (very similar to today) was that allocating medium-scale farms to inexperienced, unqualified, often absent, urban-based Africans was not a good move, if agricultural modernisation and production was the aim, and attempts at eviction and control were common (see for example cases from Marirangwe).
After the Second World War, more families acquired farms. The earlier reticence changed to an enthusiasm for social and economic transformation, realised by access to a farm – just like white farmers (although of course not as big, or in such favourable areas). As described by Michael West, this was part of a pattern of (highly selective) “racial uplift” – some educated Africans were favoured by the colonial authorities and given such benefits. Terry Ranger’s fascinating biography of the Samkange family is a case in point, with the purchase of the Mzengezi farm a key moment in the family’s history. Gaining access to purchase area land was a critical aspect of shifting identities of an educated African middle class, straddling urban and rural areas.
As Allison Shutt puts it: “the Purchase Areas offered privacy, a measure of respect from the colonial government, and a symbolic separateness from African cultivators in the reserves and from lower-paid workers”. This was reinforced in the 1950s when, following the Native Land Husbandry Act of 1951, freehold title was offered. Again in the discourse of the time (persisting today in all sorts of unhelpful ways), freehold was the ultimate form of ownership, linked to a certain ideology and pattern of accumulation, as Angela Cheater describes. This was the pinnacle of modernity, otherwise only available to whites; and something allowing independence and autonomy, not feasible in the reserves, or even in most urban settings.
From the mid-1950s, those who acquired farms a few decades before retired to their farms. This was a moment when more commercialisation took place. The areas were now occupied and land extensification and high stocking rates were no longer as feasible. Tobacco and cotton became favoured crops, linked to new commercial value chains. For the first time the freehold titles acquired more than symbolic benefit, and loans were offered against the title as collateral for the first time. Farms were more assertively demarcated, with fences put up to keep out the neighbours from the reserves. The state invested more attention to these areas, improving infrastructure, providing finance and offering technical support. Realising the threats of growing nationalism, perhaps especially among the educated African elite who had been initially attracted to the Purchase Areas, these became a focus for political and administrative attention, after years of neglect.
With title deeds came a period of land sales and fragmentation of farms, as plots were sold off. This provided important revenues for some, securing retirement on their smaller farms. Also, with increasing intensification of production, there came the need for labour. Those designated as ‘squatters’ were crucial. As Angela Cheater describes for Msengezi, these included a wide range of people, including extended family members, peasants from the reserves, migrant labourers and others. Subdivision of land also meant that relatives – usually sons – could be passed on land, and a new generation took ownership. Land rentals also increased, as demand for land – including from ‘squatters’ – grew. The growing population of people and continued land rental and subdivision in the Purchase Areas was however frowned on. These areas were not becoming medium-scale commercial farms, but just ‘like the reserves’, officials complained. Again with echoes of the discourse today around resettlement land, the push was for a modernised vision of agriculture dominated. However, despite the admonishments, the mid-late 1950s and early 1960s, saw a brief period of prosperity in the Purchase Areas. Land sales and rentals, some cash crop production, continued resource extraction, and plentiful cheap labour (from ‘squatters’), ensured farming generated decent returns for the now resident, retired owners of these farms.
By the mid-60s, and especially with the declaration of UDI, this changed again. Shifts in the political climate, intensifying during the liberation war, saw the decline in state support to these areas. They were often seen with suspicion by security forces and intelligence agents, as places of nationalist organising and dissent. With Independence, nothing much changed. The SSCFAs as they were now called were seen as an anomaly of the colonial era, and the state’s efforts were focused on the former reserves, now communal areas, where the majority of poor people lived. Apart from some resettlement the ‘commercial’ farm areas were large-scale and predominantly white-owned, at least until the major land reform of the 2000s.
As mentioned last week, there has been virtually no recent research and very limited policy commentary on the contemporary SSCFAs, but these areas offer some interesting insights into what happens to medium-scale farms, now over multiple generations. The impacts were less in terms of revolutionising African production – production was low and marketing challenging for most – but more in the political and ideological transformation that a particular type of land ownership offered to an emergent rural-urban middle class.
The A2 farms allocated following land reform in the 2000s share many similarities, both in terms of agricultural challenges, as well as their political salience, as discussed last week. They operate at similar scales, are occupied by a similar class of people, they are presented as ‘commercial’ farms, but in many cases accumulation occurs not through intensification but extensification and extraction, and, although on a much larger scale, and in more high potential, prominent areas, they offer the potential for a new class of ‘emergent’, medium-scale farmer, farming private (in the case of A2 farms, leasehold) land.
Next week, through a couple of case studies, I will discuss some of the patterns of change observed in former Purchase Area farms, and ask whether these provide glimpses of the future of A2 farms.