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FAO recognises farmer-led irrigation as a major contributor to agricultural development

Buried deep in a long report on water and agriculture by FAO – the flagship state of food and agriculture report of 2020 – there is a really important section, signalling a big shift in mainstream thinking about irrigation and the use of water in agriculture.

It focuses on farmer-led irrigation, a theme discussed on this blog quite a few times before, and central to research in our field sites in Zimbabwe’s resettlement areas. Farmer-led irrigation is not a new phenomenon of course, but it has not been central to discussions about irrigation, seen as peripheral and not following ‘proper’ engineering recommendations. That FAO has addressed this in its major report is therefore a significant moment. They argue:

“Small-scale farmer-led irrigation systems can have lower unit costs than those managed by government agencies and offer much higher internal rates of return (28 percent) than does large-scale, dam-based irrigation (7 percent). They also improve yields and income, and reduce risks from climate variability. Governments should support these initiatives….”.

What is farmer-led irrigation, and how important is it?

As the FAO report comments:

“In sub-Saharan Africa, only about 3 percent of cropland is irrigated, and small-scale farmer-led irrigation systems are rapidly expanding. Farmers invest their own resources and access water from shallow groundwater, rivers, lakes and reservoirs. These are an attractive option to small-scale farmers because they use simple affordable equipment, including buckets, watering cans, treadle pumps, drip systems and conservation agriculture technologies, such as terracing and in situ rainwater harvesting. More than 80 percent of farmers who use irrigation employ manual lifting and watering using buckets and cans, although demand for more mechanized options is growing.”

Of course, the statistics on ‘irrigated land’ are massively upset by an acknowledgement of farmer-led practices, as they don’t normally count as ‘irrigation’. When we produced our paper on farmer-led irrigation in Zimbabwe for Water Alternatives, one reviewer was highly dismissive. Coming clearly from a conventional irrigation background, they argued that what we were reporting from our study sites was not significant, and that investment in effective and efficient small-scale irrigation schemes was the way forward. We begged to differ.

As noted in the paper, our findings were not unusual and are replicated elsewhere. Box 10 in the FAO report highlights research from Burkina Faso, Tanzania and Zambia, quoting a 2012 IMWI report by Meredith Giordano and colleagues, Water for Wealth and Food Security:

“In Burkina Faso, 170 000 farmers – mainly small-scale farmers – irrigate 10,000 hectares of vegetable crops using buckets, watering cans and small motorized pumps. This tripled vegetable production between 1996 and 2005, raising dry season incomes by USD 200–600. In Ghana, 185 000 hectares are under small-scale irrigation, primarily cultivating vegetables in the dry season, benefiting half a million small-scale farmers. This adds between USD 175 and USD 840 annually to household income. In the United Republic of Tanzania, more than 700 000 farmers lift water from rivers and wells using buckets and cans to irrigate vegetables on 150 000 hectares. Half of small-scale farmers’ dry season cash comes from irrigated vegetables. In Zambia, 90,000 hectares are under private irrigation, and the 20 percent of small-scale farmers who grow dry season vegetables earn 35 percent more than those relying solely on rainfall.”

In our two sites in Masvingo district in Zimbabwe, the farmer-led irrigated area represented on average 2.02% of the total arable and non-arable area. Extrapolating up to the provincial level, if the same extent of farmer-led irrigation is seen across the whole province (estimated at 5.15 million ha, excluding Gonarezhou national park), this would represent 104,056 ha of farmer-irrigated land. Assuming that the proportion of land that is arable is the national average of 10.3%, this would represent 19.6% of arable area, a very significant proportion. By contrast, formal irrigation through government schemes in Masvingo province is estimated to cover 4,176 ha in total, across 60 schemes, ranging size from eight ha to 625 ha. This represents only 0.08% of the total area of the province (again excluding Gonarezhou national park) and 0.8% of estimated arable area. Under these, admittedly extremely rough, assumptions, this is only 4% of total farmer-led irrigation. Given that many of these formal schemes are not functioning to full capacity, farmer-led irrigation, by any calculation, represents a very significant contribution to the provincial agricultural economy.

Policy support to farmer-led approaches must be central to irrigation development

In a way the specific figures don’t matter: what is important is that those promoting irrigation – so central to agricultural productivity and boosting incomes for farmers – recognise farmer-led practices in all their variety and provide support for these. As discussed in our paper, this must include:  

  • improving security of land tenure and access to water, and adaptation of environmental rules excluding use near rivers and wetlands;
  • regulation of water supply to avoid over-use of groundwater in particular;
  • support for market development, particularly for horticultural products to avoid seasonal and local gluts;
  • credit support for investment in irrigation development, and
  • enhancement of technology provision for cheap pumps, pipes and other water lifting and distribution systems, including having preferential import arrangements for basic kit and spares, especially from China.

Why then do policymakers and donors still focus on irrigation ‘schemes’, when their track-record has been so bad? At Independence in 1980, Zimbabwe had about 150,000 hectares under ‘formal’ irrigation schemes; about 3% of the arable area. However, only 3.5% of this area was under smallholder schemes. This area increased over the following decades, with investment in ‘block’ schemes, with irrigators usually being allocated small 0.1 ha areas under centrally controlled schemes. Many of these schemes failed.  Economic analyses highlighted that all capital costs and 89% of recurrent costs were covered by the government, and when this support dried up, the scheme collapsed.

Following the land reform from 2000, the talk has once again been investment in ‘schemes’ to support the new farmers. Various programmes during the 2000s invested in the rehabilitation of irrigation infrastructure on former large-scale farms. Election manifestos promoted ‘modern’ irrigation as central to a new push to upgrade and commercialise agriculture. From 2016, ‘command agriculture’ included investment in irrigation facilities. Foreign donors, from the Brazilians to the Chinese, have offered irrigation equipment, mostly suited to large-scale production. And most recently the minister, Anxious Masuka, announced that $57 million had been allocated for rehabilitating existing schemes, with strict requirements for sustainable use. As part of a new statutory instrument issued in February there are also big plans to boost state-led irrigation capacity, with an irrigation development fund, the assignment of district irrigation engineers and so on. And of course the controversy around land use changes in the Chilonga area is all about a massive, high-profile irrigation investment. Today, as in the past, hydrological transformations and images of modernist progress are closely tied with a project of state-building and shoring up political support through high-visibility investments.  

There is nothing wrong with formal irrigation schemes for supporting smallholder agriculture, particularly in the drier parts of the country, as long as they remain supported and the infrastructure is maintained. But they need to be seen as part of a more integrated, flexible irrigation policy, where farmer-led approaches are given greater prominence. For sure, the mention of farmer-led irrigation in the FAO report was a small element of a much larger report (just on page 64 and box 10 for those wanting to point to it), but it does signal that farmer-led irrigation can now be announced as mainstream (because the UN’s FAO said so….).

Maybe in the future, national governments and donors – all members and supporters of FAO – will shift their focus and catch up with what farmers have been doing for millennia.

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

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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.

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Vaccine politics in Zimbabwe

If you didn’t know already, vaccines are political. And in southern Africa perhaps particularly so as the Chinese, Russians, Indians and the so-called international community through the COVAX facility jostle for position, each trying to show their benevolence towards Africa, reaping soft power diplomatic benefits in return.

In this context, the vaccine becomes the symbolic totem of a new form of political power. This competition between old and new powers has important implications for how public health and development more broadly are seen and responded to across Africa, including in Zimbabwe.

Vaccine nationalism and diplomatic competition however is raising concerns. These exist in Europe of course, perhaps especially around the British-Swedish AstraZeneca vaccine, which at different times has been cast as dangerous, ineffective or highly efficacious, depending on which politician or selective media commentary you listen to.

