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The politics of control in Zimbabwe’s COVID times

The COVID-19 situation in Zimbabwe has improved since our last report, with infection rates and deaths declining in all areas. The alert level has been reduced to Level 2, with restrictions relaxed. At the same time, the vaccination drive has continued apace, with the government now mandating all civil servants to take a shot. So far just over 20 percent of the population has received at least one vaccine – mostly from China – although there are big variations across locations and age groups.

The period of Level 4 lockdown during the most recent wave has taken its toll. During this period, lasting up to 7th September, many businesses closed and most public institutions, including schools and colleges, were shut. This had a big effect on the local economy and many suffered badly. This included farmers across our sites, who complained bitterly that schools, colleges and other businesses they supplied food to were slow to open up after the shift to Level 2. This particularly affected horticulture farmers in Chatsworth and Wondedzo who rely on vegetable sales for livelihoods at this time of year, with large amounts of produce rotting.

COVID controversies

Controversies around COVID-19 continue to be central to discussions across our sites. COVID has become a symbol of control, a centre of power struggles and local politics; much more than just a disease. This has been especially evident around the vigorous vaccine campaign that the state has led.

Many, particularly younger people, still dismiss the disease: “It’s just a strong ‘flu”, one commented. “We have our own remedies for it, we don’t need the vaccines”. The view that COVID is being used by the state to control people is widespread. A number of younger informants observed that the vaccines may be used by the government, in alliance with foreign powers, to control the population, making people infertile. While conspiracy theories can be dismissed, their existence must be taken seriously as they reflect the politics of COVID times and the deep lack of trust many, perhaps especially younger people, have in authority.

Geopolitics comes into it too. “Why is this government accepting vaccines from unfriendly states like the US when they impose sanctions on us…. It seems very fishy”, one informant observed.  Others argue that it’s odd to get a free vaccine from China when health centres have no other drugs “not even paracetamol, no basic drugs, no ambulances, yet these are all free and supplied by the government. We smell a rat… there is something not right…. What deals are being made about our future?” “It’s all about making money and controlling people”, one young person commented, “COVID is destroying our lives and economies”.

Trust and the politics of control

All sorts of theories are debated, but the common theme is the little trust in the state and its solutions. Many see politicians capitalising on the COVID moment, recognising that elections are just around the corner. Other local leaders are using the requirement of the state to vaccinate to control their populations, with chiefs and headmen threatening the withdrawal of food aid if people don’t get vaccinated. Vendors wanting to sell in local bakosi markets have to be vaccinated in some of our sites, again giving more powers to local leaders. Local officials keep lists of those vaccinated and not, creating new forms of local surveillance.  Government departments have until 15 October to get their staff vaccinated, otherwise they must go on ‘unpaid leave’ until they do. All our team who work in the agricultural extension service have got vaccinated, for example.   

Others resist the state vaccination efforts completely. For example, the Vapostori church followers refuse to take them. They say that COVID like other diseases is just punishment from God. It should not be resisted, and any requirement to stop praying in large groups should be resisted lest the Almighty is angered. God will answer and find a solution, they argue. Other churches, such as the Dutch Reformed, Roman Catholic and others, urge their followers to get vaccinated.

Among traditional religious leaders, such as the svikiro spirit mediums, there are a variety of opinions across our sites. Some argue that COVID reflects the anger of the ancestors for not following local customs and rules. They promote traditional practices for curing and healing, and some herbalists have joined others in prescribing herbal remedies for teas/infusions, gargling and steaming. The massive growth in demand for local treatments that arose especially during the most recent deadly wave has reinforced the power of herbalists and traditional healers within local communities.

Recourse to ‘tradition’ and the rejection of modern ways, around food in particular, is a common refrain. The argument that foods made from rukweza, mhunga (finger and pearl millet) and other traditional products give strength and help people resist the disease has been much repeated. This has strengthened the hand of traditional healers, mediums and some local leaders over their ‘modern’ replacements in local power struggles in a number of our sites.

