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Beyond the ‘politics of disorder’: how bureaucratic professionalism persists in Zimbabwe’s public services

One paper on Zimbabwe at the recent ASA-UK conference that I found really interesting was the examination of the micro-politics of the Attorney General’s Office by Susanne Verheul. The paper is available from the Journal of Southern African Studies. And because it won a prize, it’s free to access.

The paper argues that the ‘politics of disorder’ frame so often used to describe Zimbabwe is inappropriate, even in that most political of offices, that of the AG. Simplistic, generalised assessments of politics, painting things in broad-brush terms as corrupt, neo-patrimonial, patronage driven or disorderly and chaotic, are too simplistic. A more fine-grained account instead shows that politics and practice operate on multiple registers. For sure many of the practices described in terms of corruption and patronage occur, but there is also a register embedded in commitments to rigour, professionalism and justice. These work in parallel, often in tension, in the day-to-day practices of the office, she argues.

In particular these tensions between registers occur within individuals. The paper offers two cases of lawyers working in the AG’s office, based on interviews carried out in 2010 and 2012. Both had started work at the peak of the economic crisis in 2008. Salaries were not feasible to live on, and everyone had to seek other sources of livelihoods. Some sought these outside the office, abandoning their work; others made money from the job: through bribes and corrupt practices. These were legitimised in terms of survival, and then routinized as part of normalised behaviours. The new recruits, fresh out of law school, were horrified. This did not match their ideals of delivering professional legal support and justice for all. Yet they were torn, and accepted that for some compromises had to be made.

Of course such behaviours are not the large-scale corrupt practices that have been widely commented upon. But as small acts accrete, they create a new way of working, undermining old norms of professionalism, and in the end challenging the effectiveness of the system as a whole. Across public services, perhaps most notably with the police, this has been a consequence of those years when professional conduct was superseded by the need to survive: to feed one’s family, pay school fees, treat the sick, bury the dead. Over years this has become a new normal, one that is very difficult to shift, as too many people benefit, even if the immediate need has gone.

Yet despite this, there are many who resist. And those who indulge are often torn, expressing feelings of shame and embarrassment. The two registers operate in tandem. Simply writing off public services – the courts, the police, local government, the technical line ministries – as corrupt and incompetent does not do justice to the internal, often quite personal, struggles that exist. What struck me through the period of crisis in the 2000s was how committed many of those we were working with in the Ministries of Agriculture, Lands, Environment and so on remained. They were not being paid anything near a living wage, yet came to the office. They remained committed, yet necessarily had to have outside jobs. The vets sold drugs, extension officers took payments, the lands people offered a range of services for payment. And all had other jobs, many gaining farms as a result of land reform that kept them engaged in the sector, although took them away from their formal posts.

After the stabilisation of the economy, viable salaries returned, but many of the practices persisted. But for some, like Susanne’s informants in the AG’s office, professional conduct, and shunning other practices was possible. This was certainly the case in the land and agriculture related technical services. Despite everything – the decimation of staff by HIV/AIDS, the flood of people out of government jobs to the private sector (including farming) or abroad, poor and often confused political leadership from the centre, and continued lack of funding, due to the fiscal challenges of government and the lack of donor support – it remains remarkable to me that Zimbabwe has such a committed group of public servants still in post. Highly trained, deeply committed, these are top professionals who continue against the odds. Compared to many others you meet in similar jobs elsewhere in the region, many (for sure not all) Zimbabwean public servants stand out, despite the poor conditions. Susanne’s paper offers a nuanced and sympathetic profile of two such individuals in the AG’s office, where the political spotlights shines especially brightly. But there are thousands of others elsewhere. Perhaps more in the technical ministries and in the districts further away from the political meddling who continue to uphold standards, and provide a professional service with commitment and passion. It’s far from ideal, but it’s not without hope.

Rebuilding the bureaucratic state, and its capacity to deliver, as part of the ongoing negotiation of a stable political settlement, must rely on such individuals. It must appeal to their commitment and professionalism, and reward this. Meeting these people in offices in far-flung parts of the country, without resources, but with ideas, understandings and a real zeal to make a difference, definitely gives me hope.