These uncertainties of course feed into anxieties and contestations over different types of vaccines, some of which have a major commercial dimension. It’s predicted that those with a profit-making business model behind them – Pfizer, Moderna and the rest – will make huge profits over the coming years as the coronavirus settles into its endemic state across the world.

Of course many Africans will not be vaccinated well into 2022, such is the inequality of vaccine distribution and access. Zimbabweans currently only have one vaccine being administered: the Sinopharm vaccine from China. Arriving through a coup of diplomacy on a specially chartered Air Zimbabwe flight, and met by the Chinese ambassador and the Constantino Chiwenga, Vice-President and health minister, it was a symbolic moment showered across the press.

Other vaccines from China are expected (including Sinovax), along with the Indian vaccine, Covaxin and the Sputnik V vaccine from Russia. Nearly a million COVAX vaccines (AstraZeneca) are also expected as Zimbabwe (finally) signed up for a share, although the first deliveries to Africa from the international facility went to Ghana and Ivory Coast while nearby Malawi got a first shipment last week.

Zimbabwe’s vaccine roll-out: intense debate

With 200,000 Sinopharm doses delivered in the first batch, the Medicines Control Authority of Zimbabwe was quick to approve the vaccine, and the Ministry of Health presented a plan for delivery across three phases. Initially, following the symbolic injecting of the vice-president (the president and the rest of the cabinet it seems await the next batch), 34,000 ‘front-line’ workers were targeted. In Zimbabwe, the front-line is nurses and doctors, but also police and soldiers, who have been very present throughout the various lockdowns.

Agricultural extension workers were supposed to be in this batch apparently, but have been relegated to the next phase, alongside teachers, college and university lecturers and those deemed vulnerable, including the elderly and some with particular health conditions. After these groups are vaccinated, the rest of the population will be offered vaccinations, which are free and not compulsory, with the aim of covering 60% of the population.

In all our sites bar one (and this is expected this week), the selection of frontline workers have been vaccinated. Not all took up the offers, with quite a few preferring to wait to see if there were any problems. Others were eager to get protection, while some feared that vaccinations were going to be used to restrict jobs in the health service – no jab, no job was the (actually unfounded) rumour. In our sites there were few side-effects commented on, and only a few nurses in one site who got a fever for a few days were mentioned. Sadly in one site someone died of a stroke following vaccination, although this was apparently due to high blood pressure rather than the inoculation.

With vaccinations underway, our team discussed with local people about their views. Many repeated the arguments that COVID-19 is not seen in the rural areas, so why bother get vaccinated. Others pointed to indigenous herbs and treatments that were proving sufficient. Rumours and strongly-stated viewpoints abound. Suspicion of China’s motives were presented: “China has economic and political interests in our country. They can now expand and exploit our resources”. Others observed that China “is known for sub-standard goods. This makes us worried… We definitely don’t rule out fake vaccines from China”. Some backed China – a war veteran from Mwenezi argued “We have a long relationship with China. It assisted us during the war of liberation. We have confidence in them, more than the West”.

Others shared more dramatic conspiracy theories circulating on social media: “COVID-19 is man-made; the vaccines alter our DNA and can kill us”. Others commented on the financial gains to be made: “This is about money. There are trillions to be made. How can we trust those companies?” Alongside the proliferation of stories on social media, a number of influential actors are adding to anxieties, despite the best efforts of government health services, with prophets, bishops and some churches urging people to avoid the vaccine.

Thus in the villages across our sites – from Mvurwi to Matobo – there is intense debate. As the vaccine rollout continues things may change, but there seems to be widespread hesitancy right now, which is concerning medical doctors. Even amongst our team there are quite contrasting views. In part this emerges from the context. The rural areas have not suffered massive deaths from coronavirus; indeed in the past weeks the number of cases has declined significantly across the whole country and no cases were reported from our study sites. People in all sites once again emphasised the importance of local medicines, vegetables and herbs. Their popularity has resulted in some commercialisation of these products, with Tanganda, the famous Zimbabwean tea manufacturer, producing a new green tea line made from the popular COVID-19 treatment, Zumbani (Lippia javanica).

As team members commented, the shifts in behaviour over the past year around hygiene in particular have been impressive. As one commented, “you go to people’s houses and there’s hand sanitiser or soap to wash; even the kids will pull you up and ask if you’ve washed your hands!” The village health workers reinforce health messages, and continue to work on small allowances, but are widely respected in local communities. With schools opening soon again, school development committees have been mobilised to supply sanitisers and masks and parents have set up duty rotas to clean and sanitise classrooms.

Despite the lack of coronavirus, people have seen the potential risks through high-profile deaths and sickness (including of relatives) in towns and in the diaspora, in South Africa and the UK in particular. This has prompted local mobilisation and collective action in the absence of state support.

Lockdown easing, but other challenges

In early March, the president eased the lockdown conditions. You can now move without permits between towns (although police are still at road blocks, extracting ‘fines’), and the massive price hikes that were seen in the last lockdown have reversed to some extent. There is more transport on the road and so greater competition among operators and now lower prices, which is in turn easing transport challenges for farmers who can bring their produce to towns to sell. Many suffered badly in the last lockdown as perishable crops just rotted at home, unable to be moved. Now things have improved, and there was a definitely more positive mood reported this month.

What has really struck people hard in this last period has been the tick disease of cattle known as January disease (theileriosis). People refer to this as ‘cattle COVID’, and it is hitting cattle herds really hard. Our team member from Mvurwi estimated that around 25 percent of all cattle have been lost. This collapse in a core asset will have long-term consequences, including damaging knock-on effects for ploughing next season. Tick grease has been supplied as part of government packages, but this is not easy to use given the density of ticks that have grown in number thanks to the heavy rains this season.

Lockdowns have meant that movement of animals is not possible, and people could not go to town to buy dipping chemicals, and even if farmers could get there they were in short supply. Standard government dipping has not been functioning effectively for a while, and the veterinary department has been overwhelmed and not been able to respond. In many ways, the impact of this cattle disease on people’s livelihoods is far greater than COVID-19, and it is being felt across our sites, with farmers selling animals for as little as US$60, and many have died.

***

We never expected to be reporting on the responses to COVID-19 a full year on, but this is now the eleventh report since our first post at the end of March 2020, and we will continue to monitor what happens across our sites in the coming weeks and months as vaccines become more common and the seasons shift from the wet to dry season, hopefully with a decline in tick diseases resulting along with a continued decline in COVID-19.

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

Thanks to the team from Mvurwi, Gutu, Masvingo, Matobo and Mwenezi. Photo credits: Felix Murimbarimba

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The politics of medium-scale A2 farms in Zimbabwe

The findings of our recent open access Journal of Modern African Studies paper, shared in the last blog, show that A2 farmers are not one uniform group. They vary a lot both between and within sites. They are not universally the standard caricature of a party-linked ‘crony’ who is doing very little and extracting rent from state-funded patronage schemes (although of course such farmers do exist). Instead, we see a highly differentiated context, with different pathways of accumulation (or lack of).

This is important for understanding the politics of medium-scale farms. We also have to situate these farms in a wider understanding of the new agrarian structure, now made up of small-scale farms (communal areas, old resettlement farms and newer A1 resettlement farms), medium-scale farms (A2 farms, and the old small-scale commercial farms, formerly the purchase areas) and large-scale farms, estates and conservancies, and think about where medium-scale farming sits in this wider agrarian landscape, now substantially dominated by smallholder farming.

A political bargain

A2 farms were allocated as part of the political bargain that emerged around land reform. Across the country, most land was taken by land-poor communal area people and un/der-employed people from towns, with these areas seized through occupations subsequently becoming A1 smallholder areas. A2 farms, a smaller but nevertheless substantial area (details in the paper), were allocated later as part of a political deal with the middle classes – the professional and bureaucratic elite – along with some going to those linked to the party-state and military (see Table below from our A2 farm survey).