There is a gender, generational and locational divide too. Women are getting vaccinated far more than men, according to those working in the local clinics across our sites. Older people too are much more likely to get vaccinated than the youth, as they have seen old people get sick and die. Parents complain that they cannot persuade their children to get vaccinated and follow the regulations on distancing, mask wearing and so on. Finally, those in town are more likely to sign up as they too have seen the effects of the disease in recent waves – some even travelling to rural homes to get their shots as there is more availability of vaccine.

Controlling daily life

COVID times have created many tensions centred on the control over daily life. Tensions play out between the state and normal people; across generations, between youth and older people; within families, and between spouses; among colleagues who are civil servants; between church followers of different denominations, within villages and even within families; between the living and the spirit world; and between local leaders and their followers within rural areas. All these tensions are refracted through local politics.

While vaccination has often been the central, immediate focus, these tensions are therefore about much more; a window on contemporary rural society in Zimbabwe. These disputes are about the politics of control, over defining freedoms and limits and the role of the state and other authorities in relation to citizens. They are about faith and belief, interpretations of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ and the trust in state authority and science. And they are about wider politics around which foreign powers can be trusted with people’s health and well-being.

We all know that the pandemic is political, but it now permeates all aspects of daily life in Zimbabwe’s rural areas.

Thanks to Felix Murimbarimba and the team from Chikombedzi, Matobo, Wondedzo, Chatsworth, Mvurwi, Hippo Valley and Masvingo for the ongoing reflections on life across our study sites

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Institutions, social relations and rural development in Zimbabwe

Social and political relations are central to land and agricultural production. Unlike in the resettlement areas, where new institutions and relations had to be built following land reform, those in the communal areas draw on longer traditions. Like in the resettlements, institutions are often hybrids, combining ‘traditional’ (such as chiefs and headmen) and ‘modern’ (such as village committees and councillors). In the communal areas, party officials and war veterans are less of a feature, although very often party structures have melded with other arrangements; something that is also happening in the resettlements twenty years on.

Informal institutions: the social fabric of rural life

These officially-recognised institutions may however not be the most important. In fact, churches were often referred to as the most important institution, providing support in various ways. Across our sites, the presence of evangelical churches is noticeable. In Mwenezi, the top two churches attended by households in our sample were the Zionist church and Joanne Masowe’s apostolic church, although two-thirds of households said they were not affiliated to any church. Only in Gutu were the Methodists (Gutu West) and the Catholics (Gutu North) ranked as the most important church, above the Zionist and Zaoga churches.

Outside Mwenezi, nearly 80% of households were linked to a church. The Catholics and Methodists have had long traditions of supporting education in the Gutu sites, which is evident in the engagement with schooling both of previous and current generations, including both men and women. Evangelical churches by contrast emphasise church-based solidarity, including giving and sharing funds raised for the church. Such churches do not frown on polygamy, and there are few progressive views on gender rights shown in most evangelical churches, with women taking on particular, subservient roles.

When asked about leadership positions of both senior men and women in our sample, it was links to churches – as pastors, deacons, preachers, as well as church secretaries, treasurers and so on – that were pointed to. Church leadership positions were the most significant among men for the approximately 15% of male household heads who identified themselves as leaders in some way. These roles came second to involvement in village committees, both traditional and modern, as well as burial societies in Gutu North.

For women, churches were important, and women often took on administrative roles. Indeed, for approximately 10% of women who were identified as having leadership positions, the role of secretary or treasurer of committees (for gardens, burials, churches, as well as a range of projects) was the most commonly named role.

These roles linked to projects of various sorts, some supported by churches, others by NGOs, are an important feature of communal area life, linking people outside the immediate kin network. This may result in support ranging from loaning of draft power, sharing of ideas or links to markets. Traditional group based activities, such as work parties (humwe) for tillage, weeding or other activities, persist in Mwenezi and Chivi in particular, and were identified as happening for 34% and 13% of households in 2016-17. They are less common in the Gutu sites (7% and 3%), where a more individualised culture has emerged.