Writing off the state, and its government services, as simply a tool of a corrupt party elite is too simple, and the result of sloppy analysis. The state and its bureaucratic machinery is too complex and varied, made up of too many individuals with diverse motivations to be wholly captured in this way. A more nuanced and sophisticated analysis of politics in Zimbabwe is needed, and the sort of micro-study of a particular office offered by Susanne’s paper is one way of opening up this complexity, and finding ways forward.

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



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Zimbabwe’s gold rush: livelihoods for the poor or a patronage economy, or both?

One of the features of the post 2000 economy in Zimbabwe has been the growth in small-scale artisanal gold mining. This is sometimes registered with the ministry, but very often not, and remains informal and illegal. The small-scale panners, makorokoza, can be found in very large numbers in the dry season along the main rivers of Zimbabwe. They are mostly men under 35, and so represent a particular, often disenfranchised, demographic.  Many were too young to benefit from the land reform in 2000, and although some are resident on the new resettlements, combining farming with off-season panning has become an important livelihood mix.

While much international attention has been focused on diamond mining, and the human rights abuses that have taken place in the Marange fields in the east of the country (see papers by Nyamunda and and Mukwambo  and Bond and Sharife), there has been less commentary on gold mining. While the diamond fields have been taken over by a strong-arm alliance of government, the military and foreign investors, removing all small-scale diamond miners, the mining of gold is different.

Small-scale mining peaked in 2008 with the collapse of the formal economy. As formal mining receipts declined, the small-scale operations boomed, with much of the product being traded illegally and smuggled out of the country. The official statistics, like for agriculture, show massive declines, but in fact around 2 million people were involved in small-scale mining in this period. Clifford Mabhena has shown how artisanal mining has complemented land reform, as new farmers seek off-farm opportunities, particularly in times of drought

Another recent paper by Showers Mawowa explores the gold rush phenomenon based on research near KweKwe. He argues that the gold rush in his area should not be seen just as a form of local ‘survivalist’ strategies of the poor, but as a site of political control and accumulation by elites, part of a ‘patronage economy’.  In Mawowa’s study area in KweKwe, former farm and mine workers rather than resettlement farmers were the new miners. Many gold panners collect tiny quantities, but are reliant on mills owned by registered small-scale mines for processing.  There is a mix of alluvial panning in the open near rivers or the exploitation of disused shafts where mining takes place underground. Both types of operation may involve hundreds of individuals often working in highly dangerous conditions. The environmental damage of such intense gold rushes can be immense.

This new form of production creates new social and political relationships. Mawowa characterises this as a process of primitive accumulation by elites who control the processing and marketing operations. They are also able to subvert the regulations, and are often involved in shady, illegal activities. While there are a plethora of laws governing mining, with recent stringent regulations from the Environmental Management Authority for example, they are implemented only sporadically, and often arbitrarily. Raids by the police may happen around election times, when local big-wigs want to assert control, while at other times operations go untouched, with accusations of kick-backs and bribes.

In his fascinating account, Mawowa shows how alliances between miners are formed to control particular areas. They may form ‘syndicates’ that may be controlled by locally-powerful individuals, including chiefs or party officials. Access to gold resources may result in sometimes violent struggles between such groups, with clashes between ‘locals’ and ‘outsiders’ and between different political factions within ZANU-PF.

The story Mawowa and others tell for Zimbabwe is familiar in other areas where artisanal mining has taken off in a big way, whether in Latin America (as in the work of Tony Bebbington and others) or elsewhere in Africa (as in the work of Deborah Bryceson and colleagues). Mawowa interprets this in terms of elite accumulation characterised by corruption, but as he notes new livelihoods have been created too. He does not make the contrast though with what went before. Once controlled by a few companies – in the Kwekwe case a Canadian mining company that owned Empress and Venice mines, closed in the 1980s and 90s – mining activity – and so livelihood opportunities and employment – is now spread among a far wider group.