% PercentageMvurwiMasvingo-Gutu
Communal area farmer1816
Farmworker32
Urban employed4112
Civil servant1035
Security services1810
Self-employed businessperson812
Other213

Our studies show how previous occupations varied across sites, but that those with jobs in town and civil servants (many teachers and agricultural ministry workers) were dominant. There were also some who previously farmed in the communal areas and a few farmworkers. Those with direct links to the party and having benefited from allocations organised through political connections were mostly in the ‘security services’ category, estimated at 10% and 18%  of farms in the two sites – although these farms included those occupied by retired police officers, army personnel and others, now with few on-going connections although with strong party affiliation.

We looked at the full population using census and audit data alongside information from knowledgeable key informants in each site to compare our sample data with the wider picture. There was a good match overall.  In the wider population, there were several MPs, one (now late) former Vice President and a few politically-connected church leaders, as well as a scattering of military top brass, councillors and others.

As in our sample, these especially well-connected people were a small minority. While media headlines focus on the acquisition of multiple farms by certain politicians – including former President Mugabe – this is clearly not the whole story (although of course an important part of it – and still an impediment to reform and the realisation of the Constitutional requirements on land ownership).

Among the sample population, there were also those who identified as ‘war veterans’ (a notoriously flexible category) averaging about 23% of farmers across our sites. Although some war vets were simply peasant farmers from the communal areas before their status was revived in the late 1990s, some remain influential in political circles and can make use of this in their relationships with the state.  

Accumulation trajectories and class formation

As the last blog discussed, some A2 farmers have been able to make a go of farming despite the constraints and this was especially so in the period from around 2009 to around 2016.

Accumulation trajectories differed though. Some invested from their own sources of funds or from patronage allocations (or sometimes combinations), others were able to mobilise funds through joint-venture arrangements and contracting. Others relied on ‘projects’ funded by relatives and others, sending money home. Others still expanded production through settling relatives on the farm, and creating a ‘villagised’ arrangement, with multiple farms effectively working together.

Each of these forms of investment has resulted in accumulation – of equipment, homes, cars, trucks and further investment in the farm. Those who were struggling and doing little were either failing because they had no resources, or were ill or infirm, or out of choice, as they had other activities going on elsewhere but were holding land for speculative purposes.

How does this complex picture pan out in terms of class and political dynamics? We can identify a core group of a productive accumulators, with different sources of finance, and varying dependence on the party-state political nexus. This group is an emergent capitalist class, some independent, others very much tied into the state through patronage relations. They make profits, employ people and are investing. They are the commercial farmers expected by the plans.

Next, we have those who are aspiring to be commercial farmers, but lack the financing. They produce reasonably well, but on smaller areas and with fewer animals; they employ few workers and cobble together financing from various sources, including off-farm work. As emergent capitalist farmers, they are severely hampered by the economic conditions and very often lack of access to patronage funds.

Others are struggling, operating more as ‘petty commodity producers’, combining peasant-style farming on small areas, with some level of market engagement. In Mvurwi they may be assisted by contracts with tobacco companies, and in other cases there are investments in ‘projects’ by relatives who transfer funds from outside. In some cases too, the land is effectively subdivided or at least shared by a number of families, as sons take up small-scale farming on the larger plot.  There are others still who have abandoned farming and may have a care-taker looking after the plot and any houses. This may be due to ill-health, age or because the household decided A2 farming was definitely not for them. In addition, there are those who are holding the land speculatively for future generations, making sure the windfall of gaining a farm is not lost for others in the family.

Each of these broad groupings have different associations with the party-state and so different linkages with party politics and patronage. With different levels of production and investment and different patterns of accumulation resulting, they have contrasting political interests. Those capitalist and aspiring capitalist farmers are keen to ensure that the state resolves major blockages to financing, including issuing leases, addressing compensation to former owners and facilitating bank finance. They are committed farmers, with capacity, but currently constrained. While some will rely on patronage, through the Command Agriculture scheme, most observe that this is not sustainable and all are aware of the whims of political favours that can change at any minute.

Those who are struggling may make it in time with the right support, but many will not. They are concerned about holding on to their land given land audits of utilisation. Such families actually may benefit from some form of subdivision of land, taking on a more manageable size of farm. Land taxes would hit such farmers hard given that they produce so little, and they are widely resisted, but may encourage a more appropriate land use. Those who have effectively abandoned their land fear the consequences of an audit. While some are well-connected and may hold onto their land through corrupt means, others are not and may lose it. The wider policy challenge is how to re-absorb such farm families into the smallholder areas in places where broader social safety nets can be provided or into gainful urban jobs, and in turn how to reallocate land to new entrants.

Emerging debates: future politics and policy questions

In sum, as processes of differentiation have emerged over nearly 20 years in the A2 farming areas, there is no one standard ‘A2 farmer’. Far from it: in fact there are many different types, with patterns varied over sites. This has implications for rural politics. The better-connected, richer farmers, with close alliances to the state, may succeed in lobbying for commercial farmer-friendly policies, including on-going subsidies and investment, just as their white predecessors so successfully did during the colonial era. They are also keen on joint-venture arrangements, including with former white farmers, as well as Chinese and other investors, making new alliances in the countryside.

With the current government’s penchant for neoliberal policies and a focus on business, these commercialising A2 farmers are well-placed. However, currently they are not well organised, and cohesion is fractured by the invidious effects of patronage politics, made worse by the endless reconfiguration of factions amongst the party-military elite.

Those who are struggling or abandoning farms may still wish to join the ranks of more successful farmers, but this will require concerted external support, which is currently absent. Their class characteristics are more akin to ‘petty commodity producer’ smallholders, especially in the A1 areas, and in the end following subdivision or movement to other areas may become part of a larger political force in the countryside lobbying for support for investment in agriculture and rural development, with smallholder farming at the centre.

Beyond the populist rhetoric, there is little political support for this position currently and connections to the party-state remain weak, but the war veteran lobby that is strong amongst this grouping, as well as others advocating a smallholder path of development, may yet provide the basis for longer-term support if a vision for smallholder-led transformation, perhaps in time with donor support, can be forged.

Numerous policy issues emerge from the analysis, including the need to address land tenure/lease issues, farm finance, land administration and wider agrarian support, including investment in basic infrastructure. The lessons from the successes of white commercial agriculture from the 1930s onwards is that a clear vision for the sector is needed, with strong leadership and backing from the state, as well as accessible and cheap private finance.

To date, the economic and political chaos that has dominated Zimbabwe’s recent history has prevented this, but there are opportunities. Maybe a new political settlement emerging from proposed dialogues across political parties will generate the sort of stability seen in the GNU period, and once again the chance of farm investment.

And over a longer period as it becomes clearer who can make it as a commercial farmer maybe a smaller, focused medium-scale sector may yet emerge around the nascent commercial farmer groups we have identified, potentially specialising on certain products and with a variety of joint-venture arangements. With land in the A2 areas subdivided further to allow a greater number of people to take up farming in the future, others may join a solid and powerful core farming sector based on smallholders (centred on the A1 areas).

Only time will tell what the future holds, but our study has revealed important dynamics, allowing a more open and informed debate on commercial agriculture and its future in Zimbabwe than has happened to date.

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

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Medium-scale commercial farming in Zimbabwe: how has it fared since land reform?

We have a new open access paper out in the Journal of Modern African Studies – “Medium-scale commercial agriculture in Zimbabwe: The experience of A2 resettlement farms”. Contrary to assertions that A2 medium-scale farms allocated during the land reform are largely occupied by ‘cronies’ and that they are unproductive and under-utilised, a more differentiated picture emerges, with important implications for policy and the wider politics of Zimbabwe’s countryside following land reform.

The paper is based on in-depth empirical studies in Mvurwi (a higher potential area to the north of Harare) and Masvingo-Gutu (in the drier south). The findings are important as they show ways forward for supporting the revival of commercial agriculture in the country.

