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Who are the commercial farmers? A history of Mvurwi area, Zimbabwe

For some the answer to who are the commercial farmers in Zimbabwe is obvious. The image of the rugged, (male) white farmer in shorts, surveying his family’s land carved out through hard labour and skill from the African bush is etched on the popular imagination. But over time, there have been many different types of ‘commercial farmer’ in Zimbabwe, and a new paper from APRA – Agricultural Commercialisation in Northern Zimbabwe: Crises, Conjunctures and Contingencies, 1890–2020 – explores the conditions of their emergence in the Mvurwi area.

Mvurwi town is about 100km to the north of the capital Harare, and from the 1920s until the land reform of 2000 was surrounded by (largely) white-owned large commercial farms and estates. To the east was Chiweshe communal land (formerly reserve and Tribal Trust Land) where Africans farmed. Africans also lived in the labour compounds on the farms and in Mvurwi town, many originally from nearby countries, hired to provide labour for the large (mostly tobacco) farms.

Our paper documents the agrarian history of this area from Cecil Rhodes to Emmerson Mnangagwa, or from around 1890 and the initial colonisation of what became Rhodesia through different phases until today. The paper asks two questions: who are the commercial farmers – those producing surplus and selling it – and what drivers have affected changes in the agrarian setting, making some more or less likely to be able to commercialise production?

We made use of a diverse array of sources, including archival material, biographical interviews, survey data and satellite imagery of environmental changes (this will be the focus of a future blog). Mvurwi’s agrarian history is one of tobacco and maize, of labour shortages and migration, of infrastructure building and urban growth and of government policies that have supported some over others at different times. It’s complex and fascinating.

Establishing white commercial farms, marginalising Africans

In the early years, at least into the 1930s, it was African farmers from Chiweshe who were the commercial farmers, supplying food to the new European settlers who were getting established on their new farms. Before the Land Apportionment Act restricted land access for blacks, Africans and Europeans lived side-by-side, but it was Africans who knew how to farm this environment and produced large surpluses of small grains, and increasingly maize.

Following the establishment of the colonial government in 1923, a huge range of measures were applied that restricted African farming and supported the establishment of European agriculture. This was the time also when tobacco became established as the major crop, providing important revenue for Britain as the colonial power. European agriculture struggled through the depression years, yet was expected to contribute to the war effort from 1939. After the Second World War, the colonial government supported the expansion of European agriculture, and invested considerably in subsidised infrastructure development, as well as the provision of finance. British war veterans were settled, and the land around Mvurwi became a prosperous farming area, on the back of state intervention and African labour, with a new set of white commercial farmers who displacing Africans.

Prosperous white commercial agriculture, challenged by sanctions and war

The period from 1945 until the early 1970s, when the liberation war started in earnest, was the one where the image of the white (male) commercial farmer took hold. These were largely family farms in this period, operating increasingly efficiently with inputs of new technologies (hybrid seeds, fertiliser, tobacco curing facilities and so on, facilitated by state-led R and D), and considerable amounts of cheap African labour, often living and working in appalling conditions. The supply of labour was assisted both through recruitment from the Rhodesian Federation (from 1953), and through local migrant labour; as African farming was squeezed further men increasingly had to seek employment in towns, mines and on the farms.

After the Unilateral Declaration of Independence by Ian Smith’s government, the effect of sanctions hit the white farming community, but all sorts of sanctions-busting measures were used, with the help of apartheid South Africa and others. White commercial farming still prospered, but there was also the beginning of a trend towards consolidation, as the smaller, less capitalised and connected white family farms struggled. With the beginning of the liberation war and the arrival of guerrilla fighters in the Mvurwi area from 1973, farming was hit hard. Remote white farms became targets for liberation fighter attacks, and meanwhile the state restricted the engagement of Africans with the comrades by creating ‘protected villages’ in Chiweshe.

Independence: a smallholder green revolution and economic liberalisation

It was only after Independence in 1980 that farming took off again. The new state, now with support from international aid donors, shifted emphasis towards supporting small-scale communal area farming, while European farming was left largely to continue as before, but with less state support. In the African communal areas, the results were spectacular, ushering in a ‘green revolution’ with increased production and sale of maize, creating a class of African commercial farmers once again. White commercial farmers also benefited from the removal of sanctions, with preferential trade agreements in products such as beef, and they were able to shift to higher value products (horticulture, flowers etc.) as markets opened up.

The liberalisation of the economy from 1991, at the behest of the Bretton Woods institutions, saw further advantages for increasingly consolidated large-scale, white-owned commercial farms; although the withdrawal of state support, the decline of research and extension services and the loss of state-backed credit meant that poorer African farmers suffered, and the green revolution soon fizzled out. By the 1990s, a boom time for white commercial agriculture, many smaller white family farms had gone, and the commercial farmer in this period was more likely to be in a suit in a board-room, negotiating international financing and trade deals. In this period, African farming in the communal areas became increasingly impoverished, reliant on donor projects and frequent food hand-outs due to the recurrent droughts.

