Tag Archives: james ferguson

From ‘ordered estates’ to ‘crooked times’: farmworker welfare in Zimbabwe

farm mvurwi

A new book is just out – Ordered Estates: Welfare, Power and Maternalism on Zimbabwe’s (Once White) Highveld – by Andrew Hartnack, and published by Weaver and UKZN Press. It addresses many of the themes highlighted in the blogs of the past two weeks, and is based on research carried out over the last decade on a number of Highveld farms, as well as with farm worker welfare NGOs. Once you peel away the layering of sometimes unnecessary theory (it was originally an anthropology PhD so that’s the excuse!), the empirical stories shared in the book’s pages have much to offer our emerging understandings of post-land reform Zimbabwe (see also earlier blogs on his work).

The book fills an important gap in the literature, as it offers a nuanced account of the history of farm workers’ rights, as well as a reflection on changing fortunes since 2000. The ‘ordered estates’ of the colonial era have been much described. Blair Rutherford’s classic work from Karoi/Hurungwe told this story well, describing the constrained ‘domestic government’ that disciplined and controlled in the narrow, paternalistic world of white farms. Post-independence this reformed somewhat, and the limited sovereignties of the farms were extended as the state insisted on labour laws and other regulations, and NGOs took up the plight of farmworkers, creating new, more technical-bureaucratic, ‘practices of rule’.

This book deepens this analysis, particularly with a focus on ‘farmers’ wives’ and their role in welfare organisations – hence the reference to ‘maternalism’ in the title. It also shows of course that there was not one single approach to labour in white farming areas; not surprisingly all farms were different, depending on characters and contexts. The post-independence developmental attempts to modernise, civilise and improve resulted in a range of initiatives on the farms from schooling programmes to orphanages, often with heavy involvement of ‘farmers’ wives’. But by ‘rendering technical’ the inequalities of land and labour regimes, such welfare efforts did not address the underlying challenges, and welfare was more sticking plaster rather than fundamental reform. Following land reform in 2000, such NGOs have not found a new role, focusing on displacement, but not on the new lives and livelihoods of their former ‘beneficiaries’.

However, it is in the examination of the post-land reform period that this book cuts new ground. Building on, but also critiquing (as with some other recent literature somewhat gratuitously and inaccurately in my view), the important work of Walter Chambati, Sam Moyo and others, the book paints a detailed ethnographic picture of how farm workers carve out new opportunities in an highly challenging economic, social and political environment. This is the period of ‘crooked times’, where a ‘zig-zag’ approach to the kukiya-kiya economy is vital to survive. This is the world where there are no standard jobs – in the form of regular wage work – and where entrepreneurial informality emerges, with new forms of distribution, dependence and personhood, as James Ferguson describes for South Africa.  Whether in the case of the Harare peri-urban settlement described in Chapter 5 (discussed previously in this blog) or the biographies of former farm workers profiled in Chapter 7, mixing new farm work with urban living, the new precarities of life in the post land reform age are well described. New ‘modes of belonging’ must be generated, very different to the ordered safety, if extreme exploitation, of what went before.

What was missing from the book I felt was more detailed information who moved to what new occupations and where they ended up to provide the bigger-picture context to make sense of the fascinating detail. The book acknowledges the problems with the existing statistics, quoting both the CFU and other sources, and (somewhat bizarrely) just takes an average number, as a ‘middle way’. Getting a national picture may be impossible, but it would have been good to know what happened on those on the farms studied, and get a sense of how outcomes for farm workers were differentiated and why, in order to locate the few, if fascinating, individual cases.

