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Zimbabweland’s top 20 posts of 2018

The most popular blogposts published in 2018 are listed below.

Debates in Zimbabwe have been dominated by the July election and their aftermath, and several popular blogs covered this period, both before and after the elections. The deepening economic crisis and the drive to encourage investment have been covered in other blogs, making the case for a focus on agriculture and rural economies and a locally-led economic development, rather than a blind neoliberal rush.

South Africa’s ongoing debate about ‘expropriation without compensation’ continues as a hot topic in the region, and is reflected in a blog in the number 1 spot. Many commentators in South Africa and beyond make lazy comparisons with Zimbabwe, arguing that Zimbabwe’s ‘failed land reform’ will be repeated south of the Limpopo if South Africa opts for a major land distribution. Our work over many years has attempted to counter the persistent myths about Zimbabwe’s land reform, but despite everything they continue to be trotted out.

A number of blogs this year have summarised findings in relation to big policy themes, such as compensation for expropriated land and the need for an effective land administration system in the hope of moving the debate forward with the ‘new dispensation’. A popular blog, as with many others subsequently published in quite a few outlets, lists ten big priorities for agriculture and rural development, while another challenges simplistic notions of ‘viability’ in land reform debates.

Early in the year there was an extended series of blogs covering research published by Zimbabwean researchers on a range of themes, from labour to mining to gender relations to rural authority. The extent and quality of scholarship on land issues in Zimbabwe remains impressive, and younger researchers are emerging as important commentators on Zimbabwe’s future, drawing on solid, empirically-based research. This work will hopefully have a cumulative effect of dislodging some of the pervasive and misinformed narratives, and provide the basis for more informed policy debate.

The Zimbabweland blog will resume early next year, with more commentary and analysis, and further summaries of new research from the field. In 2018, there were more views of the blog than ever, numbering around 90,000, with many more engaging when the blogs are published elsewhere. Many readers find blogs from years past useful, as there are now nearly 350 in the archive. If you want a selection of past blogs collected together by theme, and with new introductions to each, then the low cost book, Land Reform in Zimbabwe: Challenges for Policy is available from Amazon and other online booksellers. It’s only £1 for the Kindle version, and £5.50 for the paperback!

The frequency of posts has declined to once every other Monday this year. This is because I have launched another blog linked to another research project, and just don’t have the time for a weekly offering. The new blog doesn’t involve Zimbabwe, but for anyone interested in pastoralism in different parts of the world, and wider debates about livestock, rangelands and the challenges of living with uncertainty, you may want to sign up to the PASTRES (pastoralism, uncertainty and resilience) blog at www.pastres.wordpress.com, which appears on alternate Fridays, and also check out the website at http://pastres.org, where you can sign up for newsletters that appear twice a year.

1 Panic, privilege and politics: South Africa’s land expropriation debate
2 Reconfigured agrarian relations following land reform
3 Mining and agriculture: diversified livelihoods in rural Zimbabwe
4 New book: Land reform in Zimbabwe: challenges for policy
5 At Davos, can Zimbabwe re-engage with the global economy on its own terms?
6 Zimbabwe urgently needs a new land administration system
7 Zimbabwe’s 2018 election: what do the manifestos say about land?
8 Zimbabwe’s latest crisis: it’s the economy – and politics, stupid!
9 Race and privilege in Zimbabwe: a rural and urban divide
10 Land invasions in Zimbabwe: a complex story
11 Ten priorities for getting agriculture moving in Zimbabwe
12 Settling the land compensation issue is vital for Zimbabwe’s economy
13 Morgan Tsvangirai: a leader and a fighter
14 What is a ‘viable’ farm? Implications for land reform and investment
15 Hopes dashed in Zimbabwe as the economic crisis deepens
16 Open for business: what does investment look like on the ground?
17 Reconfiguring rural authority after land reform
18 Zimbabwe election round-up
19 New paper – Medium-scale farms in Africa: history lessons from Zimbabwe
20 Post-election round up: what now for Zimbabwe?