Land reform and new commercial farmers

All changed in 2000 with the land invasions and the subsequent Fast Track Land Reform Programme. Most of the white farms in the Mvurwi farming area were taken over, although a few were left initially, along with most of the large Forrester Estate to the north. Land invaders were mostly from land-scarce and poor Chiweshe as well as other communal areas and towns nearby. The land invasions resulted in the creation of smallholder A1 resettlement areas, often on farms with considerable numbers of compound labourers living there. Later, medium-scale A2 farms were established, attracting very often middle class professionals along with political, business and military elites.

Today it is a very different farming landscape, with new commercial farmers. These are largely black (although there are some joint ventures with former white commercial farmers and Chinese companies in the A2 areas) and include both successful A1 farmers (men and women) who have managed to accumulate and invest in their farms through own-production and some A2 farmers who have managed to secure finance through off-farm jobs or through state patronage. Unlike their white counterparts who established farms in the early twentieth century with a huge amount of state support, today’s resettlement farmers suffer a lack of assistance and limited finance. State incapacity, systemic corruption and international sanctions combine to undermine the potentials of commercialisation, as this blog has discussed many times before.

Crises, conjunctures and contingencies: a non-linear agrarian history

So what do we draw from this history (check out the long paper for the detail)? First is that there are very different types of commercial farmers beyond the stereotypical image that have existed over time. This is because different people have had different opportunities in each of the historical periods we have identified. This has been affected by state policy, international relations/sanctions, labour regimes, markets and so on. We see over time not a simple, linear secular trend, driven by relative factor prices, land scarcity, population growth or environmental change, but sudden shifts, as agrarian relations reconfigure.

Such changes may emerge through state policy – Land Apportionment, Maize Control and so on obviously had a huge impact in the 1930s; through the investment in particular infrastructure – the road from Concession to Mvurwi opened up markets massively and facilitated urban growth, as did the arrival of mobile phones decades later; as a result of the emergence of new technologies – the SR52 hybrid maize revolutionised white commercial farming, as did the arrival of the rocket barn for curing tobacco; as a result of a significant environmental event – the droughts of 1947, 1984, 1991 – and many more – meant that some farms went under, others were taken over or African labour migration became necessary; because of changing patterns of labour availability – the challenges of labour recruitment were a continuous refrain among European farmers from the 1930s, as they are among commercial land reform farmers today; as a result of shifts in geopolitics and global markets – sanctions from 1965 and 2000 have had huge impacts, as did the requirements of the Washington consensus loan conditionalities from the 1990s, while the growth in tobacco demand from the 1940s and again from the 1990s into the 2000s (increasingly from China) drove farming economies across Mvurwi. Along with other reasons discussed in the paper.

Like Sara Berry and Tania Li (among others), the paper argues that it is events – crises, conjunctures and contingencies – as inflected by social relations (of race, class, gender and age) and politics that offer a more insightful explanation of the history of farming in Mvurwi. This history is non-linear, uncertain and involves a complex interaction of drivers, and far from the deterministic theories either of classic agrarian Marxism or evolutionary agricultural/institutional economics. For this reason, over 130 years, there have been many different types of Zimbabwean commercial farmer, and there will likely to be others into the future as chance, contingent events and particular crises combine with longer-term drivers of change.

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



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Masvingo exceptionalism? The challenge of case studies

One of the main complaints about our book is that it’s mostly about Masvingo, and that it does not tell the whole story of land reform in Zimbabwe over the past decade or so. On all counts we are guilty. As we are clear in the book we are not making wider claims. This is a case study – of 16 sites in one province over 10 years. As Professor Terry Ranger remarks in his recent review of our book: “Patterns emerge but the book pays admirable attention to variation and variety”. Such a province-wide case study is still important, we maintain, as a basis for more in-depth comparison where contrasts and convergences can be teased out.

The Commercial Farmers Union of Zimbabwe and their supporters often make the point that Masvingo is ‘exceptional’, and that somehow are results should not be taken too seriously. They argue that this was not a ‘real farming’ area, and that something different happened there. Well, if this was not an important part of the commercial farming sector, why on earth did they not give up the land for resettlement many years before? Of course other areas in the Highveld are different, as we clearly state in the book. But, as we equally argue, there are some important broader patterns. And indeed, wider work that has emerged since has challenged in similar ways the five myths we lay out in the book.