There are hints though at wider patterns. Those few white farms that have persisted have often maintained a network of loyal farm workers, some who provide protection and support through their links, and the book offered an interesting case of this dynamic in Chapter 7. At various points, the book suggests (I think very accurately) that turnover on A2 farms was particularly damaging to farmworkers, as production collapsed and some A2 farmers did not maintain their operations. But it also suggests that ‘successful’ A2 farms nearby took on workers, and so there is often a regional labour economy that is important to understand on the new farms. The book did not however get into any detail on what happened post land reform to groups of farmworkers in farm labour compounds, and especially on the A1 farms (after all the largest areas), as we have been trying to do in Mvurwi. It therefore missed out on the dynamic described in the blogs over the last two weeks, of farmworkers becoming farmers – along with much else – in the new ‘crooked times’ of the last 16 years.

Despite shortcomings (this was after all a single researcher doing a research degree, so no blame there), this is a most valuable contribution, and coming from a white Zimbabwean (as he admits not from a farming background) perhaps especially powerful. When you next hear misinformed statements about Zimbabwe’s former farmworkers, please turn to this book for an informed, nuanced account that sets an important agenda for future research and policy debate.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

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Riots in Zimbabwe: don’t mess with the informal sector


In the last few weeks there have been riots in Zimbabwe. In Beitbridge, on the border with South Africa, furious cross-border traders set fire to a warehouse in protest at import bans recently imposed, while in Harare taxi operators protested against the cost of continuous police road blocks, where spot fines are extracted.

Both these incidents highlight how Zimbabwe’s economy has changed dramatically, and why the state has to accommodate, encourage and support the informal sector, not control, suppress and ignore it. Formal unemployment runs at 90 percent or more, but this doesn’t mean that all these people are not doing things. They are, but not in the jobs of the past. Livelihoods are improvised and flexible, combining ways of earning income – farming, trading, dealing, manufacturing, mining, selling services and a host of other distributive activities, reliant on deeply embedded social relationships. New networks of economic activity have emerged, as has a vibrant spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship. This is in the context of extreme hardship for sure, as the economy continues to plummet due to lack of investment. Informal economies are built on relations. Many operating in the informal sector are reliant on patrons and support from others; sometimes this is through relations of kinship, or through the church, and very often political patronage plays a part. If you want to secure a spot to trade in town, someone inevitably has to be paid off. Informal activity is tough, precarious fragile, sometimes illegal, and often is subject to arbitrary taxation from those in authority – as in the case of the road blocks affecting informal transport operators across the country.

The informalisation of the economy is a pattern across Africa, as James Ferguson eloquently describes. The improvised livelihoods of the poor are creating a new distributive economy, and with this a distributive politics, he argues. This is having a major impact on the way we understand African political economy – and not only in Zimbabwe. The shock is perhaps greater in Zimbabwe, as in the past the ‘formal’ sector was larger and stable, where ‘jobs’ and ‘wages’ were expected, especially for men at a certain age. But the post-structural adjustment growth of informality is a phenomenon everywhere; and is accelerating, especially in countries where reliance on a core commodity sector was the economy of the past.

Thus the informal sector – a huge and massively varied category – represents a very substantial proportion of Africa’s economic activity. In the rural areas this has always been the case – small-scale farming dominates and rural dwellers have always engaged in a bricolage of activities, both on and off farm. Today such complex livelihoods are the norm in town too. The jobs of the past – in the factories, mines, farms and so on- no longer exist – or may do so only temporarily – and the alternative is a set of activities that don’t fit the past expectation of a ‘job’ or ‘employment’, and are so not counted as such.

In Zimbabwe, the informal sector is the economy today: it cannot be ignored, wished away. It is what the 90 percent live on, but we know little about it, and policies often upset and disrupt, rather than support and nurture. So it is no surprise that the arbitrary import controls imposed were resisted when the blunt Statutory Instrument 64 that appeared to ban the import of everything from mayonnaise and coffee creamer to body lotion and building materials – was imposed (although hurriedly amended later). In the name of domestic manufacturing protection, the livelihoods of many thousands of traders who bring goods from South Africa were affected; no wonder they were angry.