This has been seriously hampered by lack of finance, sanctions affecting donor investments, uncertainties around the lease arrangements, poorly designed support programmes (notably the now notorious Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) mechanisation scheme and Command Agriculture) and selective capture and corruption by elites, during and after the land reform programme.

Surprising findings

The research was carried out during 2019 and involved a representative sample of 90 farms across the two sites, representing around 20% of all farms in the areas. This was a small, random sample, but the challenges of researching A2 farms are well-known to any field researcher in Zimbabwe. They are scattered over long distances, owners are often not present and because of on-going threats of audits talking to people is often challenging. In the end, we managed to speak to everyone in the sample, generating fascinating reflections from farmers, managers and workers documented in the paper.

The findings were a surprise. In the mid-2000s, we undertook research on a small group of A2 farms across Masvingo province and our conclusions were rather dismal. By-and-large, they were not occupied and if so very little was happening, except for a few individuals where external investments were driving recapitalisation of the farms. When we undertook the recent study, there was much more happening, although anecdotal evidence suggests that this has tailed off as the economy has declined further in the last year or so.

A key period in our reconstruction of the fates and fortunes of each of the farms since the early 2000s was the small window of relative stability around the time of the Government of National Unity (2009-2013) and immediately afterwards. At this time, it was possible to raise funds and invest, and markets were relatively stable and commercial agriculture was thus feasible.

Before and after this period, this has not been the case, and over the whole period the lack of financing for agriculture has been a major constraint for all farmers. Without leases being issued, as promised, farmers cannot raise bank credit with their farm as collateral, although some have used houses in town to do so.

Meanwhile, the external financing schemes have not supported production. Across our sample not that many received equipment through the RBZ mechanisation scheme in the 2000s, but as we discussed back then (p.99), and reinforced by recent BSR revelations, this proved a hopeless investment, and mostly a source of patronage-based corruption, with well-connected elites linked to the party-state and military benefitting and so appropriating public resources.

Much the same applies to the Command Agriculture scheme. Since 2016 this has been a loan/subsidy scheme supported by the party-state. In our sample, 43.7% in Mvurwi and 12.0% in Gutu-Masvingo benefited from the scheme to some extent in 2018-19. Although higher maize yields were achieved on average, it clearly was not a good use of public funds, and much of the investment was wasted, with benefits accruing mostly to the financing ‘cartels’.

Indeed, many recipients complained to us that their allocations were late or grossly insufficient, and that it is only a very few well-connected people who can jump the queue and get inputs – fertiliser, seed, fuel and so on – as part of the programme.

Patterns of accumulation and differentiation

Our data show a growing pattern of differentiation emerging between A2 farmers. The standard narrative that A2 farmers are all ‘cronies’ of the party-state and military and that the land is unutilised and unproductive does not hold up.

Yes, there are those who are beneficiaries of patronage for sure, including via Command Agriculture, but only an elite few gain the full package, and most of those who were recipients in our sample got very little, and complained bitterly.

Equally, there also some who have large areas unutilised, but this is far from the whole story. Indeed, patterns of ‘underutilisation’ are not hugely different to what was observed during the 1980s and 1990s when these farms were settled by white farmers. It all depends on the focus of production (intensive on small areas or extensive) and the type of operation (irrigated or dryland cropping or livestock, for example), as well as the nature of the land (many areas have extensive rocky areas, unsuitable for agriculture, but great for grazing). 

In terms of accumulation patterns, some have access to external finance (from jobs, diaspora investment and so on) and can make a go of it, even under very difficult circumstances. In the two sites, we have some quite successful tobacco farmers in Mvurwi and livestock farmers in Gutu-Masvingo – proper commercial farmers by any standard. Others are more aspiring, and lack the financing, while others are really struggling, farming only a small portion. Some have managed to mobilise joint ventures with former white farmers or with other investors, including Chinese firms involved in tobacco around Mvurwi, while others benefit from close relationships with tobacco contracting companies. Meanwhile, others have effectively abandoned farming or may be holding the land speculatively for future generations. Across these groups, especially the aspiring farmers, some are investing in ‘projects’ on small areas, while others have been joined by other families and are creating ‘villages’ on the farms.

Perhaps not surprisingly the patterns were very similar to what we found in our study of a former ‘purchase area’ (small-scale commercial farming area) near Masvingo – again supposedly commercial farms of a similar scale on average. Here we found very similar categories, but perhaps fewer commercial farmers than in the A2 study, in part because of lack of state support of any sort in these areas. And this was 80 years after their establishment, not just 18 as in the A2 farms we studied.

Ways forward

A more differentiated view therefore suggests ways forward for the A2 areas.

To ensure more effective, commercial use of A2 areas requires investment based on sustained financing and secure leasehold tenure. A2 farmers we talked to wanted to be independent, not reliant on state patronage, but able to get financing on time to produce successfully. Successful production can also be facilitated through land administration policy – including land audits and forms of taxation – that encourages more intensive, commercial use. But farm investment will only flow if the conditions are right, which means getting the leases issued, the contestation over land resolved through land compensation and private and public finance made available in flexible forms, and not through state schemes that are prone to corruption and patronage.

Contrary to assumptions – including our own before undertaking this latest research – A2 medium-scale farms do have future, but those with potential need investment and support, while others need to be encouraged to pass on the land they received during the land reform. The next blog will discuss the political consequences of the emerging pattern of differentiation on the A2 farms, and the implications for policy.

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

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The rich people’s virus? Latest reflections from Zimbabwe

A few weeks back Oxfam released a major report, ‘The Inequality Virus’, documenting the way COVID-19 has affected different populations and parts of the world. The now well-established impacts on the already-marginalised are presented, alongside how the rich have benefited. But the debate in Zimbabwe is currently rather different – people are wondering why the virus is hitting the urban rich and well-connected the most.

The last weeks have seen a massive spike in reported cases and deaths in Zimbabwe. The deaths of senior politicians, party officials and business people have been widely reported. It has provoked a level of concern, even panic, across the country, especially given the parlous state of the health care system.

Last weekend I caught up with the team who is monitoring the situation across our rural study sites – in Mvurwi, Gutu, Masvingo, Matobo, Chiredzi and Mwenezi areas. This is the tenth blog in a series (see here, here and here for updates since last March)

A disease of the urban rich and powerful?

In our rural study sites the experience of COVID-19 as a disease remains limited. Team members were able to report a few cases from each of the sites, with some deaths usually among older business people, but many of the funerals were of those coming back from towns or from South Africa. COVID-19 is still, it seems, not a rural disease – although of course, given the complete absence of testing in these areas, we cannot know for sure.

Over the past week or so, team members have been discussing why COVID-19 seems to be concentrated among the urban rich and powerful with locals in the rural areas where they live. Many explanations were offered. The rich move around more, they fly in planes, drive in cars; we barely move, especially with lockdown. The rich don’t do physical exercise, they move in cars; we walk everywhere – we have to, and do manual work. The rich work in offices and enclosed spaces; we are outside, in the clean air. The rich eat junk food, and have conditions like BP, diabetes and so on; we have fewer chronic conditions and get good food from our own local vegetables, which give immunity.

All this makes sense epidemiologically, but what was central to local narratives across sites was that local responses were not just passive – the consequences of being poor – but due to active choices about prevention and treatment. Unlike a few months ago, there is a tangible fear of the virus now. The news reports of the rich and influential dying despite their privilege, mean that people have to act to protect themselves.

Local remedies and vaccine anxieties

There is today a booming market in local vegetables (such as Rudhe/Ulude and Mutsine/Umhlavangubo (Shona/Ndebele)– ‘weeds’ from fields mostly), as well as local medicines. Hot teas of many sorts – lemon and ginger, guava and eucalyptus, soaked onion – are combined with steaming using a variety of herbs. Herbs, roots and tree products such as Ndorani/Intolwani, Rufauchimuka/Umafavuke, Zumbani/Umsuzwane and Chifumura are hot commodities, and lemons are reportedly selling for 20 bond notes a piece.

