Frontier politics in Zimbabwe: the Chilonga case

Chilonga, a small settlement in a dry communal area in Chiredzi district, has been all over the news in Zimbabwe over the past few weeks. A huge controversy over a major new land investment has blown up, with rights groups up in arms. There have been high-profile visits from politicians of all stripes, a large presence of security agents, court cases, activist protests and much commentary on the legal twists and turns of the case.

So what is all the commotion about? In late February, the government issued a Statutory Instrument – the now preferred route of governing it seems – announcing that an area 12,000 hectares of land in Chilonga area (including Chilonga, Makosiya, Dzindzela, Chibyedziva and Gwaseche) was to be allocated to a major investment project, focused on the livestock fodder grass, Lucerne (or Alfalfa). The company involved is Dendairy from Kwekwe, who have plans to develop Lucerne production for export. The company, via the Coetzee family, is alleged to have close connections to the President. This, it was claimed, was the ‘Midlands mafia’ in operation, exerting influence in other parts of the country and in this case in an area occupied by Shangaan people, a recognised minority.

Many Chilonga people objected. This was not the first time they had been moved. Originally settled to the north in the area that become Hippo Valley they were moved in the 1960s. Others had been shifted in the 1970s when Gonarezhou national park was established nearby. And now the state was proposing to repeat the upheaval all over again it seemed.  A strong narrative of ethnic discrimination was being aired by locals spoken to by our team. Many swore that they would no longer vote for ZANU-PF, so outraged were they.

Meanwhile, the government claimed that this was a major investment into a poor and marginalised area, an indication that the government cared about the area and its people.  The local chief, headmen and councillors at least publicly supported the project, pointing to the fact that the government had recently rehabilitated the Chilonga irrigation scheme, and that this new project would expand opportunities, including for contract farming.

Challenges to the legal basis of the plan were made, and the SI was changed. To comply with the Communal Lands Act, the basis for acquisition had to be clarified indicating that the land transfer was for an irrigation investment. Most recently, the government has conceded that compensation is due for evictions that affect ‘improvements’ (mostly houses and other structures) under the Act, but pointed out the impacts would be limited and the land acquisition would actually result in very few people’s homes being moved, although large areas of farm land would be required for the new scheme.

This is our land

Our informants suggest that, despite the assurances, most people are against the plan. This is less to do with the project per se but objection to the imposition from ‘Shona’ outsiders. This comes on the back of a longer history of dispossession and discrimination against Shangaan people, as they see it. Having lost access to sacred sites in Gonarezhou national park and the sugar estates they do not want to lose their last areas, such as the sacred baobab tree at Dzindzela where they conduct rainmaking ceremonies, Bendezi mountain where rituals are undertaken or the sites where their ancestors are buried.

This is a struggle around identity and cultural autonomy not just land and Lucerne. As someone put it: “We are stuck in a small place that is ours, it’s a good place and we love our land. This is our land. The Shona people have plenty of land, surely they can grow their Lucerne grass there”. With good rains this year, the locals have got impressive yields from the heavy basalt soils, expecting to deliver large quantities of maize and sorghum to the grain marketing board.

Some locals don’t believe that this is a project about grass growing at all, but involves an attempt to develop mineral deposits in the area. In the last few years there have been several mineral rushes, as people have come to the area to undertake alluvial mining of gold or the harvesting of precious stones. Locals say that the big bosses have noticed this and now they want to claim the riches.

As ever in Zimbabwe there are rumours that the Chinese are involved and that they have found a particular drug and medicine in this grass that they use in China, so all the profits will be exported and the locals will be exploited just as labour. Rumours swirling around the villages of course feed into local uncertainties and concerns, adding to the objections.

Not everyone objects of course. Some farmers in the area are apparently quite happy about the project, and see commercial opportunities through contract farming. Some observe that the Chilonga irrigation scheme has been rehabilitated in line with government promises. This is a big deal in a poor, dry area, even though scheme has had a chequered history with periods when it was left in disrepair due to state neglect. The promotors of the scheme however are in the minority and, according to local informants, most do not trust the government and outsiders.

The heavy-handed legalistic approach by the state, without concern for local sensitivities, has resulted in wide resentment. Politicians of course respond that they are for all of Zimbabwe, and the local people in this area are Zimbabweans first, not Shangaans. But this doesn’t completely wash. Ethnic histories have deep roots in Zimbabwe, and people do not offer a generous comparison between colonial and contemporary impositions: they are seen as the same, exploitative intrusions from outsiders.

Living on the capitalist frontier

The concerns raised by the Chilonga people are not just about the Lucerne project. The Lowveld is a frontier of expansion of politically-driven capitalist projects. Today, the Chilonga people are hemmed in from all sides and this is only the latest threat to livelihoods.