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

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Hopes dashed in Zimbabwe as the economic crisis deepens

It is now a year since people came out onto the streets of Harare to celebrate the army-led ‘coup’s’ ushering in of a new post-Mugabe era. The year has not delivered the dreams and hopes of those on the streets, however, and now an economic crisis is enveloping the country once again.

Despite clear wins for ZANU-PF in the parliamentary elections, even in surprising places (see this interesting recent report focusing on Matabeleland), the July presidential elections between Emmerson Mnangagwa and Nelson Chamisa were disputed. In the aftermath, violence erupted on the streets and the ruthless backlash by the security forces resulted in civilian deaths that shocked the country, and the world.

The uncertainty surrounding the presidential elections, despite numerous international reports, has made international re-engagement difficult. The opposition has capitalized on this to try and push the Mnangagwa regime into concessions. Added to this, the failure to agree a long-term economic stabilization deal with the international finance institutions, so far, has resulted in an accelerating economic crisis. This has resulted in commodity shortages, a growth in a parallel currency market and rising inflation. As in 2006-08, the impacts on those in the cities, and particularly the middle classes, has become in the words of one commentator, ‘unbearable’.

The political roots of the crisis are becoming more and more openly debated. In an extraordinary outburst, presidential advisor Chris Mutsvanga named Kudakwashe Tagwirei, boss of the network of companies linked to Sakunda holdings, as getting preferential access to foreign exchange from the Reserve Bank and being central to manufacturing scarcities, particularly in the fuel market. Close ties to the political-military elite of influential business people who control the economy, and with this parts of the state have been exposed. Meanwhile, maverick politico, Acie Lumumba, the short-lived adviser to the new technocratic minister of finance, Mthuli Ncube, in a bizarre Facebook live broadcast made a dramatic set of allegations about RBZ corruption, the process of state capture and the role of ‘queen bee’ at the centre of the network. Social media speculation went wild, but these interventions only served to confirm what everyone knew already: some ZANU-PF factions and some in the security forces are intimately tied up with controlling oligarchic forces in the economy. This makes effective economic reform and stabilization extremely difficult, without getting rid of these networks of power and economic control.

In the midst of rising crisis, the MDC appears to be holding out for a renegotiation of power. But as Brian Raftopolous argues in a typically perceptive article, there are several problems with their approach.

“Firstly, as we have seen in other parts of the continent, crisis authoritarian states can maintain their rule for long periods of time through minimalist state forms of rule that combine a control of certain extractive forms of revenue with command over the central means of coercion. Moreover, as Paul Nugent points out, such states can combine coercive, productive and permissive forms of rule involving varying relations of coercion and consent and different episodes of negotiations and conflict between states and citizens. The reductionist view that economic crisis will deliver what the election could not is extremely precarious.

Secondly, the social base of the opposition, particularly in the now largely informalised urban sector, is likely to be further weakened by a deepening economic crisis. This is unlikely to result in more protests and a strengthening of the opposition presence in the public sphere. It could lead to a further retreat into individualised forms of survival and already well supported religious structures and their more optimistic ethereal futures.

Thirdly, the international pressure that the opposition is counting on will not take the forms of more open political conditionality in favour of the opposition. At present, key players in the international community are more concerned with keeping Zanu PF on the reform agenda than with any more open or surrogate support for the opposition as in the past. For many countries in the EU the stabilization agenda in countries like Zimbabwe remains a key factor in the face of all the changes in European politics, particularly around the massive migration issue that is currently dominating European politics.”

At the moment there remains a stand-off. While the government desperately seeks international political agreement for a stabilization programme, and the injection of liquidity into the economy, the opposition pushes for the maintenance of sanctions, holding out for political reforms and perhaps a sharing of power. It is a dangerous moment, with little sign of anyone shifting from entrenched positions.

Strangely, both main political parties seemingly agree on the broad contours of the way forward, and both are committed to a radical neoliberal reform package, with unknown, perhaps disastrous, consequences for the long-term. Currently debate on what types of reform are needed, and how Zimbabwe moves from this crisis mode is limited.