As people explained, they cannot get to town for conventional medicines, and in any case they have no money, so local approaches are better. They point to cases where people have recovered using such medicines. WhatsApp group messages are full of advice on local herbal medicines, and offers of their sale.

What then of the prospects of a vaccine? Here there is a raging debate across our sites. When asked, most people seemed highly sceptical. The Chinese have offered vaccines to the country (to be available free, despite early confusion), and this has been widely trailed in the press, as part of China’s effective vaccine diplomacy. While in time there will hopefully be allocations from COVAX, the central global facility too, it’s the Chinese vaccine offer that seems to be generating the most debate.

Where does the scepticism come from? In part it emerges from (usually unfair and often racist) attitudes towards Chinese interventions in Zimbabwe and the quality of Chinese products, disparagingly referred to as ‘Zhing-Zhong’ – cheap, low quality products likely to break or be useless. People also worry that the state will force people to have the vaccine.

There are also rumours that vaccines cause infertility, make women grow beards and have other severe side-effects, potentially resulting in death. It is difficult to know where such rumours come from, but they are very real. I was sent a whole string of videos (mostly coming from anti-vaxxers and others in the US) by a friend who had received them from a church-based WhatsApp group. There are likely many similar ones circulating.

Amongst our informants across the study sites, there was a general unease about the rapidity of the vaccines’ development – pointing out of course that there is still no vaccine for HIV/AIDS after many years. There was also a sense that, among poor rural people, they have not been affected so far, and that the local medicines and remedies being used seem to be working so far.

As across the world, vaccine anxiety mixed with vaccine nationalism will be a big issue for Zimbabwe when vaccines finally come to the country.

Farmers’ lockdown struggles

Combined with the flood of migrants from South Africa coming back over the festive period, there were many press reports of the elite partying unprotected and churches gathering in large numbers. The consequences are now being felt with the current surge. For good reason, the government has clamped down on the strong advice of the medical professionals. Since Jan 2nd there has been a strict ‘Tier 4’ lockdown across the country, recently extended for two weeks until the middle of February.

People report that this is the strictest lockdown yet, with severe movement restrictions, a curfew and business hours restricted from 8am to 3pm. Many arrests have been reported and once again there are accusations that the lockdown is being used to suppress political dissent. In the past, people could flout the rules or get round them – especially if you could bribe the police or were well-connected. Some are still able to get round the lockdown restrictions, but many fewer this time. There are shebeens (drinking places) that operate after dark, some transport operators that dodge the police road-blocks and a few churches still flout the rules, but for most the elaborate process of getting exemption letters is a daily struggle. One of our colleagues explained how he had to get an exemption letter locally in the township in Masvingo to get another exemption letter in town to travel to Chiredzi so he could look after his sugar farm. It’s not easy being a farmer at the moment.

The informal markets and many shops remain shut. Getting farm inputs is nearly impossible as movement restrictions and curfews mean many businesses have closed. Farmers cannot move their produce, and horticultural produce is rotting in the fields. Those who used to rely on vending of agricultural products at fixed locations have to move around or sell from home, with far reduced returns. Input supplies for farming have dried up – with fertiliser being absurdly expensive (up to US$40 per bag) and much in demand because of the heavy rains this year. The rains have resulted in livestock disease outbreaks, notably blackleg, but getting access to medicines is difficult because of movement restrictions, and cattle are dying in numbers. Despite it being a good season overall, especially on heavier soils, gaining the advantage of this is proving tough, both in terms of production and marketing.  

With the good season, there are at least some early crops. Cucumbers, pumpkins, sweet reeds and early maize are already being consumed, along with the proliferation of local vegetables and wild fruits that have grown this year. This is a major help to many. Those who planted early look like they will get a decent crop in most of our sites, including those that are traditional ‘drought prone’. But late planted maize is currently looking weak and, with the lack of fertiliser and incessant rain, much of it is yellowing.

The COVID barter economy

Even the COVID economy discussed in previous blogs is highly constrained at the moment. There is very little money circulating and people must get along with their own production and barter exchange. The growth of farming in town is dramatic – the outskirts of Masvingo are reported to be ‘one big farm’! Sugar beans or sweet potatoes with maize seem to be the favoured crops, and these will be keeping many people fed in the coming months.

Those who have some crops can exchange for other goods in their neighbourhoods. Barter is the basis for exchange without cash, and word is put out on the street or via the WhatsApp groups if things are available or needed. Goods are moved around the townships by a proliferation of push-carts, operated by many who have lost their jobs. And with the informal markets closed, selling has moved to people’s homes or mobile shops – in carts, wheelbarrows or cars – linking informal township-based wholesalers (who source for other towns or abroad) and a network of small-scale retailers and vendors.

As we have discussed before, there has been a massive growth of small-scale mining across our sites. In the last few weeks, two new areas have opened up near Masvingo and adjacent to our study sites, with now thousands of miners arriving in a new gold rush. Many underground mines have been flooded with the heavy rains, and some are now dangerous, but mining continues in others, often with serious attendant dangers – not only of mine collapse, but also of COVID-19 infection.

An unequal disease

COVID-19 is certainly an unequal disease, but in unpredictable ways. In Zimbabwe, it affects the rich and powerful disproportionately through illness and death and the poor through livelihood struggles during lockdown. How will the inequality virus’ evolution pan out over the coming months? Check out the blog for further updates.   

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

Thanks to the team from Mvurwi, Gutu, Masvingo, Matobo and Mwenezi.

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Can South Africa help find a way out of Zimbabwe’s on-going crises?

I don’t know how many times this blog has commented on the worsening economic and political crises in Zimbabwe. It seems to be never-ending and still getting worse. The misplaced expectations that the ‘new dispensation’ would provide an escape route following the 2017 ‘coup’ were short-lived. If anything, things have got worse.

It is a nightmarish combination: faction fighting within the ruling party and military top brass; capture of the economy by business-political elites; relentless corruption across public activity; violence by state security forces against dissent; sanctions by the international community; lack of investment and a divided opposition barely worthy of the name.

And added to all this is the COVID-19 pandemic, now accelerating across the region, with many of Zimbabwe’s elite being struck down, including four cabinet ministers being among the dead to date.

Tough times for most

In the midst of national political and economic chaos, now going on for over two decades in different forms, people must get on with their daily lives in increasingly difficult circumstances in the midst of a pandemic. With many having lost formal employment, the economy operates largely informally and public services barely function. Times are tough for most. A ‘lost generation’ is talked about – those growing up since the late 1990s have not seen any of the fruits of Independence that people profited from in the 1980s. The image of the educated Zimbabwean, employable across the world, is fast disappearing.

This dire situation has made self-reliance and local innovation essential. And access to land, as a vital route to securing livelihoods, is especially important. This is why the land reform, especially the distribution to many households – who are in turn linked to many more in the communal and urban areas – in the smallholder A1 areas, is so vital to Zimbabwe’s story over the past 20 years. Without state support and shunned by donors as being ‘contested areas’, the A1 resettlements have for many been the focus for survival in a collapsing economy.

The ‘development’ agencies meanwhile have concentrated on humanitarian and emergency aid and avoiding the productive sectors of the economy – for sure such aid is much needed, but it’s barely making a dent on the core challenges of economic development. The state has hardly been present, so incapacitated has it been by the exodus of skilled personnel, lack of funding and rising debt. Instead, it has been people’s hard work and ingenuity that has held things together….but only just.

Those living in the elite neighbourhoods of Harare – the party, business and military elites and the expat, diplomatic and donor community – are shielded from much of the worst. They have foreign exchange cash, health insurances and the ability to escape to South Africa if needs be… and the golf courses and some tourist resorts are still open (and gloriously empty). For most people, though, the situation is really difficult, and increasingly so, as the chasm between the (very few) rich and the (majority) poor increases. As everyone has been saying for over two decades: it can’t go on, surely.

