In early June, I was invited by the Africa Research Institute in London to a panel discussion held to launch a new ARI Counterpoints piece by Beacon Mbiba on ‘missing urbanisation’ in Zimbabwe. Beacon’s piece raised some important questions about how urban areas are defined, and how many urban people there are. As part of a wider debate about the dynamics of urbanisation in Africa – which Debbie Potts has provocatively contributed in a number of articles, including another ARI Counterpoints issue – the question of numbers and geographic boundaries is important – and has significant implications for planning and politics.
In my talk, I focused instead on the underlying processes of livelihood change that might reveal rather different numbers – if they could be counted accurately. I argued that the conception and the role of ‘the urban’ in people’s lives is changing following land reform, especially in rural areas.
The session was chaired by Edward Paice, and involved Beacon Mbiba (Oxford Brookes), Jo McGregor (Sussex) and myself. An audio version is available online if you want to have a listen. This is my presentation – slightly elaborated from my notes – picking up from the earlier Zimbabweland blog series on small towns in particular.
Land reform and small towns
Following land reform in 2000, there were major changes in production, economic activity and settlement – and with these largely rural changes there have been big changes in urban centres – very often small towns – near new resettlements. This I would argue has gone largely unresearched and unnoticed – partly because of the ways urban areas and people are demarcated, classified and counted.
Over last few years, we have been studying three such small towns (all featured in earlier blogs):
- Mvurwi (in Mazowe district, formerly servicing large-scale white farming, a farm labour settlement, now at the centre of a booming smallholder led tobacco growing area),
- Chatsworth (in Gutu, a railway siding, and again in the centre of what was large-scale farms, now surrounding by land reform areas producing maize, vegetables and other ag commodities) and
- Maphisa (in Matabeleland South, Matobo district, again in a reconfigured rural area, including resettlements and an ARDA farm with a recent JV investment).
According to very outdated hierarchical urban planning classifications, of these, only Mvurwi is classified as ‘urban’ according to ZIMSTATS. Chatsworth and Maphisa (formerly a TILCOR town) are ‘growth points’.
All these small towns in rural areas have some common features in the 17 years since land reform:
- Significantly increased resident populations (Mvurwi was up by 6,000 to the 2012 census)
- A massive increase in stands, a building boom (tripled high and medium density stands in all towns, with many more pegged)
- A rapid growth in business activity, especially of small enterprises – many linked to agriculture (market vendors, grocery stores, butcheries, hardware stores – as well as grinding mills, carpentry/building, welding, tailoring, hair salons, photocopy shops, phone card vendors, and, and, and….)
- Many more transport connections and operators (kombis, small trucks)
And, on the negative side, there has been the closing down of some large businesses (some banks and companies formerly servicing large-scale farms, for example), and a serious decline in public services and state investment in urban infrastructure in all three cases.
Big changes in small towns: four themes
Noting these changes, and the links to land reform resettlement areas, we have asked, what shifts are important in understanding the changing role of rural small towns? I want to highlight four themes:
- Business opportunities. There is now money in the rural economy from agriculture on land reform farms (mostly A1). This includes cash from sales of tobacco (Mvurwi), horticulture (Chatsworth), and livestock (Maphisa). The dynamism of many local economies linked to A1 resettlements is there for anyone to see. Many of these flows of cash are seasonal – and today seriously affected by cash crisis, although the shift to e-commerce has been swift – but the overall volumes are significant. The result is what economists call linkage and multiplier effects: demand for services, inputs etc., especially agriculture related business, including transport, equipment, seed, fertiliser and so on.
- New people in town. In the past such commercial activity in such towns was dominated by large businesses. They were places where you might get a job or they were residential areas for farm workers or civil servants. Workers on farms would come to shop after being paid. Today, there are multiple small businesses. These are especially important for youth and women, and those who didn’t get land through land reform. Such activities are fragile, informal and risky, but offering a livelihood, and employing one or two others, generating overall considerable economic activity. For example: across our three cases, since land reform in 2000 up to 2016, there are five times as many hardware stores, 4 x grocery stores, 4 x food outlets, 3 x butcheries, 2 x bottle stores, 5 x numbers of market vendors and so on. And there are also new outside investors, including ‘black’ capital, as well as Indian, Chinese, and other investors, not seen in these towns before.
- Housing. There has been a massive expansion of low and medium density housing. There’s been a huge building boom (and yes, with this, opportunities for corruption and patronage, but not quite like Harare peripheries described by Jo McGregor’s research). In Mvurwi, 2000 low density and 750 medium density stands have been established since 2000. Many investors are land reform farmers and traders in agricultural commodities. Those linked to land reform sites are the new landlords, putting up the teachers, nurses and other civil servants. The period therefore has seen shifts in economic and class relations, and patterns of accumulation, as people invest in real estate from farming.
- Infrastructure and planning. Basic services, infrastructure and planning is not keeping up with this rapid pace of change. Lack of state capacity and investment really shows in all our sites. Sewage, electrical supply and roads, for example, are all in a poor state. Local government is in a mess, but there is a new rural-urban politics emerging, as people demand that the state responds.
Rethinking rural-urban relations
Overall, I see a changing role of ‘town’. In the past, the classic pattern of southern African circular migration existed. Men went to work, usually somewhere distant; they remitted funds home, and then later retired to the rural communal home. This no longer happens, at least not in the same way.
Now ‘town’ is closer to the rural (small towns are where the action is, with better transport costs driving down local prices), people shuttle between houses in town and on the farms and families are split and mobile (seasonally, but also even daily – there are always full kombis coming to and from the farms).
To my mind, this makes the question of residence on a snapshot census almost meaningless! In my view, then, instead of worrying about the numbers or the classification of what is and isn’t a town, it’s better to invest in understanding the changing spatial dynamics of livelihoods – patterns of settlement, production, investment, accumulation – and so the changing relationships between urban and rural.
This requires a radical rethink of local government, service provision, infrastructure investment and economic and spatial planning. Throw out old colonial planning models, and redesign statistical data collection to fit new contexts.
I have long argued for a more regional spatial perspective to planning and development, incorporating the reconfigured rural areas and linking to urban areas, of all types. Local economic development is happening, but is not coordinated, supported and made the most of, due to the fragmented, dysfunctional nature of state (and private, NGO, and donor) support. Making this happen will of course require a functioning bureaucratic state, along with economic and political stability. This sadly still seems far off.
In the meantime, people will get on with their lives, refashioning urban and rural spaces, and the relationships between in ways that the planning textbooks and the census data just simply do not reveal.