To the north are the sugar estates run by the Tongaat Hullett company, with areas expanding as deals are struck on new land. To south and east is the Gonarezhou national park, now run through the Gonarezhou Conservation Trust, a partnership with national parks and supported by Frankfurt Zoological Society and other investors, which is re-establishing a fortress-style conservation approach, with big investments in electric fencing. To the east are the conservancies around Chiredzi and notably the private conservancy, Malilangwe, which also has invested in greater security after land invasions in the early 2000s. To the west is the sprawling Development Trust of Zimbabwe (DTZ) land, stretching as far as the Beitbridge road, now state land once linked to Joshua Nkomo’s estate and with areas leased to the notorious local investor, Billy Rautenbach. Just next to these lands too are the displaced people from Chivi who were moved to this area following the established of the Tokwe Mukosi dam. Like the Chilonga people they must compete with much more powerful forces in this frontier.

The Chilonga Lucerne project therefore must be seen in light of this wider story of frontier expansion and selective capital accumulation going alongside dispossession and enclosure. Frontiers are the last opportunities for the extension of capitalism and are usually occupied by those who are marginalised, politically, economically and ethnically. Frontier politics therefore refashion property, institutions and social orders in ways that new arrangements are defined, with powerful forces and capital always having the upper hand. This is what is happening all over the Lowveld, including in Chilonga.

Communal land rights

The Chilonga story has also raised the long-standing question about the status of ‘communal land’. These areas, once designated ‘reserves’ or ‘tribal trust lands’, are state-owned land where residents have usufruct rights. These are governed under the Communal Lands Act, which offers some protection against expropriation by state or private projects; although as Lovemore Madhuku explained in a fascinating SAPES dialogue recently, the 2013 Constitution supersedes these provisions requiring the state to provide further protections, as well as compensation.

As communal land, long-term residence and community institutions do offer a level of tenure security and sui generis rights, with day-to-day land governance left to traditional leaders who have wide-ranging powers. These of course have been widely criticised as being gender discriminatory and often arbitrary but, contrary to the claims of some, communal area dwellers do have rights to their land and the state cannot arbitrary remove them without consultation or court challenge.  

The solution for some is to offer individualised or village-based tenure in the communal areas, arguing that this would offer improved security over land. For sure, the Communal Lands Act is a remnant of the colonial era and, as argued by Mandi Rukuni and others over many years, the updating of legislation around communal areas is clearly required, especially to offer land rights to women.

Whether securing private land rights in communal areas would offer tenure security is however far from certain. Compulsory acquisition, just as with the land reform, is always going to be possible, and if minerals are found, the Mining Act supersedes everything – another colonial inheritance. What has been missing in this case, as Prof Madhuku argued, has been the following of due process, ignoring the Constitution and avoiding administrative justice. It is not new legal arrangements that are needed, but greater political accountability and commitment to existing laws and Constitutional provisions.

Visions of development

Today there still are many competing and powerful players with interests in the Lowveld, many with strong political connections. What voice do local Shangaan farmers and herders, the original inhabitants, have in this context? Political representation is weak and channels for dialogue are limited, while participation and consultation too often is performed through consultants in the pay of investors. Development plans are concocted in far-off places and investments come from outside the area led by those with limited idea about the local history and politics, and the passions with which these are expressed.

The Chilonga case has highlighted the importance of having a wider debate about visions for development in the Lowveld; and this must involve local people leading the dialogue. This applies as much to the Lucerne project as it does to the expansion of conservation areas linked to the park, hunting areas and conservancies, new projects in the DTZ area, accommodation of those displaced by dam development and new land allocations in the huge sugar estates.

The Lowveld has always been the site of struggles over competing visions, centred on divergent framings of ‘wilderness’ and ‘modernity’. Dating back to the allocation of extensive hunting lands in the early colonial era and the establishment of the emerald green sugar estates by the earliest settlers in Triangle, these debates have been central, and conflicts with local Shangaan people have recurred. As Will Wolmer described in his important 2007 book, From Wilderness Vision to Farm Invasions, such contrasting perspectives on landscape are also struggles over land and politics.

Zimbabwe has signed up to the FAO’s Voluntary Guidelines on land and tenure, as well as the African Union’s land policy. These are all frameworks that are meant to govern the acquisition of land for investment. They were developed in the wake of the massive explosion of land grabbing that occurred across Africa after the fuel, financial and food crises of 2008, and are aimed at governing investments in ways that assure due process (including formal consultations, and free prior informed consent). They in turn provide guidelines for states and investors for effective processes of compensation, reallocation of land and community support. Such frameworks are not anti-investment, but recognise that effective investment must occur under conditions that are acceptable locally, otherwise they will come unstuck, as so many did after Africa’s initial land rush.

In its eagerness to rush ahead with the Chilonga project and to provide opportunities for capitalist expansion on the frontier, Zimbabwe’s government has overlooked its national constitutional commitments and wider international obligations, as different powerful actors and multiple ministries were involved in a process of issuing executive orders without appropriate parliamentary and other scrutiny.

For now, given the controversy, there seems to be a pause. This is a good time to relook at these wider agreements, and learn from this episode. This might be a moment too to explore more broadly the diverse visions of the Lowveld, including how new investments in commercial agriculture and the expanding conservation estate sit alongside more traditional uses and local priorities.

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

1 Comment

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One response to “Frontier politics in Zimbabwe: the Chilonga case

  1. Malvern Marewo

    Thank you for the great insights that you unpacked here. I think this Chilonga case opens up conversations about the fragility of the Communal Lands Act and a need to address or review the Act.

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