Ever since Keith Hart wrote about Africa’s informal economy long ago, many people have pointed to its importance. In recent years, there has been a growth in scholarship that has attempted to grapple with the economic, social, cultural, political and geographical dimensions of informal economies, such as the excellent work of Kate Meagher in Nigeria and more broadly. But in public policy, statistical data collection and media commentary, the new real economy in so many places has been ignored, or dismissed and berated. Responses have been inappropriate too. Formalising the informal is not the point, and attempts at converting everything into a projectified ‘small enterprise’ are misguided. Controlling and regulating will not work, and will be resisted, sometimes violently. And yes, while much activity is outside the ambit of the state, and not taxable, it is the lifeblood of the economy – and certainly is in Zimbabwe. Yet glorifying and romanticising the informal is not the solution either. Living in the informal sphere is tough – incomes are small and highly variable, and the costs of patronage, coercion and control can be high, economically and psychologically.

The events of the last few weeks in Zimbabwe point to the need for a new accommodation between the informal and formal and between the economies and livelihoods of the 90 percent and the state. A new political economy is emerging, where the class relations of the past are no longer relevant, and state-economy-citizen relations must be rethought. Rather than imagining the informal economy as somehow outside, and needing to be brought in, it has to be thought of as central to development. Providing support, generating legitimacy, assuring accountability and preventing exploitative predatory, patronage relations are all roles for the state; ones that the Zimbabwean state is failing on currently. This means attempts at controlling, regulating and incorporating have to be avoided, despite the knee-jerk temptations. These are the key lessons from rioting in Beitbridge and Harare. The 90 percent after all are the electorate, and will protest in many ways if livelihoods in increasingly difficult circumstances are jeopardised.

This does not mean that attempts to rebuild the formal sector should cease. Far from it. Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa was in London making that case for Zimbabwe last week to the usual howls of protest. But the refinancing that will hopefully flow from the International Financial Institutions and other private investors will need to find its way to the new economy, and not just prop up the old. For in the longer term, it is the informal entrepreneur, the niche market trader, the small-scale artisan and manufacturer and the smallholder farmer who will scale up and multiply the massive, but uncounted and perennially unsupported informal economy; in time graduating into larger businesses and operations that become increasingly formal.

Managing and supporting such a transition is the central economic challenge of the future. The standard models and forms of expertise derived from the old economy are inadequate: a new politics and economy of the informal urgently needs inventing.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

July 13 update: Debby Potts from King’s College London who, with UZ colleagues, has researched urban Zimbabwe over a long time, correctly pointed out that this piece did not reference the longstanding and excellent work on urban informality in Zimbabwe, which makes most of the same points. She has kindly provided a reference list for those interested in digging into the debate further.


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Agrarian change, rural poverty and land reform: South Africa’s experience

An important special issue of the Journal of Agrarian Change was released earlier in the year on Agrarian Change, Rural Poverty and Land Reform in South Africa since 1994. The papers are free to download, and are well worth a read.

It was put together during an extended seminar hosted by PLAAS, involving a group dubbed ‘the rock stars’ of agrarian studies – Henry Bernstein, James Ferguson, Bridget O’Laughlin, Pauline Peters and of course the host, Ben Cousins, among others. Quite a gathering, who spent time last year in near Stellenbosch, thinking about land, poverty and agriculture. The Special Issue is in some ways an update of the earlier issue discussing post-apartheid transition, published in 1996, and edited by Henry Bernstein.

The new introduction poses some basic questions, asking “by what means, in what ways, and how much can agrarian reform address the processes that underlie rural and urban poverty and the increasing inequality that marks contemporary South Africa?” In framing the debate, the editors refer to the classic labour reserve theorists who provided a structuralist analysis of the way capital creates dualism, and so inequality and poverty:

“They focused on the question of labour, and particularly on the pervasiveness, durability and eventual vulnerabilities of migrant labour…. They saw the constitution of the ‘Native Reserves’, both social and physical spaces, as central to the functioning of colonial capitalism. The account that they provided helped us to understand that the poverty and misery of black rural areas were not the residual result of an absence of development but, rather, manifested a particular pattern of capital accumulation on the back of land dispossession”.