Raftopolous argues that, to move forward, “there is clearly a need for a new national dialogue, including but not just limited to, the major political parties”. The terms of any macro-economic stabilization programme alongside political reforms “should be the start of such a national discussion”, he argues, leading to “a serious critique of this currently shared economic policy”.

This is a hopeful, positive position that I share, but it currently has few backers, given limited evidence of progressive visions for economic policy from all sides. As argued before on this blog, unless a locally-developed response to the economic crisis emerges, rising inequality, lack of sustainability and capture – this time by new actors – will likely result. A future, resilient economy must therefore be rooted in the existing productive economy where most people work and gain a livelihood. Reform efforts therefore must focus on small-scale agriculture and the informal urban economy linked to area-based local economic development, and not expect large, external investments to do the job, even if they paper over the cracks temporarily.

Building long-term resilience for a broad-based economy that will reduce poverty and share wealth will take time. But small steps – most notably through providing reliable and cheap sources of funds to support farming and small businesses – can have a big impact.

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

Photo credit: Flickr CC, Baynham Goredema

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What is a ‘viable’ farm? Implications for land reform and investment

There are many misconceptions about farming in southern Africa, and one of the most insidious is the notion of ‘viability’. A narrow economistic version has predominated that is based on a normative vision of farming based on full-time, large-scale commercial production. But taking a wider view, what is viable can take different forms more appreciative of the diverse ways farming is intertwined with wider livelihoods, and across different scales.

This debate is important as policymakers consider land reform and investment in agriculture and rural development. In South Africa a new advisory panel has been established to consider different approaches to delivering land reform, while in Zimbabwe the new government is gearing up for investment in the agricultural sector.

In both countries the histories of debates about what is viable resonate strongly today. Colonial narratives about ‘good’, ‘proper’, ‘modern’ farming persist, and are perpetuated by powerful forces resisting land redistribution and aiming for particular styles of investment. Such narratives are deeply embedded in institutions, planning frameworks and monitoring and evaluation systems. Too often the dominant framing has been allied to strong normative, racially-inflected, colonial assumptions, supported today by well-articulated political and commercial interests, hooked into a long history of the assumed benefits of a dualistic agrarian system where modern, large-scale agriculture is seen as the ideal. Shedding these blinkered perspectives can be tough, but is certainly necessary.

Some years ago now, Ben Cousins and I wrote a piece – Contested paradigms of ‘viability’ in redistributive land reform: perspectives from southern Africain the Journal of Peasant Studies on the tricky debate about viability, drawing on material from South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia. You can read it here. It made the basic case that a singular, narrow, technocratic, economistic version of viability distorts debate about futures of farming, and can act to undermine attempts at redistribution and a more diverse approach to investment in farming.

By creating a seemingly technical discourse around minimum farm size, economic units, carrying capacity, utilisation, land subdivision, size ceilings and so on, particular visions of viability become enacted through policy and planning without interrogation. But each of these concepts is premised on a set of assumptions. What is the minimum, for whom, and what if other sources of income from off-farm are important? The normative, political dimensions of such perspectives become clear when their history is revealed.

For example, minimum farm sizes (and so appropriate utilisation) were established in the colonial era on the assumption that (white) farmers would be full-time and the income derived from farming according to certain agronomic assumptions would be the same as a senior (white) civil servant. A black, African farmer, offered land in ‘the reserves’ would be expected to have a much lower, subsistence income, and so less land.

So if there is no one version of what is viable, what alternatives are there to the ones that are still assumed to be technically correct, despite their dubious histories? In an ambitious comparison in the paper (Table 1), we contrast framings derived from neo-classical economics, new institutional economics, livelihoods approaches (both developmentalist and welfarist), radical political economy and Marxism. All offer different versions of ‘viability’. Taking a broader view, where for example, sustainable livelihoods, class, gender difference and equity are important, suggests a very different set of options for planning and policy.