Can South Africa help find a way out of the current mess?

So what can be done? For a long time, opposition supporters and allied liberal commentators from inside and outside Zimbabwe were holding out for ‘regime change’. For many years, Robert Mugabe was the bogey-man, so when a well-oiled PR machine emerged around Emmerson Mnangagwa some fell for the spin. Others focused on the opposition and the hope of electoral change, but when Morgan Tsvangirai died, and the opposition fell apart in unseemly disputes, this option seemed to shrink. Now hopes seem to be pinned on South African intervention.

An interesting International Crisis Group briefing came out recently that suggested that the South African government was abandoning its approach of ‘quiet diplomacy’ promoted by Thabo Mbeki, premised on solidarity between two liberation movements, and becoming more assertive. This is probably necessary to unblock the impasse. Unlike previous ICG commentaries, this one is more sanguine about the prospects of opposition politics. Endemic corruption and economic mismanagement is evident across the state, mostly at the hands of ZANU-PF politicians, but also from MDC allied politicians in major cities. The solution no longer seems to be a naïve assertion that all will be well with a new party in power; even the once-feted Nelson Chamisa’s star seems to have somewhat faded.

Unravelling ‘state capture’ by political and military elites is not straightforward, as South Africa has clearly found in addressing the catastrophe of the Jacob Zuma era. However, rather than a holier-than-thou rhetoric from Western diplomatic missions about ‘good governance’, maybe Cyril Ramaphosa and colleagues will be able to address the Zimbabwe situation more sensitively and concretely with practical solutions, rooted in a better understanding of the context.

Pragmatic compromises

So can the South Africans engineer some form of national government that incorporates opposition politicians, technocrats and others, and sets up forms of accountability that stops the rot? Not an easy task, especially in the midst of a pandemic, but it will be necessary to satisfy international investors and aid donors, and it may be the only survival route for some within ZANU-PF. Backing a more technocratic political network within and outside the ruling party may provide the basis for a relaxing of sanctions too.

The South Africans will have to seek a pragmatic solution that is widely acceptable. Maybe such an initiative might just capture the moment when there is a new administration in the US, and find a way for the UK and EU to find a route through the sanctions impasse. Easing sanctions could have a huge impact. For example, sustained development in the land reform areas has been constrained for two decades due to their designation as ‘contested areas’ by Western donors. The agreed compensation deal with former white farmers offers a (yes tricky and fraught) way forward, and the potential for investment and growth from the core sector of the economy – agriculture –opening up.

Of course there must be conditions to any deal, with political reforms firmly on the table. What this means for scheduled elections in 2023, for the military’s support to a new government and for some of the most corrupt in the political-business elite who profit from on-going chaos, is unsure of course. As Brian Raftopolous argues, “Zimbabwe’s future looks bleak. Its state continues an authoritarian trajectory as it carries out its intention to dismantle the opposition. Yet the legacies and the futures of Southern Africa’s liberation movements face increasing public scrutiny even as the alternatives remain opaque.”

South Africa cannot afford the complete collapse of Zimbabwe given the fragility of its own economy, and with insurgency troubling Mozambique the usually stable southern African region looks extremely volatile, requiring solutions soon.

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

Photo credit: GovernmentZA, President Cyril Ramaphosa arrives in Zimbabwe. 11 Mar | Flickr.

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‘The land is the economy, the economy is the land’, but does this include young people? Reflections from Zimbabwe

There has been a flurry of studies on young people and agriculture in recent years, including in Zimbabwe. The wider critical literature has challenged the standard narratives around youth specific policy measures – such as narratives that youth are innovative, entrepreneurial, tech-savvy and so the future of agriculture that we see in report after report. Instead, much of this work makes the case that broad, fairly standard development policies – improved infrastructure, better education, agricultural R and D, labour policies and so on – are what is needed to expand “landscapes of opportunity” for everyone, including younger people.

A recent comparative study using survey data from six African countries showed (rather obviously) that opportunities expanded when people were near markets (for off-farm work) and when agricultural potential was higher (for farming). More interestingly, the patterns were not much different between different age groups, although those in their 20s reported ‘no activity’ most frequently and those in their 30s were more likely to engage in off-farm work.

Large surveys such as this reveal very little however about the relational dynamics of generational change and the ways life courses are adapted. This is an important point made by a paper on youth and food systems, which eschews an age-based categorisation beloved of surveys and argues that youth is a “transitional phase within a life cycle”. It’s this transition (often including considerable periods of ‘waithood’) – of establishing a home, gaining access to land, investing in agriculture or starting up a business – that is crucial. Of course, as the paper argues, such processes of generational change intersect with gender, class, wealth, location and other dimensions.

In this sense, there are particular challenges faced by young people – across a variety of ages depending on their life course. This comes out in the more empirically-grounded, qualitative studies, which are increasingly coming out on this theme with work on Zimbabwe.

For example, a comparative assessment of young people’s experiences in commercial farming ‘hotspots’ in Ghana, Tanzania and Zimbabwe highlights the many challenges people face in first gaining access to land, capital and markets for agriculture as a young person. As the paper highlights, social relations – amongst family and beyond – are crucial, but overall it’s very hard work and challenging, according to the testimonies collected.

Successes can quickly be reversed, as ‘hazards’ strike – both misfortune and mistakes. The paper’s conclusions that it is not land or credit that is needed are slightly contradicted by the data, as it’s clear that in Ghana and Zimbabwe land constraints are very real, and access to finance is a challenge across sites for young people. The paper concludes that what young people need is an insurance or form of protection from sudden, unexpected shocks, adding to the array of policy measures on offer.

More in-depth studies are offered from different parts of Zimbabwe that reinforce some of these themes. For example, based on in-depth life histories from Matabelaland (Lupane and Umguza districts), Vusilizwe Thebe argues that challenges of young people are very contextual. In the A1 resettlement area many young people who occupied land or joined parents who did so are disconnected from the sort of deep networks that provide access to resources and help transitions in life courses as in nearby communal areas. Nevertheless, young, independent, single women have been able to make a go of agriculture in the resettlement areas, whereas patriarchal institutions would have constrained such opportunities elsewhere.

A study from Goromonzi in Mashonaland East by Clement Chipenda and Tom Tom focused on the challenges of social reproduction in the new resettlements, and pointed to the complaints of young people feeling left out of the land distribution. This has resulted in generational conflicts between young people and their parents, as those without land and employment have to resort to highly precarious work, such as gold panning or temporary hired labour. Young people in Henry Bernstein’s terms are a new fragmented class of labour. These class tensions and implications for social reproduction are important themes raised.

A similar sense of struggle was highlighted in our study of young people in land reform areas in Masvingo district and Mvurwi farming area (see also earlier blogs here, here, here and here). The ROAPE paper that summarises the findings shows how

Opportunities for young people following land reform are severely constrained. The precariousness of work, the challenges schooling and getting qualifications, family disputes and illnesses, the lack of land, the poor productivity of dryland farming, and the difficulties of establishing businesses without capital, are all recurrent themes. While a few have found their way into reasonably remunerated jobs, the routes to accumulation, and getting established as independent adults, are limited for others, with very small-scale irrigated farming seemingly by the far the best option.”

The wider politics of young people and land reform is picked up by another recent paper by Fadzai Chipato and colleagues, which focuses on youth struggles. The paper documents the long association between youth, the liberation war and ruling party politics and the particular position of young people in the struggle over land. However, the paper highlights the real problems of the conflation of state and party politics and the use of land as patronage resource. This has resulted in an increasing disenfranchisement of young people, as they next generation does not feel it is being provided for, with land not available and the economy in ruins. However, the cross-generational struggles for livelihoods are being revived, often outside party control, as young people exert their agency and organise to take land through informal invasions as well as upsetting land use laws and claiming land and water for their farming.

