Negotiating ‘belonging’ in Zimbabwe’s land reform areas

Much of the debate about land reform in Zimbabwe focuses on the material, livelihood consequences of getting new land and its politics, but what does it feel like? How does land reform alter the sense of belonging to a place, the forms of identity and the nature of citizenship? These themes are explored in a number of great new papers (and some older ones too) that I briefly review in this blog.

Competing claims

All these papers of course pick up on long-running discussions about rural identities and belonging in Zimbabwe, most notably as explored by Blair Rutherford in his books on farmworkers. As people often of ‘foreign’ origin, at least a few generations back, and with ambiguous associations with place, either as precarious employees in a white farm before land reform or as workers living in old compounds in new resettlements, ‘belonging’ has never been easy, despite living on a farm often over generations. There is, as Rutherford explains, a ‘cultural politics of recognition’.

This theme is taken up in a paper by Patience Chadambuka and Kirk Helliker, which documents the nature of disputes on ‘two sides of the stream’ between ‘foreign’ farmworkers (who had been resident on the farm before it was taken over) and new A1 settlers in Shamva district. Despite attempts at exclusion by the new settlers, the former workers also have claims to belonging and have tactics to negotiate these, as their settlement has gold deposits that the A1 farmers also wish to use. With their labour power and skills, as well as territorial access to resources near their settlement, farmworkers have agency, even if little formal power.

As Malvern Marewo explains for an A1 case study from Zvimba, a continuous negotiation of social relations around labour with A1 settlers is vital for former farmworkers to gain a new, reconfigured sense of connection with the farm, and some stability that comes with a feeling of ‘belonging’. This is often fraught and contested, but, as we have shown in our work in Mvurwi, can result in them gaining access to land, inputs and piecework.

A similar dynamic is seen as land is contested between settlers within A1 areas, highlighted in a nice paper based on a case from Bubi district by Senzeni Ncube and Malvern Marewo.  Here different types of claim are evident – with ancestral claims of ‘indigeneity’ competing with those that do not claim autochthony. In this case, there was one group that got the land in 2000, following the land invasions – including some with ancestral claims to the land – and another group that were added by administrators in 2014, as demands for land continue. This is quite a common phenomenon, as those often displaced from other state infrastructure or mining projects are squeezed into existing A1 schemes and where ‘I was here before you’ becomes the simple basis for claims-making.

Reshaped authority and the role of ‘tradition’

Land reform has reshaped not only land but also patterns of rural authority, with chiefs and headmen often tussling over who is in charge of land reform areas with competing versions of where graves and other ancestral sites are, as Grasian Mkodzongi, Joseph Mujere, Joost Fontein and others have discussed. Even though the resettlement areas were supposed to shed the limitations of ‘traditional authority’ with new revolutionary institutions – the Committee of Seven and so on – these soon were replaced by new, often invented, forms of tradition, as Malvern Marewo and Senzeni Ncube explore for a case in Zvimba. As they show, lineage and totem ties to their original areas remain strong in A1 resettlements. As we have found across our sites, even 22 years after the ‘fast-track’ land reform, such disputes over land, authority and who is a ‘citizen’ in the new land reform areas are far from settled.

The liberatory possibilities of land reform were claimed by many women in the early 2000s, escaping (at least for a while) the patriarchal limitations of ‘tradition’, as well as being able to farm and earn income independently. In many publications, Patience Mutopo documents this for a case study from Mwenezi, where women not only claim land (both independently and as part of marriage contracts) and are able to use this as a basis for mobile livelihoods based on trading to South Africa. The ‘belonging’ to the new land claimed as women, unlike in the communal areas, was she found central to how they were able to construct their livelihoods, and deal with conflicts with others, both at home in the new settlements and when on the move to South Africa.


How land reform affected populations on the margins, especially those of ‘minority’ ethnic groups is especially telling. Here land is firmly linked to cultural identities – whether of the Shangaan in the southeast or the Tonga in the Zambezi valley, as Felix Tombindo and Simbarashe and Gukurume discuss in their chapter in the recent book on Tonga Livelihoods in Rural Zimbabwe, edited by Kirk Helliker and Joshua Matanzima.

The claims of belonging have given rise to tensions across land reform areas, as locals with territorial and ancestral claims were squeezed out by those claiming the land in what was always touted as a national programme (Zimbabwe unlike South Africa did not undertake ‘restitution’ but only ‘redistribution’ and reform). This ‘ethno-regionalism’ as Walter Chambati and Freedom Mazwi dub it is centred on claims of belonging – to a place, to a region/ethnicity/language, to the nation.

White identities and belonging

The new identities of displaced white farmers are discussed by Rory Pilosoff and Sibanengi Ncube, focusing in particularly on tobacco farmers, many of whom – both former farmers and their children – have found new roles in the industry, working for the major leaf companies, on auction floors or in a diversity of contracting companies. No longer on the land, many have struggled with a new sense of belonging and identity, even if the work is sometimes better paid and easier than farming was. Quite a number of those who left the country have returned, citing the sense of belonging to Zimbabwe, rooted in social networks and the (continued) privilege of the white minority.

This is reflected in memoirs and journalistic writing by white farmers and others that have come out over the past 20 years. These often offer angry memories of displacement – and with this the reiteration of racist, colonial tropes portraying the new black farmers as unskilled, backward and so on. As David Hughes described in his 2010 book, Whiteness in Zimbabwe: Race, Landscape, and the Problem of Belonging, how those of European descent negotiate their sense of belonging is often at odds with local understandings of nature, wilderness, environment and farming, bringing them into conflict. Of course, as Rory Pilossof and Amanda Hammar have pointed out, not all ‘white’ experience is the same and not all whites in Zimbabwe were farmers. For former farmers, finding a new sense of belonging in urban-based office jobs, even if linked to agriculture, has been especially challenging for some, making the dislocation even harder.

Where is home?

‘Belonging’ is always negotiated and is always changing. As the land reform areas have become ‘home’ to new people over the last 20 years, others still have memories of them that are part of their identity, even if they no longer live there. Different people associate with a new place through different processes – links to ancestors, political allegiance or just through living there and delinking from other places that were once ‘home’. Indeed, today many settlers in the ‘new’ land reform have lived most if not all their lives there. As an A1 settler in Bubi explained to Senzeni Ncube and Malvern Marewo, “Things have changed. I no longer buy property and take it to my parents’ home for safekeeping. Now I have my own home where my property is. I have a place where I belong”.

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