In the paper we pose a number of key questions emerging from the different framings, linked in turn to practical responses and monitoring and evaluation criteria (Table 2):

“From the neo-classical economics perspective, the key question is: how efficient is production on redistributed land? A concern with productive efficiency cannot be dismissed; policies that promote the optimal use of scarce land, labour, and capital are important, while not accepting a simplistic emphasis on ‘market forces’ as the driver of wealth creation.

From the new institutional economics perspective, the key question is: what factors and conditions influence the efficiency of different scales of production? Questions of scale of production are highly relevant in the southern African context, and so a focus on factors (including institutions and policies) that influence the efficiency of a variety of forms and scales of production is important, while not accepting the neoinstitutionalist premise of a pervasive inverse relationship between scale and efficiency.

From a livelihoods perspective, the key question is: what are the multiple sources of livelihood for land reform beneficiaries? In southern Africa, a focus on the multiple livelihood sources of poor people would help avoid an overly-narrow focus on farming alone, while not being blind to the structural roots of poverty. From a welfarist perspective, the key question is: what difference does food production make to the household welfare of land reform beneficiaries?

From a contemporary radical populist perspective, the key question is: does land reform transform exploitative agrarian structures and food regimes? In the southern African setting, one might therefore take on board a central concern with the need to reconfigure food production regimes and associated agrarian structures (at both the national and international scale), including the distribution of productive enterprises and associated property rights, and their performance in terms of output and net income, while not accepting an over-emphasis on the common interests of ‘peasants’ or ‘the rural poor’.

From a Marxist perspective, the key question is: what dynamics of class differentiation and accumulation occur within land reform? A central concern with evaluating the economics of land reform in terms of a wider concept of social efficiency and the contribution of agriculture to the growth of society’s productive capacities would be an important contribution. This would combine with a focus on the class and gender relations that underpin the organisation of production and of the agrarian structure, while not accepting the idealisation of large-scale farming in some strands of the tradition, or an overly-narrow focus on class dynamics to the exclusion of other relevant factors.”

Shifting the debate about viability (and so what constitutes ‘success’) away from the narrow, technocratic economism that has dominated to date means taking alternative framings seriously. Smallholder farming is not just large, commercial farming scaled down: there are different logics, different practices, different cultures, and so different measures of what is viable. If a future for agriculture and rural development is to be envisaged, then multiple versions of ‘viability’ (and success) – and so investment and policy focus – must be embraced.

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

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Catch up on Zimbabweland

Zimbabweland is taking a break for the next few weeks. By the end of this time we will know the outcome of the Constitutional court case brought by the MDC Alliance disputing the presidential (not parliamentary) election results. Maybe there will be a run-off, maybe a new president will be declared, maybe something else. With the drama and uncertainty of the past weeks, no-one can be sure. The nine men and women of the court have a complex job to do, delivering a fair and just outcome and assuring stability in the country.

It’s been a dramatic few weeks. You can read my pre- and post election round-ups of useful articles here and here, with some reflections on land and agriculture themes raised by the manifestos, here. In terms of contributions in the past week, Alex Magaisa offered a useful overview of the legal process associated with the constitutional case, while Chipo Dendere provided a thoughtful reflection on the implications for the opposition following the election: notably the need to take rural issues seriously.

This year Zimbabweland has already published 24 articles, and has an archive now of 333 going back seven years. Do sign up for a regular email alert or follow me on Twitter @ianscoones. Don’t forget that there are two cheap books that offer compilations of the blogs, with commentaries on different themes. You can get hold of both via Amazon, here and here for £11/$20. And our 2010 book, Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realities is available for under £15/$25 here. Or, if you are in South Africa or nearby, you can get it directly from Jacana for 250 Rands by emailing: sales@jacana.co.za.

