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The politics of land occupations in Zimbabwe

How land was invaded and occupied during Zimbabwe’s land reform in 2000 remains a contentious issue. The lack of detailed empirical work uncovering the histories of occupations has hampered the debate, but this is now changing.

To date, there have been two main narratives. The most popular in many academic and media circles is that the occupations were directed from the top as a route to propping up ZANU-PF in the wake of the referendum loss. Others, by contrast, argue that the occupations represented a popular movement emerging from below, demonstrating a revolutionary autonomy from the party and the state. As ever, the facts don’t sit easily with either explanation.

Two new papers by Sandra Bhatasara (from the Sociology Department at the University of Zimbabwe) and Kirk Helliker (from Rhodes University) help to improve the evidence base for two districts in Mashonaland Central. They are: The Party-State in the Land Occupations of Zimbabwe: The Case of Shamva District and [PDF]Inside the Land Occupations in Bindura District, Zimbabwe, both out in journals last year.

The papers, based on fieldwork in 2015-16, offer nuanced accounts of what happened. As previous studies have shown, the story is not straightforward, and differs dramatically over time and space. This is what we found out in our own work in Masvingo province relayed in particular in the 2003 paper, from jambanja to planning, and in our 2010 book. The important participant-observer research by Wilbert Sadomba on the occupations shows a similar story for Mazowe.

The results reported in the two papers are broadly the same. They conclude that, “involvement by the party-state did not take on an institutionalised form but was of a personalised character entailing interventions by specific party and state actors”. In other words, the dominant narrative is challenged. However, an alternative radical populist position is not supported either. What then were the findings from Mashonaland Central?

History and memory

The way individual land occupations played out (all were different) depended very much on particular local histories and how these were remembered by local participants. The land occupations for many of the research informants was about completing the struggle for land so central to the liberation war. In these areas, experiences of the war are core to collective memories. Many communal area residents were moved to ‘protected villages’ by the Rhodesian state (also known as ‘keeps’). As one informant commented, “we were harassed to unimaginable proportions when we were at these keeps”. Memories of colonial injustices go deeper too, from compulsory destocking and contour ridging to forced labour (chibaro).

The occupation of farms was not random. The conduct of farmers both during the liberation war and in relation to their contact with communal residents since played a large part in which farms were initially targeted. The violence of the liberation war, and the resentments built up over generations of harsh farmers impounding cattle or mistreating workers was a central part of how farms and farmers were seen by the invaders.

For many, including the war veterans who led most of the invasions, the relationship with the ruling party, ZANU-PF was not a supportive one. Many informants complained that the promises of liberation after Independence had not be fulfilled. When war veterans were demobilised after the war, they were offered jobs and land, but they did not materialise for most. War veterans had previously mobilised against the state demanding pensions (in 1997), but the resentments still ran deep, and the invasions were seen as a protest against ZANU-PF, rather than as something orchestrated by the party. One informant commented, “During the war of liberation, our ZANU-PF leaders had promised us office jobs, a decent way of living, with plenty of food for us and our families. Sadly all these promises were not fulfilled…. [T]hey had forgotten all about us as they were now comfortable and in power.”

Once the referendum had been rejected, the prospect of the state doing anything further on land seemed gone, so the moment acted as a spur to do something radical. Land invasions, which had been happening sporadically since the late 1990s, provided that opportunity.

Organising occupations

The war veterans were central to the organisation of land occupations, linked through loose networks. Most war veterans were in jobs or were farming in the communal areas at this time. Although some had connections to the National War Veterans Association, they were not centrally organised. But they were connected. Within the two districts studied there were key figures central to mobilisation across war veterans. One was a teacher, another a nurse, for example. All war veterans had multiple identities, but the experience and connections forged in the liberation war 25 years before were important.

In popular commentary on the land reform, it is often referred to as ‘chaotic’. While the disturbance and protest of the ‘jambanja’ period certainly disrupted, there was also a strategy and method. One war veteran explained the approach to early ‘demonstrations’:

“When we got onto farms as war veterans, we would ask for a map or other questions like how big the farm was. Our intention was not to remove the white farmers but to share the land … So as the commander I asked the white farmers which part of land they wanted to retain and which part they wanted to give us. When they showed us the land, we occupied the part that they wanted to retain instead of the part they wanted to give us. I also instructed base commanders that the deployed people could use resources at the farm like water but they should remain camped outside farm houses”.

As the paper explains, “Each and every occupied farm had a base camp (or local authority structure) involving a committee of seven people which was led by a base camp commander or chairperson, who was invariably a war veteran. The committee of seven coordinated the activities on the farms. Members of the committee would oversee certain tasks, such as food provisions, transport and pegging of plots as well as security and maintaining discipline. Pegging, involving the measuring and allocation of plots for the occupiers, was an important activity in laying claim to the farm and in giving occupiers a sense of permanency on the farm.”

As we discussed in our 2003 paper, having a presence and deploying the practices of the state (pegging, committees, permits, security regimes etc.), offered occupiers a legitimacy, being seen like a state by the state, which, at these early stages, was sending in police to evict illegal occupiers. Military discipline derived from liberation war experience also meant that security was a key issue. Farmers after all had guns. As the papers admit:

“Violence by occupiers did take place, though they claim that this was a reaction to farmer-instigated violence. Otherwise, the sheer presence of occupiers and their tactics of intimidation were the weapons often deployed to force farmers off their land. For instance, occupiers were involved in singing, dancing and beating drums on the farms, and normally just outside the farmer’s main homestead, day and night”.