This reconfiguration of the economy attracts patronage from those in power – and this most certainly includes ZANU-PF officials – but in this case these include village headmen, councillors, bureaucrats in district offices and local politicians. These characters may be connected to others higher up for sure, but the new economy oils many wheels on the way. As Mawowa concedes there are many ‘rags to riches’ stories in the villages.

Certainly in the period before the Marange diamond field clampdown this is what we found in Masvingo, as youth returned to their villages with fancy consumer goods, but also with cash to invest in farming. He also notes that many of the local beneficiaries of patronage are often ‘low ranking’ officials and people like headmasters and councillors. Even if there are shadowy figures behind them, further up the chain, it may be difficult to define such people as elites, even if their outward political affiliation is towards ZANU-PF; whether out of belief or very often out of strategic pragmatism (what Grasian Mkodzongi calls ‘performing ZANU-PF’).

There are perhaps two ways then of thinking about these mining-based ‘patronage economies’. One is to condemn the rent-seeking, accumulation and elite control, and seek rational bureaucratic order and the implementation of controls, presumably allowing larger-scale formal operations to take the place of the informal sector. This would presage a return to the past, and a form or regulated and probably even more elite (probably foreign-controlled) capitalism. Alternatively, following the arguments of David Booth, Tim Kelsall and others, an argument could be made that there are developmental advantages of ‘working with the grain’, accepting that elite capture is somehow inevitable in the operation of capitalism, but that gains may well be shared through such patron-client networks, and there are actually not only survivalist but also developmental benefits of broad-based, distributed, informal economic activity.

These alternatives are of course not either/or, and there are many shades of grey between. However, the focus of so much writing on the corrupt practices of the ZANU-PF connected elite, including many of the contributions to the JSAS special issue that includes Mawowa’s paper, often fails to delve further into the practical, distributional consequences of new forms of economic organisation. While I would be the first to condemn much of the practice that Mawowa documents, I think there is probably another side to the story that is also worthy of telling.

Some interviews with some of the successful miners, traders and associated business people would be definitely interesting. It would be fascinating to learn for example how artisanal mining has changed their livelihoods and future prospects, and how such investment has been channelled into the local economy. This could in turn be contrasted with the experience of former mine workers in large-scale mines (perhaps even the same people), and how such enterprises had an impact on local livelihoods and economies. Rather like the contrast between the assumed successful, ordered and regulated commercial farming sector of the past and the assumed disorderly, chaotic and informal land reform farming areas, there may be some surprising, and challenging, findings.

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



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Documentaries on land reform in Zimbabwe

A recent review article in the Journal of Southern African Studies by University of Pretoria based Rory Pilossof (see my review of his book in an earlier blog) discusses three film documentaries on land reform. The article in particular takes issue with our work and spends much of it launching a number of critiques. But, despite these diversions, in the end it comes to a sensible conclusion with which I agree wholeheartedly.

The review includes our short films, Voices from the Field, profiling seven farmers in our sample in Masvingo (see also youtube channel). Of course these were never ever thought of as documentaries as they were on average 5 minutes long, and simply as complements to the book and other more detailed material. The other two films are the much hailed, but heavily criticised, Mugabe and the White African (running to 94 minutes and big budget – certainly relative to ours) and the campaign film, the House of Justice, again focusing on farms in Chegutu, including that of Campbell and Freeth at Mount Carmel (running to 24 minutes, and lower budget).

With Miles Tendi and others, I have commented on the Mugabe film – and the even more extraordinary book by Ben Freeth. It is a shame Pilossof did not review Simon Bright’s excellent documentary, Robert Mugabe… What Happened? This is a much more appropriate contrast to the Mugabe film, showing how over a similar length of film, depth, nuance and complexity can be conveyed while still not losing its punch. I have my issues with this film too (as does Miles), but these critiques are not in the same league.

In my view, these three film contributions are very unlike and not really appropriate to compare. Pilossof however mainly uses the article as a platform to critique our work in particular. I will come to a few responses to this in a moment. However his overall conclusion I agree with entirely:

The lack of simple answers and the range of experiences, outcomes and processes make the land question a hugely complicated entity to study. More needs to be done to access the nuances and overlaps, rather than the dramatic and the separate. In part this entails conversations between white farmers, farm workers and beneficiaries…..the failure to situate land reform in the much wider political struggles of this period, and the history that informs them, is much more of a concern….