Where is the state?

Links to the state and external projects are also an important feature in the communal areas. Despite the decline in state capacity between 52% and 53% of households had engaged with an extension worker in the previous year. Most of these were agricultural extension officers from Agritex, but also there were mentions of seeing state veterinarians too. Across our sites, between 13% and 26% of household heads had gained a ‘Master Farmer’ certificate (see earlier blog), and so had participated in a rigorous training course on agriculture. Some of these qualifications were gained years ago, but the continued presence of state actors in the communal areas is a feature of life. The Agritex extension worker, even if there is no fuel in his or her motorbike, is known.

In Mwenezi, around two-thirds of households were recipients of state handouts through the Presidential Scheme, mostly seed and fertiliser. This however was absent in the other sites in 2017, although of course state handouts increased in the run-up to the election the following year. Outside Mwenezi and Gutu North engagement in other projects was not a big feature, as NGOs working in the communal areas concentrate activities and miss out huge areas. In Mwenezi, project links were around a donor-supported irrigation project and a contracting scheme for sorghum led by the brewing firm, Delta.

Compared to the land reform resettlements, the communal areas are much more connected to state- and NGO-led development. There are projects, demonstrations, events, and the infrastructure of these areas, the inheritance of the 1980s in particular, including schools, clinics and government offices, demonstrates state presence, even if the buildings are decrepit and the staff poorly paid. In the resettlement areas, such investment has not happened since land reform, and the developmental state very often feels very distant. Instead, in the resettlements, much more present is the ruling part (ZANU-PF)y, alongside the war veterans who led the land invasions from 2000.

In the early days, the politics were intense, with ‘seven member committees’ installed to protect the land reform gains, mirroring structures from the liberation war. This has subsided since, as the administrative state has attempted to establish structures for development, and allowed ‘traditional’ authorities to claim control. But without state resources and personnel, and with no donor or NGO projects due to on-going ‘sanctions’ (or ‘restricted measures’ if you prefer), the dynamics are different, and tensions frequently arise between the different forms of authority, which since the imposition of the VIDCOs in the 1980s, has not been a feature of communal area life.

Institutions and agriculture: comparisons with the resettlement areas

How does all this affect land and agriculture? In the communal areas, well-established systems exist, involving both headmen and village committees, who allocate land, help resolve disputes and often assist with marketing, the delivery of state or NGO relief handouts and the negotiation projects with external actors. This system is evolving in the resettlements, but the creation of a sense of ‘community’ – essentially emerging from scratch – with established trusted relations at the centre, takes time. In the resettlements, more individual arrangements for supporting agriculture, notably around marketing, tend to emerge, reflecting the more individualised, entrepreneurial culture in the resettlement areas.

The difference in social and political relations – and associated institutions – has important gender implications. In the communal areas, women are widely involved across institutions, more usually in supporting roles, but nevertheless important ones. Women’s involvement in churches, including in leadership positions, is significant. Women are also central to projects and development activities in all of our communal area sites. This partly reflects the absence of men in the communal areas, who may be migrating for work, but also the increasing openness of what is still a highly patriarchal society. In the resettlements, while land reform offered opportunities for some women, notably those cast out of tight kin-based communal area settings because of divorce, accusations of witchcraft and so on, roles in most resettlement areas remain very circumscribed, and men, who are more present, take the lead.

Thinking about institutions, formal and informal, is central to rural development and building more sustainable livelihoods. Too often this dimension is forgotten in the rush to address technical and economic questions. But whether it’s land, production, market or service provision (the subject of the next blog), social relations are key.

This post is the seventh in a series of nine and was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland.

This field research was led by Felix Murimbarimba and Jacob Mahenehene. Data entry was undertaken by Tafadzwa Mavedzenge

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