The 20 most popular articles read so far  year are listed below, which include some of the ten reviews I have done this year on new work on land and agriculture by Zimbabwean authors. The series on entrepreneurial agriculture (chickens get the top slot)  and overviews of land and agricultural policy challenges continue to feature highly. Of those published this year, the commentary on South Africa’s debate on land expropriation was very popular, particularly as the trope of Zimbabwe as cataclysmic disaster is so readily deployed further south. An alternative view that argues that land redistribution is both necessary and can result in positive outcomes is a rather rarer viewpoint.

The three articles I did for The Conversation in January, which also appeared on the blog, were very widely read, and were picked up particularly by South African media. They focused on  the issue of compensation for expropriated land, the need for an effective land administration system and ten priorities for agriculture. These issues all remain crucial, and we look forward to a new administration committed to land, agriculture and rural development.

Here’s the list of the 20 posts most read so far this year. Happy reading!

  1. View – Zimbabwe’s new agricultural entrepreneurs II: Poultry
  2. View – Panic, privilege and politics: South Africa’s land expropriation debate
  3. View – Policies for land, agriculture and rural development: some suggestions for Zimbabwe
  4. View – Zimbabwe’s new agricultural entrepreneurs I: pig production
  5. View – Reconfigured agrarian relations following land reform
  6. View – Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector goes from ‘bread basket to basket case’? Or is it (again) a bit more complicated?
  7. View – Command agriculture and the politics of subsidies
  8. View – Zimbabwe’s new agricultural entrepreneurs III: irrigators
  9. View – Rural cattle marketing in Zimbabwe
  10. View – Getting agriculture moving: finance and credit
  11. View – What role for large-scale commercial agriculture in post-land reform Zimbabwe: Africa’s experience of alternative models
  12. View – A hot commercial success: growing chilli in the eastern highlands
  13. View – Tobacco and contract farming in Zimbabwe
  14. View – Women and land: challenges of empowerment
  15. View – Abbatoirs and the Zimbabwe meat trade
  16. View – Zimbabwe’s beef industry
  17. View – Mining and agriculture: diversified livelihoods in rural Zimbabwe
  18. View – Land and agriculture in Zimbabwe following land reform
  19. View – “No condition is permanent”: small-scale commercial farming in Zimbabwe
  20. View – Land tenure dilemmas in Zimbabwe

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

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Zimbabwe election round-up

It’s election day in Zimbabwe today. Since the (not quite a) coup in November, the last 8 months have been a political rollercoaster, with the final pre-election stretch suggesting a tight race, with the last Afrobarometer poll suggesting the presidential candidates were separated by only 3 percentage points.

Whatever the outcome, land and agriculture will be high on the agenda of a new government. As discussed in an earlier blog, the manifestos of both main contenders – ZANU-PF and the MDC Alliance – were full of promises, but had little detail.

The election campaign of course hasn’t been full of  detailed policy discussion. There’s been lots of debate about electoral process, plenty of ‘fake’ news especially on social media, and even Robert Mugabe – whose absence defined the election – making a last minute intervention yesterday, saying he won’t be supporting his ‘tormentors’ in ZANU-PF.

There has been a huge amount of coverage on Zimbabwe in the last days, as the international media becomes interested for a short window and journalists flock to the country. But as ever much of the commentary has been typically shallow.

So today, instead of a normal Zimbabweland offering, I thought I would offer links to some rather more substantive pieces that I enjoyed (even if I didn’t agree with them all).

First up, McDonald Lewanika offers a useful backgrounder on the debates and issues, while Wilf Mbanga speculates on potential outcomes, including the prospect of another national unity government. David Moore, in turn, explains some of the complexities – and murky history – of Zimbabwe’s elections.

Big governance issues are raised by the election, most crucially the discussion of what is free, fair, credible and feasible. Following an overview of the build-up to this historical poll, Piers Pigou digs into debates about the electoral process, which has been mired in controversy, as Alex Magaisa outlines.

Meanwhile, Dumisani Moyo discusses how this election, so dominated by social media engagement, has meant that sifting fact from fiction has often been tough. Just scroll through any Twitter stream and you will see, let alone the doctored pictures and made up statistics.