This is exactly the argument we make in our book, and has been made many, many times on this blog (see blogs on white farmers, labour etc.). Yet Pilossof complains about our film:

“Voices [our film] contains even less historical background than Mugabe and no commentary on the political context of the FTLRP. There is no mention of the violence surrounding the land allocations, of the processes of political patronage in land allocations or, most problematically for Scoones et al, the displacement of earlier land beneficiaries for new groups deemed more worthy”.

It is true in our five minute films we did not cover the whole history of colonialism, nor the wider political and policy context for resettlement after 1980 and during the fast-track period. This was not the intention. They were simply an opportunity for a few farmers, representing the range of experiences we found in the field – different livelihood combinations (farm and non-farm), different crops (market gardening, livestock, cotton, sugar) and different scheme types (A1 and A2) – to share their perspectives and experiences. The choice of seven was not statistically representative at all, and not intended to be, simply offering a range.

Our films were short profiles not full length documentaries, and could only do so much in the time (and a very limited budget). They were always meant to be complemented by the book where pages and pages discuss history, politics, economic context and present data backed by a rigorous sampling frame and both qualitative and quantitative data. As anyone who has read our material and this blog will know, we do not give a simple black and white view about land reform in Zimbabwe, as this review suggests. The films open with the following:

“Chaos, destruction and violence have dominated the coverage. While these have been part of the reality, there have also been successes which have thus far have largely gone unrecorded. The story is simply not one of collapse and catastrophe, it is much more complex. There have been many successes as well as failures”.

The films simply allowed a few farmers to speak, and tell their own story. They were indeed from different backgrounds, doing different things, many with previous employment. Pilossof regards this as a problem, proving somehow that they were not making a living from agriculture on their new farms. They were, but they were also doing other things, both before land reform and since. This is the reality of rural Zimbabwe, and the land reform settlements, something we wanted to get across.

Unlike Ben Freeth and co, such farmers have not had the opportunity to share their experience in their own words to a wider audience. It was heartening to find the BBC interested in following up, and Martin Plaut and his team did a series of interviews with some of those presented in the films. To hear Mr Nago speaking on Radio 4 while eating my breakfast in the UK was a fine change from the usual diet dished out by the BBC and other international media. Yes, these are only one set of voices, but they are important ones surely?

Pilossof then provides another line of attack, claiming that our “entire research project was supported by Agritex”. Yes certainly we worked closely with colleagues in Agritex, but also we worked with others at UZ, AIAS, Ruzivo Trust and so on. We were supported financially by the UK’s ESRC via a grant through PLAAS. All this is very clear in our materials. He goes on: “This collusion with the state is never discussed”. I don’t think we were colluding with anyone, and our work has been widely shared in many fora, and have been always very open in our partnerships. But he argues that we had special freedoms and “…the compromises entailed include a blinkered focus on beneficiaries, ignoring the reform process and its associated violence”. As discussed in many previous blogs we totally reject this claim – and our writing and commentary just simply does not bear such accusations up. He goes on: “Scoones et al are as guilty as Bailey and Thompson [the filmmakers involved in the Mugabe film] (and to an extent Freeth) in refusing to acknowledge the tortured processes of land transfer in Zimbabwe, past and present”. This again is of course quite ridiculous, betraying a lack of attention to our work.

For some reason he seems determined to discredit our work. The overall result is that, by dismissing our findings and inappropriately in my view criticising our film through a false comparison, Pilossoff ends up supporting the interpretations in the other films. To be honest, I would have expected a more thorough argument in JSAS. Maybe I am being overly sensitive as I actually agree completely with his conclusions, even if not with most of his arguments. Take a look at the review for yourself, but I am afraid you will have to pay £23.50 to read it in full (for only 5 pages!) as it’s behind a paywall. Sorry…

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


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