‘The land is the economy, the economy is the land’ is a well-known ZANU-PF rallying cry. The centring of land in the politics of the country means that questions are always raised about who gets land and through what means? The land reform undoubtedly benefited a large number of people, many of whom are doing well, but this was a particular generation, and others who were children or even not born in 2000 are now seeking out livelihoods in rural areas. The generational dimensions of the agrarian challenge does not go away through a redistribution; in some ways the conflicts intensify, but between different people.

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

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Lockdown politics: reflections from Zimbabwe

Last week, the blog looked at the COVID-19 situation in Zimbabwe. The situation continues to get worse. On 9 January, there were 20499 reported cases and 483 deaths – 6000 more cases and over 100 more deaths in just a week. It looks like the South African ‘new variant’ is taking hold. Another very severe lockdown was imposed on 2 January, with strict movement restrictions, many businesses closed and a curfew.  

However, like many other African settings, as discussed last week, so far at least the rural areas in particular seem not to have significant coronavirus incidence, with reported cases concentrated in urban areas. So are widespread, national lockdowns justified? Should governments persist with the harsh lockdowns that are perhaps best designed for different Western, urban settings with different social and economic profiles?

This is a difficult one. We don’t know if the early action by African states – including Zimbabwe – prevented a massive early spread, and it would be foolhardy to experiment with releasing lockdowns to boost the economy if it resulted in a massive transmission of disease during a second wave. And especially so in settings where health systems are deeply inadequate.

The Swedish experiment of a light lockdown has faltered badly in recent months, and the haphazard approach of the UK government to pandemic control measures has resulted in a huge and unnecessary death rate, even with a top quality health service.

Hardships, but innovations and transformations

What then are the downsides of the current approach of strictly following international public health guidelines? As we have documented in the blog series since March last year, the impacts of lockdowns on rural populations across our sites have been harsh. And the new lockdown in Zimbabwe is already biting hard.

This is a pattern seen across Africa as many studies have now shown. Reduced market access, lack of mobility for labour and work, school closures meaning kids don’t get an education… and so on. The story is now familiar. There have been many surveys of the impacts and the considerable costs of lockdowns. Lockdowns particularly hit those reliant on formal markets and those requiring mobility for their livelihoods.

Yet, as our field reports during 2020 have shown, in a largely informal economy, where exchanges are local, there has been an impressive resilience in rural areas and small towns in Zimbabwe so far. Without wanting to dismiss extreme hardships, falling perhaps especially on women and young people, the adaptations and innovations we saw over the past 9-10 months across our sites have been impressive. 

Whether in terms of marketing, health care, off-farm income earning, trading or artisanal mining, a new array of new activities have sprung up so that people can survive during lockdowns. Compared to the formal phone surveys that many researchers are fond of, asking not just about what has changed from the status quo, and so highlighting the costs, we have also been asking what has emerged, highlighting innovations and opportunities too.

Our qualitative work across multiple sites in Zimbabwe shows not just how the existing agro-food and livelihood system suffered, but how it also was transformed – by necessity, and through skill and ingenuity. Reading back across our accounts from March 2020 onwards it is interesting how the tenor of the commentary changed: from negative impacts to positive opportunities, even in very tough circumstances. 

Authoritarian reactions

A common argument about the downsides of lockdowns is that they provide space for authoritarian states to exert control on restive populations under the guise of public health measures. The Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition has recently produced a significant report (and video) on the shocking abuses that have occurred in Zimbabwe (and across SADC) over the past year, with heavy lockdowns and restrictions on movement seemingly being used as a pretext for arrests and violence, directed particularly against the opposition.

The ‘closing of civic space’ is very apparent in Zimbabwe, and was heightened especially in the build-up to the proposed 31 July uprising. While this never happened in the ways envisaged, the clamp-down was severe, affecting everyone, but especially journalists (arrested and imprisoned) and opposition leaders (sexually assaulted and imprisoned). This pattern continues, with new arrests during the past week, and some still imprisoned.

The argument in the Crisis Coalition reports is that lockdown measures were ‘excessive and disproportionate’, with state and security services using lockdowns to boost their control against rising opposition and internal faction fighting. It is implied that lockdowns should be released with ‘civic space’ restored. In other words, it is suggested that lockdowns are manipulated, becoming simply a political tool.

Many public health officials would however disagree, and especially now. With great hardship and without resources, they have been implementing the measures in good faith, with the genuine fear that the pandemic will take hold, and that only strict public health measures will hold it at bay. Public freedoms are always curtailed in a health emergency for the greater, longer-term good, they argue. Lockdowns are therefore essential, even if private civic freedoms are curtailed.

Lockdown politics

This of course is a tension seen in many countries, with anti-lockdown protests in favour of ‘freedom’ a common occurrence. However, in Zimbabwe, the context is particular. A more sophisticated reflection on these tensions is necessary.

It is always about politics, and political assessment of trade-offs. In the UK, for example, the discussion has been about opening up to boost the economy and people’s jobs and livelihoods, while protecting health through a complex and confusing set of public health measures. In Zimbabwe, the state had similar concerns, as the already dire state of the economy was made worse by the pandemic, and fears of public unrest and opposition mobilisation were raised.  Yet, actually, those economies with stricter public health measures have actually fared better economically over the pandemic, particularly in east and southeast Asia.

Lockdowns are of course no excuse for human rights abuses and illegal activities. These have been seen in many places, as the ‘emergency’ rhetoric of a pandemic provides the pretext for authoritarian measures, as well as corrupt practices. The rush to acquire personal protective equipment (PPE) at the beginning of the pandemic saw procurement practices abused massively across the world.

In Zimbabwe, media exposes resulted in the sacking of the health minister and fingers pointed to the very top, while in the UK the extent of involvement of senior politicians and associates in the Conservative party in getting favourable government contracts is only now becoming clear. This is now subject to a number of lawsuits, although still remarkably little mainstream media commentary, despite apparently extreme forms of corruption.

Pandemics are windows onto society

A pandemic exposes the worst and best of any society, and Zimbabwe is no exception. The failure of governance, the abuse of power and the authoritarian approach to politics has been laid bare, along with the tragic lack of capacity in the health service and the neglect of key workers, notably doctors and nurses who have been underpaid for years. But, at the same time, the way public health workers have worked tirelessly across the country sharing messages about keeping a distance, washing hands and so on has been impressive; in many cases involving people who are barely paid a living wage. The commitment of medical professionals is also amazing. Despite the terrible working conditions, they have insistently argued for solid public health measures and may have helped offset something worse. And, in response, the extraordinary resilience, as well as the improvisation, ingenuity and innovation, that people have shown over these months continues to impress.

Over the coming months, we will continue to monitor the situation across our Zimbabwe sites and report back via the blog, as the unpredictable life-cycle of a pandemic reveals much about the struggles of daily life and the political, cultural, social and economic responses to adversity in rural settings, which remains the on-going focus of this blog.

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

Thanks to the team from Mvurwi, Gutu, Masvingo, Matobo and Mwenezi. Photo credit: Felix Murimbarimba

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Can Zimbabwe survive a second wave of COVID-19?

On January 2nd, Vice-President and Minister of Health, Constantino Chiwenga, announced another strict lockdown on the whole country. As in March, non-essential businesses are shut, travel is restricted and schools are closed. Everyone is urged to stay at home. In the last week, there have been a further 1342 cases, adding to the total of 14084 recorded. There have been a further 29 deaths too, including a number of high profile business people and politicians, adding to a cumulative total of 369.

Zimbabwe seems to be facing a second wave, driven by the new variant coronavirus from South Africa. I caught up with colleagues yesterday to hear about the current situation and to reflect on how has Zimbabwe fared since the first case was identified in March 2020 (see the Zimbabweland COVID-19 blog series).  