While much has changed during this election, including more openness and so far little violence (despite the bomb attack), some things haven’t. Particularly notable has been the absence of women in the lead of either main party and making up only 15% of candidates, commented upon by Rumbidzai Dube.

Africa Confidential asks the question, what next? after the vote, and the role of investment – good and bad – needed to restore the precarious economy. Whatever the outcome, this is going to be crucial, and both main parties agree wooing international investment is a priority. The conditions associated and the form investments take will shape the future for many years, including what happens to land and agriculture.

Much hangs on this election, therefore, and the next days will be tense ones for everyone committed to Zimbabwe’s future.

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

Picture credit: zimbabweelection.com

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Freedom farming: historical continuities with land occupations in Zimbabwe

Land invasions are not new phenomena. Resistance to land encroachment, and capture of land through ‘freedom farming’ (madiro) has been a feature of rural struggles over land especially since the imposition of the Native Land Husbandry Act of 1952, rising to a peak with ‘squatter’ settlement during the 1980s and 90s.

Vusilizwe Thebe has just published a really interesting paper in the Journal of Modern African Studies on this topic, based on research on a land occupation in Lupane in 2014-15. It’s called Legacies of ‘madiro’? Worker-peasantry, livelihood crisis and ‘siziphile’ land occupations in semi-arid north-western Zimbabwe. If you can get behind the paywall, then it’s well worth a read. Here are a few reflections.

The paper argues that “The occupation of the former arable zone was different from occupations that preceded the Fast Track Land Reform and Resettlement Programme (FTLRRP) – it was spontaneous without any political backing; it was not coordinated; the occupiers had no leader; and more importantly, people occupied land in their own individual capacity”. While this characterization of the jambanja invasions can be disputed, as there was much spontaneity, leadership was diffuse and political backing was variable (as we show in a paper from 2003 in the same journal (open access version, here)), the argument that there are continuities with squatting, land invasions and madiro is important.  Earlier work on processes in Gokwe and Hurungwe for example by Pius Nyambara and Admos Chimhowu are obvious references.

In the Matabeleland case of Lupane, this was not driven by a simple motivation of ‘land hunger’. In such areas, agriculture was only a part of a wider livelihood portfolio, and often not very productive. Livestock, as Clifford Mabhena has shown for Gwanda district, were more significant. But perhaps above all, these land occupations were about becoming visible to the state, as we argued in our 2003 paper on Chiredzi. Land ‘self-provisioning’ was a broader “response to what was perceived to be a real threat to semi-proletarianisation after the destruction of formal sector livelihoods and a crisis in communal area agriculture”.

The experience of the FTLRP in the area was disappointing to many. War veterans targeted a nearby ranch, which had historically been used for illegal relief grazing in times of drought. But most locals were excluded from the process, and in the end the ranch was allocated for an A2 wildlife ranch, not settlement. This was supposed to generate jobs, but it failed after 2010, and the few employed lost their jobs.

Elsewhere in the area, land disputes continued. Following several droughts, and continued decline in the economy, things came to a head, and a piece of reserved land (part of an earlier council grazing project) was occupied, by a mixed group of people, mostly under 45.

“Then in 2011… villagers moved into the project area and reclaimed their former fields. By 2013 vast areas, even those that had not been cultivated before, had been developed for fields and were put under cultivation. State authorities in Zimbabwe are known for their discomfort with unauthorised land occupations, but in this case the Kusile District Council was conspicuous for lack of action. Even before the first harvest was obtained from the reclaimed fields, another land occupation of a similar nature was taking place on land south of the settlements – what was the former arable zone. After the winter of 2012 a group of villagers, mostly unemployed adults between the ages of 30 and 45 and acting independently, moved into the land and began developing land for cultivation, without informing the chief of the area”.

Later the chief accepted the invasion, and the council didn’t intervene, but the authorities required an ordering of the settlement according to certain land-use planning rules to create legitimacy.