A number of points are made about Masvingo ‘exceptionalism’. First, of course, Masvingo is in the drier part of the country, where certain cropping and livestock rearing patterns prevail. This agroecological difference is of course important, but let’s also remember that geographically the largest portion of the country is dry, with poor infrastructure and reliant on rainfed production, even in the former commercial sector. Second, the proximity to Harare is seen as a key factor in affecting the degree to which land was grabbed by elites through processes of violence and patronage. This again is true, and many of the high-profile cases where whole farms were taken by those well connected to the political-military elite are in these areas. But, as argued before in this blog, the pattern of ‘cronyism’ remains much under dispute. Third, as Terry Ranger argues in his review, the longer-term histories of particular places are important both in the processes and outcomes of land reform. This is absolutely correct. As we point out in the book it is these micro-political contexts, influenced by histories – of the liberation war, chieftaincy and political party allegiances – that have had really important influences on what happened, where. He admonishes us for not referring more to a set of important historical district studies (by for example Alexander, Kriger, Maxwell, Moore, Ranger, Schmidt), but all of these fall outside Masvingo (all are from Manicaland). In Masvingo there is a perhaps surprising absence of such studies, beyond the important study of Great Zimbabwe by Fontein, although we have some fantastically rich pre-colonial accounts from Gerald Mazarire and others.

These three factors will have a big influence on land reform processes and outcomes. But to what degree do these specificities (all variable indeed within Masvingo as we point out) affect the broad challenge of the 5 ‘myths’? We now have a growing body of work available to assess this, including the AIAS 6 district study led by Sam Moyo, the 3 district study by Ruziwo Trust led by Prosper Matondi, and the growing array of more focused, farm-based studies by research students and others, supported for example as part of the ‘Livelihoods after Land Reform’ small grants call, and some collected together in the important synthesis volume of the Journal of Peasant Studies by Lionel Cliffe and colleagues. These studies cover an increasing number of locations across Zimbabwe, with perhaps Matabeleland North and Midlands provinces being the least covered to date.

While the results from this now large body of work show wide variation, there are also some important common patterns. Overall, our analysis of the 5 myths is supported by other studies: all are rejected. A more detailed and systematic cross-study assessment would certainly be valuable, but the deployment of the ‘Masvingo is exceptional’ narrative in order in some way to reject the validity and applicability of our findings is clearly inappropriate. And so is the argument that ‘we need much more data from other places in order to take the wider significance of the Masvingo study seriously’. We have this data, and the body of work is growing: to date no one has dealt a killer blow to our study!

But what these other studies have done is nuance, extend and challenge some of the implications of our analysis. This is important. This is good research and how understanding progresses. Avoid the point-scoring, the summary rejections, and the attempts to side-line, but engage. This is certainly my attitude. The contrasts between studies certainly highlight all three of the factors highlighted above – agroecology, location and history – in interesting ways.

Clearly agroecology has a huge influence on what is possible in agronomic terms, but also the returns to investment, and so the incentives to invest in infrastructure, including greenhouses, irrigation and so on. This in turn influences the style of farming – higher potential areas offer opportunities for more intensive farming, where farm labour is important, and is more linked to the (still struggling) A2 sector. Paradoxically, until investment gets going (and this requires market confidence and stability as well as credit and financial services), it is the lower potential low-input areas based on smallholder family farm labour that are the more successful. Of course the tobacco story offers a different angle on this, and there are important lessons to be learned for the A2 farms more generally from this experience.

Proximity to urban centres, and particularly Harare, is again important. The attraction of big chefs is one dimension to this. It is certainly the case that the Mashonaland provinces had substantially more A2 plots allocated during fast-track land reform. These were particularly prone to capture by elites as we have discussed elsewhere. But we also have to differentiate between this sort of patronage – through manipulation of bureaucratic allocation procedures, for example – to the large scale ‘grabs’ of whole farms. The high profile cases of these are almost exclusively in the high potential Mashonaland provinces, and although small in number they are large areas and the ‘grabbers’ are very high profile people, from the president down. These are now euphemistically called ‘large-scale A2’ farms, and have been accepted as part of the new agrarian structure. The big question is whether these players gain the upper hand politically and assert a new dualism in farming, just with new owners. This would be a regressive move, undermining the aims of the agrarian reform. As a result an effective land audit and a close social, political and economic analysis of these new farms (and their new owners) will be essential. Here there certainly are important contrasts between provinces, and this must be an essential part of the wider political analysis (see next week’s blog on ‘missing politics’).

Finally, longer term histories of people and places are, as Terry Ranger, argues essential. This may not have a big impact on overall production patterns, for example, but the underlying authority structures, the role of different local elites, chiefs and others, as well as the political dynamic will all be influenced by such histories. This will have had an impact for sure – as it did across our sites in Masvingo – on land invasion and acquisition processes, as well as patterns of violence. But it will also influence future governance arrangements, and the possibilities (or not) of ‘rebuilding public authority from below’.

As Ranger correctly argues there will not be a ‘Masvingo solution’, and our book “is not the end but very much the beginning of a discussion”. This discussion is now well under way, and supported by a range of scholarship mostly from Zimbabweans studying what happened where to build the bigger story of Zimbabwe’s land reform.


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