What prospects for the next generation of rural Zimbabweans?

After the brief interlude last week, this blog concludes the series of five pieces on youth in the new resettlement areas. Our studies across Zimbabwe have shown how school leavers imagine their futures, but also how in practice these visions are often not realized. The research highlights fundamental challenges of both social reproduction and accumulation, constraining livelihood options and life courses. Today, in the context of a crisis economy, there are few options, even with a decent education.

The informalisation of the economy means the route to a standard job, perhaps open to their parents, is not often an option for most youth today. In Masvingo, everyone seems to struggle to get their O levels, but often to no avail. Interestingly in the tobacco areas of Mvurwi, where agriculture is more of an option, education seems less of a priority. In the past, the route to becoming established as an independent adult was often marriage and getting a piece of land. Men would be allocated plots by a local traditional leader, while women would marry and move to their husband’s area, farming on the plot. Today, the certainty of marriage or gaining land is not there. Many must just wait, in a limbo living with parents, maybe having a ‘project’ on their farm, doing piecework locally, or migrating elsewhere in search of temporary jobs.

The ‘waithood’ – an intermediate stage between childhood and adulthood – has been commented on in a number of settings, including in the global North, where austerity, a changing jobs market and economic decline have meant that transitions to a working life are more challenging. Reliance on parents for housing and support into adulthood is common. Through different circumstances, this pheonomenon is common in Zimbabwe too.

The stress of waiting, not getting a job, not having land, not being able to set up an independent home, not being able to afford to marry (for men) or being pushed into early marriage (for women) is a common theme in young people’s testimonies. For many this is a challenge to self-esteem, to identity and personhood. Without recognition according to the norms of society (and the elder generation), a feeling of failure, generating stress, is apparent. I was surprised how many male youth reflected on their drink and drug habits.

Support networks become important, and beyond immediate family and kin networks, the new evangelical churches especially are important according to young people’s reflections. Embedded social relations therefore become key, not only for gaining access to assets (notably land), but also for moving on via marriage, as well as providing a sense of safety and support, improving wellbeing. But these are fragile too. Not everyone is born into a family that can offer such help.

The emerging ‘communities’ in the resettlement areas often are riven with conflicts, as people came from different places and the sense of kin-based solidarity found in the communal areas is often not found. Those born in the resettlement areas, or who moved there when very young, do not have associations with the places that their parents call ‘home’ in the communal areas. These new areas are home, and often quite challenging places in terms of community cohesion.

As young people recount, making a living in today’s harsh economic climate in Zimbabwe is tough. The kukiya kiya, zig-zag economy is one that offers few opportunities, and they are always short-term. Moving between trading, migrating for farm work (sometimes to South Africa), small-scale mining, and so on requires ingenuity, persistence and hard work. Some of these options can be dangerous too: many returned with tales of violence, police intimidation and fights at small-scale mining sites; although the money was good temporarily, this was not seen as worth it. Reliance on the informal economy also requires moving. I was struck by the mobility of young people, particularly men: spending a month or so in Harare, then to a mining area, then to South Africa, and back home in short periods in between. Women are heavily involved in cross-border trading, particularly in Masvingo, and this can mean many weeks camping out, and on the road. Lives are harsh, sometimes dangerous, and never offering much more than survival incomes.

Today’s youth are part of what Henry Bernstein calls the ‘fragmented classes of labour’, making a living on the margins, and across a wide diversity of livelihoods that belie standard descriptions of class and identity. Such livelihoods present real challenges for basic social reproduction. These are not conditions that allow for a successful bringing up of a family. Stability in relationships are threatened, and children are often looked after by parents or other relatives in rural areas, as the domestic care economy is restructured. It is no surprise that many of our informants argued that it was better to return home and farm, even if this meant just getting a small plot on their father’s farm. This was seen by many as the only route to a better life, and the stable bringing up of a family.

As the testimonies from Masvingo show, the main focus is starting an irrigation project, for maize and vegetables. Engagement with agriculture may be across the value chain, and involve intensive production, but also running poultry projects, selling inputs at an agrodealer shop, providing marketing services, and so on. In the tobacco growing areas of Mvurwi, young people know that a well managed 1 ha plot of tobacco can yield some serious income, far outstripping what is available from informal work, except perhaps from occasional, risky and illegal mining forays for gold or diamonds. Thus from small beginnings, usually with reliance on land from parents, young people can begin to accumulate, establishing homes and families from a rural, agrarian base.

Getting land independently though is more of a challenge. The resettlement areas are ‘full’, and getting new plots requires close connections and reliance on patronage from local leaders, party officials and others. Most therefore rely on their parents’ land, clearing new areas, extending plots illegally into grazing land, or intensifying through digging wells, creating irrigation dams or buying pumps. The pattern of subdivision of allocated resettlement plots is a phenomenon we have only just begun to look at, but as with the Purchase Areas discussed in earlier blogs, the process of ‘villagisation’ of plots is a phenomenon we see widely, both in A1 and A2 schemes. Land inheritance in the resettlement areas is contested. Very often the expectation is that multiple sons, sometimes daughters, will inherit, causing family wrangles. As parents pass on, the next generation must enter caring relationships for surviving relatives living on the farm, adding further burdens to a stressed domestic economy.

Thus the imagined futures of those still at school, many of whom saw a possibility of a professional job (lawyer, teacher, nurse, extension worker), or at least a self-employed business, have not been realized by their immediate seniors. In part this is because this age group (now 20-31) have lived through the worst economic crisis in living memory, when the formal economy collapsed, the state ran out of resources, and the options for waged employment shrank to almost zero. But while Zimbabwe’s economic crisis has an extreme character, jobless growth, declining opportunities for employment by the state and austerity economics are features in richer, more stable economies, whether South Africa or the UK. Thus even migration abroad, a feature of recent life trajectories for many especially from the late 1990s, is not an option. For this generation, educated in the last 20 years, the premium of the post-Independence Zimbabwean education no longer exists. While many scraped a few O levels, the competition elsewhere is today much more intense, combined with the closing of borders and anti-immigrant policies in Europe or the US.

Our studies on ‘youth’ in the resettlement areas in Zimbabwe have revealed some important dynamics, and pointed to some real challenges. The standard support mechanisms are clearly insufficient, and interventions need to take account of the wider processes of agrarian transition, attending to issues of land access, agricultural support, and so on. They must also take more account of the real stresses of life for young people today. We sensed a loss of identity, confidence and esteem among many we talked to, with genuine stress-related illness and behaviours affecting wellbeing. While the overall picture was far from positive, we also had in some ways a biased sample. We talked to young people who were living in the resettlements or visiting between spells of work. We didn’t talk to their brothers and sisters who were elsewhere, which as the data highlights includes quite a number.

Therefore, in new work we will trace some of them, tracking the courses they have taken. A number are living in nearby towns – such as Mvurwi, Masvingo and Chiredzi – and engaging in new businesses linked to agriculture. The resettlement areas have resulted, as we have shown through our work, have generated local economic growth and possibilities for accumulation, not only among farmers as producers, but in small towns and among entrepreneurs of different sorts. Young people without access to land have seized this opportunity, and many are making a go of it. Future blogs will cover such stories, and we will continue to explore the generational implications of agrarian reform as we look at how land is subdivided and elements of farms intensified, with young people taking the lead.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

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