While the paper makes much of the distinction between the land invasions of the early 2000s and this one, there are actually many more similarities than differences in my view. The mix of people, the randomness yet order, the unclear leadership and the ambiguous relationship to politics were all features in the jambanja period – although as discussed in an earlier blog, with huge variations across the country.

The broader point made, that understanding land in a regional, historical context, I agree with wholeheartedly. This paper – one of the few recent papers on land issues from Matabeleland North – is a nice, deeply contextualised contribution. As this series of blog reviews of new work by (mostly) Zimbabwean authors on land and agriculture in Zimbabwe has shown, a more textured, context-specific, varied understanding is emerging through research.

There are many continuities with earlier accounts of land reform, but also important differences. As Zimbabwe seeks a way forward on land and agrarian change, this evidence base is vital. It’s such a shame that so many great pieces are behind paywalls. I hope authors will be encouraged to share their papers if blog readers get in touch, or perhaps put unrestricted versions up on Researchgate or some other green open access repository. This is all too valuable to be privatised by wealthy publishers.

This is the tenth – and last for now – in a series of short reviews of new work on agriculture and land in Zimbabwe. Nearly all of these studies are by Zimbabwean researchers, reflecting the growing research capacity and ability to comment on important issues of policy in the post-Mugabe era. If there are other papers or books that you think should be included in any future series of reviews, please let me know!

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

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Land invasions in Zimbabwe: a complex story

The Land Reform Deception: Political Opportunism in Zimbabwe’s Land Seizure Era by Charles Laurie, is now out in paperback. The book delves into the period of Zimbabwe’s land invasions from 2000. It is based on lots of in-depth interviews from a whole array of people – from dispossessed farmers to former farm workers to politicians to security service operatives.

The empirical sections of the book demonstrate how the land invasions were not a pre-meditated plan by President Mugabe, and that they evolved in ways beyond the control of the state and party. The confusion, contradictions and ambiguities come across very well in the interviews and through the data. As so many have said before, it was not a simple story, and one that certainly varied across the country, often between neighbouring farms.

This textured approach provides a counter to the simplistic tales often told. Yet, despite the richness of the empirical material and the extraordinary access that Laurie gained across a range of actors, the book is driven by an overarching narrative that once again distorts and simplifies. The publicity blurb gives a hint:

“[Land invasions’] soon escalated into an out-of-control frenzy targeting all farms in the country….The state claimed that the seizures were carried out in response to a public cry for land redistribution and to rectify colonial-era injustices, but the move was economically and socially disastrous for the country. Land was distributed to those with little or no farming experience, and, as a result, agricultural output contracted and inflation and unemployment rose dramatically.”

Why would the state target its own dominant agricultural industry using such violent and illegal methods?, Laurie asks. He points to patronage and corruption among a political elite “the land seizures were carried out by high-ranking officials, mostly veterans of the national war for independence, for financial and political gain.”

This narrative, much of it framed around a critique of the work of people like myself, Sam Moyo and others who have studied the land reform process, detracts from the rest of the book, where there’s lots of useful and intriguing data. Sadly only seen through one rather distorted lens, it does not get a thorough treatment, but as a book from a PhD thesis the data is all laid out nicely, so alternative interpretations are possible; it just requires more work, and ignoring some of the text.

While the book was only published in 2016, most of the data comes from around 2005. Some of the claims made – including by Stephen Chan in the foreword – that studies of land reform in Zimbabwe are narrow and limited could not be made today. Just look at some of the fantastic research covered in the previous blogs in this series[ all in different ways adding to but broadly corroborating the arguments made by Sam Moyo, Prosper Matondi and myself and team over the years.

The myths trotted out – on post land reform production, farm worker displacement and so on – in setting up the book have long been addressed. This makes the book’s driving argument seem rather dated. Much has happened in the 13 years since. This I guess is one of the frustrations of the long PhD then protracted publishing process. It takes so long, and things change.