On the face of it, Zimbabwe like many other African countries outside South Africa and to some extent Nigeria, has been relatively spared the ravages of COVID-19 to date. The total (reported) cases and deaths remain low. Compared to the US, UK and much of the rest of Europe, where last week’s reported figures are a small fraction of what is happening each day in these countries, the figures seem to portray (relative) good news.

At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a wave of Afro-pessimism: Africa was going to be hard hit, and with poor health services and many co-morbidities the toll would be massive. This did not happen during the first wave of the pandemic. In fact, the richest, supposedly most ‘efficient’ countries on the planet suffered worse. Why is this?

Why so few cases?

There are many theories out there, and no one really knows – uncertainties are everywhere. Some claimed it was the heat, but of course there are cold parts of Africa in some seasons and places, and hot places around the world have suffered terribly too, notably in Latin America. Some said it was because of widespread BCG tuberculosis vaccination, but the comparative data proved dodgy. Some said it was because of a young population demographic. This certainly helped, given the susceptibility of different age groups, but there are plenty of other places where a ‘young’ population was hit hard.

Certainly African countries, including Zimbabwe, responded to the pandemic quickly and effectively in line with WHO recommendations, with national lockdowns, restrictions on movements and health campaigns. This was unlike Western nations where the response was sluggish, with an arrogance that they knew best. Clearly, they didn’t and coronavirus did not turn out to be like ‘flu as all the elaborate preparedness and contingency plans assumed.

The experience of past pandemics/epidemics has also probably helped in Africa. The AIDS pandemic taught African nations and peoples a lot of important lessons: know your epidemic, take it seriously and change behaviour to save lives. The same applied to Ebola in West Africa and of course SARS in southeast Asia. Such experiences shape cultures and practices, and citizens, experts and institutions learn lessons the hard way. In the West, assuming that COVID-19 was ‘flu was fatal – literally, and resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths in the US and Europe – but Western nations had not experienced the ravages of a serious pandemic for many years outside certain communities.

In some ways it may have been that poor health conditions actually helped. Acquired or pre-existing immunity through the frequent attack of multiple pathogens may have made certain people more able to fend off COVID-19. Noone knows this for sure, and plenty of poor and marginalised people have died, but it’s a hypothesis worth exploring, as many of the (recorded) deaths have been among middle class and richer people, where co-morbidities – being overweight, having diabetes etc. – are similar to those in the ‘healthy’ West.

The spatial pattern of cases also gives some clues. Cases in Zimbabwe, for example, are heavily concentrated in the larger urban centres, where poorer people live in crowded places and moving to jobs means travelling on crowded transport. The colonial design of racially-segregated cities has resulted in increased susceptibility to this type of respiratory disease, requiring new thinking in city planning.

The other foci of infection are on the borders, highlighting the impact of migration as a spreader of disease, especially from South Africa. With the new variant extending from the coastal areas of South Africa, the transfer of the virus through migrant populations moving back and forth, especially through the festive period, has already happened. Add to this the crowded conditions and long queues at the borders such as Beitbridge seen over the holidays, it has been a recipe for rapid spread.

Understanding disease contexts in rural areas

However, there still remain very few (recorded) COVID-19 cases in any of our rural study areas, and few stories about people who have died. This is the case across the country – from Mvurwi to Chikombedzi – and the exceptions are in all instances a few imports from returning migrants, most common in Matobo. This is striking and contradicts the national narrative of growing infection.

We have been observing the local situation now for 9-10 months, and the pattern seems clear. Despite massive under-reporting due to an almost complete absence of testing, the rural areas seem to have been spared so far. As colleagues noted, “it may be that we have had the disease, but there are a range of ‘flus’ (respiratory diseases), and we know how to treat them with herbal medicines. Even the local village health workers are encouraging their use.”

We asked people in each of the study sites about why there were so few cases, and they consistently identified the activity patterns of people in rural areas. They live outside, there is ‘plenty of air’, they are not crowded together, as villages and homes are spaced out and people don’t move around so much – certainly compared to the ‘big bosses’ from Harare who seem to be suffering most. The moments when infection might happen included, according to their listing, funerals, markets, tobacco selling points, schools, indoor church services and beer parties where receptacles are shared. They also all pointed out that people are generally good at hygiene as this part of cultural practices for washing and cleaning, especially before eating.

As Paul Richards and Daniel Cohen point out on the African Arguments blog, understanding infection risk in context is essential, and this requires detailed insights into what people do where and why. In Africa it is not meat packing plants or care homes where concentrated transmissions occur, but in other settings. In order to shift behaviours and reduce infection, there is a need to know more about – for example – “the way infection hazard is shaped by key ceremonial activities in private spaces.” This means not just relying on the generic ‘science’ and projections from generalised models, or even the direct experiences of elite policymakers in large urban centres, but engaging with those who are confronting the disease, even if at this stage at very low levels. As they comment, it’s imperative to:

involve at-risk communities of all kinds in debate about how to manage the hazards associated with a second wave of the disease in Africa, based on diligent backward contact tracing undertaken while disease circulation remains relatively low. The time to do this work is now.

Only with such engagement and supported by effective testing – as was the case with Ebola in West Africa – will people shift practices, perhaps in quite subtle ways, to prevent disease spreading. The blunt tool of lockdowns and generic health messaging may be increasingly ineffective in a second wave, and more attuned responses will be needed.

Dangers at the borders

As colleagues said, “people are fed up with lockdowns, they don’t know why they are happening”. In the last period, things had got back to a (sort of) normal. Or at least people had found ways of managing the restrictions. Businesses had been re-established, markets had reopened, people were moving about (even if paying bribes to the police at roadblocks), funerals were being held with numbers way beyond the stipulated number, schools were open and mask wearing had become much more casual. The announcement of a new harsh lockdown has been met with dread. People remember the first major lockdown from late March, and cannot afford to return to that situation of extreme hardship.

But notes of caution also come from the border areas, especially in the last weeks. Over the festive period there have been a huge number of returnees from South Africa wanting to visit their relatives and rural homes. The massive queues at the border posts, with traffic jams of 20km or more have been widely reported. Traffic disruption has also occurred further away as police check for COVID test certificates among motorists and truckers.

As we have observed in previous blogs, migrants have invested in their rural homes during the pandemic, and have opened up fields, moving members of their families to these homes and away from towns in Zimbabwe or South Africa. Some villagers have been complaining that grazing areas are becoming short as so much land once fallow (and so available for grazing) has been ploughed this year, spurred on by the very good rains. There is now more movement and mixing with migrants from elsewhere, and especially around holiday times.

With the main border posts highly congested, others have resorted to illegal crossings. The Limpopo is flowing due to plentiful rains and normal crossings on foot are not passable. Boat operators have sprung up using large inflatables, with crossings costing Rand 200 per head. Huge numbers of people cross each day – around 150 per boat – along with goods and supplies, and sometimes even vehicles. Soldiers and border security forces are paid off, and a lucrative transport business has emerged, alongside other activities including supplying food to travellers. These crossings are taken by those without the full paperwork and who cannot pay for the U$50 cost of a COVID test. No doubt viruses along with people and goods are being imported too.

What next?

To date, the rural areas of Zimbabwe have yet to experience the direct impact of the disease, and only the consequences of lockdowns. This may yet change. In the coming weeks, we will continue to monitor the situation in our study areas. How will they cope with the new lockdowns? Will the second wave hit the rural areas this time? What strategies are being used to respond locally, with they remain effective even with greater transmissibility of the virus? Before the next update report, next week the blog will look more broadly at the debate about lockdowns and their politics.

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

Thanks to the team from Mvurwi, Gutu, Masvingo, Matobo and Mwenezi. Image credit: NewZimbabwe.com

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