However there are clear limitations to this theorisation, as it is too reliant on macro constructs and economistic thinking, forgetting the local, particular social dynamics and the wider colonial politics which have shaped current settings. The Issue editors comment, “…it is necessary to grasp the diversity and differences of the rural areas of Southern Africa, and the complex social dynamics, including divisions of class, gender and generation among their inhabitants. Their histories, both past and future, are not written by capital alone”.

They also point to the important work by Mahmoud Mamdani, who argues in Citizen and Subject that there has to be much better attention to the historical-political conditions of colonialism that gave rise to domination, and the ‘bifurcated state’. Of course since the classic Marxist work of the 1970s, the migrant labour system has been radically reconfigured.  ‘Today there is “growing surplus labour’, unemployment and casualization”, with very different implications for livelihoods, and land. This means new theorisations of land and agrarian change are needed, suited to contemporary situations. How this is done of course will frame what questions are asked, and what solutions are suggested.

The contributions to the Special Issue offer a diversity of perspectives. Andries du Toit, for example, argues strongly for a perspective centred on inequality, avoiding getting too hung up on ownership of land and resources. From this perspective redistribution may operate across a number of dimensions (up and down the value chain) and spaces (including both rural and urban), allowing new livelihood opportunities to emerge. A focus on labour offers another perspective. As Sender and Johnston argued provocatively in 2004, an emphasis on improving the conditions of labour on commercial farms may be a more effective redistributive and emancipatory option, compared to redistributing the land itself.

Others focus on the potentials centred on local level accumulation from own agricultural production. The paper by Ben Cousins, for example, shows the potentials and limits of such ‘accumulation from below’ in KwaZulu Natal. A wider livelihoods perspective looks at how agricultural possibilities from land reform must be combined with assessments of income from other sources, as Mike Aliber and Ben Cousins show from a study in rural Limpopo province.

Still others point to perspectives centred on social development, and how access to education, health and social care may infuence poverty levels in profound ways. And whether the focus is on inequality, labour, agricultural accumulation, livelihoods or distributive justice and social development, all are intersected by dimensions of differences affected by gender, age and ethnicity.

The Special Issue thus offers no clear-cut answers, nor any defined formula for the way forward – indeed there is no clear agreement on theoretical framing among the papers, and so a diversity of positions implied on the value (or otherwise) of redistributive land reform. This makes it a refreshingly pluralistic take on a complex issue, where different perspectives combine, challenge, contradict and complement in different ways. There is no one-size-fits-all version, as in the 1970s framing, but a diversity. This is helpful for productive debate, and this Special Issue is an important contribution, helpful for anyone seeking to understand agrarian change in Southern Africa, including Zimbabwe.

Where the authors do converge, though, is the urgent need to do something about deeply structured patterns of inequality, whose characteristics have barely budged since 1994. Henry Bernstein observes that “South African agriculture and agricultural policy since 1994 has done little, if anything, to ‘transform’ the circumstances of the dispossessed – rural and urban classes of labour – whose crises of social reproduction remain grounded in the inheritances of racialized inequality”.

This is a shocking realisation, given the great hopes that were held up for a ‘free’ South Africa. As the centenary of the 1913 Natives’ Land Act is commemorated this year, it is a reminder that, as in Zimbabwe, the inheritance of a particularly divisive history is exceptionally difficult to shed.

While the Special Issue is focused on South Africa, Zimbabwe is frequently mentioned across the papers. The editors note the ‘spectre’ of Zimbabwe in public and policy discourse, as an impetus to address these stark poverty and inequality challenges. But perhaps Zimbabwe can also offer lessons on the potentials as well as challenges of redistributive land reform. The conditions and contexts are of course massively different, but some exchange of ideas and perspectives between South Africa and Zimbabwe may be productive, given the urgency of the challenge south of the Limpopo.

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


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