So this book has to be read with caution, and the wider framing and driving narrative laid aside in favour of the detailed information on farm occupations, violence and eviction. It needs to be seen as an historical account on those years around 2000, from the vantage point of the mid-2000s. For in 2005, the farmers interviewed and surveyed had recently been removed, and the distress and outrage is clear, clearing affecting their responses (many from positions of deep denial and now dispossessed rural white privilege, as discussed in the last blog in this review series).

An important contribution, following others, derived from interviews with a range of well-placed informants, is the view that the invasions got ‘out-of-hand’ and were not meant to go beyond a few demonstrations, responding the constitutional referendum defeat. This lends support to the argument that this was neither an instrumentalised political project led from the top nor a bottom up revolution mobilised from below, but a mixture of the two. It also questions the argument that there was limited demand for land (as suggested by a Gallup poll from 2000 that is favourably quoted), because so many got involved in the land invasions all over the country.

This highly varied and often chaotic dynamic of land invasions (seizures in the language of the book) also challenges the argument that whole thing was a ‘deception’, as suggested in the title. The book rather contradictorily insists that the land reform was only driven by the interests of a desperate political elite willing to sabotage the agricultural industry for personal gain. While of course not denying that political aims and patronage gains were part of the story, the account of contingent and specific events beyond the control of anyone, is to my mind much more convincing, and reflective of the our research experiences in Masvingo for example.

The book correctly makes the case for looking at a detailed timeline of invasion and eviction for each area, even each farm, emphasising the sequencing of who was involved, and who gained what, when. This is vital, and a point made in our writing before, but with different conclusions. What this book, as so many other studies, fails to do though is to distinguish the early invasions of what became A1 land and the land acquisitions that followed (often up to two years later) through the allocation of A2 land. The composition of invaders and those who gained land through the often corrupt A2 allocation process is massively different, and explains some of the confusion about the role of ‘cronies’, repeated again here.

The detailed mapping data on violence from the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum (of various sorts, ranging from disruption and low level disruption to intimidation to physical attacks, so a hugely varied category; see earlier blog) and eviction patterns are particularly interesting. While most accounts focus on violence and threat, this varied hugely over time and space, and did not relate straightforwardly to patterns of eviction. Very often other things intervened. Multiple financial and social pressures were the most common reason for farmers to leave the land, the book explains. The tactics of land invaders and state agents to facilitate land expropriation offer some important insights into how particular farms and farmers were targeted and how mobilisation for agrarian reform took place.

There is an inevitable regional bias in the accounts in this book, as it’s focused very much on Mashonaland Central and a limited sample of farmers. Here, for example, asset stripping was far more significant than in Masvingo or Matabeleland, as there was valuable equipment to acquire. The proximity to Harare and the particularities of local politics of course meant another dynamic, with more senior officials connected to the party or the security services present. But just dismissing the rest of the country as outlier regions, not relevant to the land reform story rather misses the point. The struggle over land had regional and local characteristics, but it was nationwide. These differences are important in explaining the bigger story; something missed by the book in its somewhat desperate, and ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to show the land reform always in a bad light.

The book concludes by arguing that the research by Sam Moyo, myself and others is “problematic in various ways”, that it is “far too generalised and optimistic”, although Laurie concedes that “small-scale producers can – in some select cases – make up some ground for specific commodities”. He concedes too that “smallholder operations will remain central for food production and for employment”, but, he says – displaying biases yet again – “in the long term the country will once again shift toward a reliance on commercial farming”. And in support of this argument he enlists the World Bank, which he says “believes that a business-focused, commercially motivated agriculture is a necessity for countries like Zimbabwe”.

The book claims to present “a balanced enquiry into the land seizure era”. Well I am afraid I beg to differ, but it’s still definitely worth a read, if you can peel away the biases of the framing narrative and get to the detail, much of which is important and fascinating.

This is the ninth in a series of short reviews of new work on agriculture and land in Zimbabwe. Nearly all of these studies are by Zimbabwean researchers, reflecting the growing research capacity and ability to comment on important issues of policy in the post-Mugabe era. If there are other papers or books that you think should be included, please let me know!

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

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