Farm workers were seen by many invaders as a problem – potential competitors for land, and having been working for white farmers often regarded as opposition supporters with no commitment to land reform. Many were treated very badly. All night pungwes were held, with compound workers on occupied farms obliged to attend. Suspected MDC supporters were intimidated, sometimes beaten, while ‘political’ education was forced on participants, replicating the liberation war night rallies in the communal areas.

Again, there were exceptions. In some cases, farmers left their properties without resistance or amicable sharing arrangements were decided upon. In other cases farm workers joined the land invasions, working undercover by assisting the occupiers in providing information about farm layouts and farmer presence as well as necessities such as food and shelter.

The occupiers

In all cases studied there was a great diversity of people who ended up as occupiers in the ‘base camps’. In most cases, these were people mobilised from nearby communal areas. War veterans were central, mostly coming from these areas too. But there were also spontaneous occupations by communal area people, with no input from war veteran networks.

The occupations were dominated by men. Patterns of patriarchy were replicated, with women usually taking on reproductive roles such as cooking. Men mostly occupied the posts in the seven-member committee. Independent women also joined the occupations, although in a minority. Many described how they sought to escape oppressive polygamous relationships, common in the communal areas.

The motivations for joining varied; most were quite personal and specific. The invasions were voluntary and widely supported. For example, informants explained, “We decided to join the war veterans in land occupations because my husband’s father has a polygamous marriage so there is no land for farming. We have been farming on a very small piece of land”. Another woman added that, “I came to the farm in Shamva in April 2000 with my two [communal] neighbours. I came to take part in the land occupations because I was facing problems. My husband and I had no land of our own, as we were living with my parents. I did not feel okay staying on my parents’ land whilst my husband was away working at the mine”. Land reform was liberating, the opportunity to create new life, many argued.

Role of the party-state

What then was the role of the party-state? The picture painted by the two papers – corroborating other earlier research – was one of decentralised action, supported by key networks of war veterans, with selective links into party-state structures. The occupations were not coordinated systematically by the central party-state, or even the national war veterans’ association. The situation in the first months was very diverse – within districts, across farms and nationally. The most commonly repeated narrative simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

That said, nor does a solely bottom-up movement, without links to the party-state. These links took on different forms. Some war veterans had party positions, and were able to mobilise state resources. In Mashonaland Central, the radical and influential political commissar in ZANU-PF, Border Gezi, was provincial governor. He became enlisted early on, and personally provided support.

But in other instances, the state pushed back. These were illegal occupations, and the police often tried to evict invaders. The war veterans had to intervene, and confront state authority, sometimes using political connections to get certain officials moved, or orders overturned. Agricultural extension officials were horrified by the uncoordinated use of land in their official capacity, and berated land occupiers, but some were also involved personally, and so wore different hats at different times. District Council officials were similarly conflicted.

However, the land invaders realised that they needed state officials too – to provide a stamp of approval and a sense of legitimacy. The technical ministries were enlisted to support pegging operations for example, even before such efforts were sanctioned under the later ‘fast-track’ programme. One agricultural extension officer explained:

“The war veterans had no technical background and proper records or documentation, so they relied on people who worked in government departments and others who knew about land use to advise them on the types of farms that existed and what was being done in farms. These people helped war veterans in an independent capacity.”

The papers conclude that, “the party-state did not initiate, orchestrate or direct the land occupations. Rather, individual party and state agents engaged with the war veterans as the occupations unfolded, or were engaged by them”.

However, this all changed significantly with the introduction of the fast-track land reform programme in July 2000, when the ruling party and state moved in on a very pronounced institutional basis, and began to ‘own’ the land reform. This was in part political expediency, but it was also necessary. There was no other option – the invaders could not be removed. A post-hoc bureaucratic rationale had to be imposed, with models and plans and, through this, a political accommodation with a ZANU-PF supporting elite, as they were offered land through the new A2 programme that unfolded over the coming years.

Why does this history matter?

An accurate history of land occupations matters because it illuminates the nature of the state in this period, and the highly contingent, fragmented forms of authority exercised. While after July 2000, a semblance of uniformity emerged through the edicts of policy and the practices of offering permits to occupy (offer letters) and so on, this was often tentative and contested. In our study areas ‘informal’ occupations persisted for years, before they were recognised by the state, often requiring significant political mobilisation.

The period of land occupation highlighted the ambivalent nature of state authority, and the way state and party agents had multiple identities and could play different roles, often with great flexibility. The agency of individuals in the process is important, as it counters the narrative of control, direction and centralised authority.

Yet, despite this partial autonomy, and the flexibility and responsiveness associated with the invasions, resulting in a huge diversity of experiences, this process did not create a radical, emancipatory alternative. The hierarchies and exclusions of previous social and political formations were replicated, the papers argue. Women were largely excluded, or relegated to domestic provisioning roles. Farm workers were rarely incorporated, and very often side-lined, sometimes violently. A selective, patriarchal authority, based on war veterans’ often militarised norms were imposed. This was frequently far from the romantic vision of collective emancipation through a bottom-up land movement.

Very often out of necessity, party-state resources were drawn upon to supply transport or food, often through quite personalised connections. This meant that autonomy was already reduced. But, once the state created the framework of fast-track land reform, state authority was again imposed, and war veterans, the seven member committees and the alternative forms of planning and governance were quickly subsumed by the state. As the papers state:

“While local forms of authority and solidarity existed at the base camps on the occupied farms, there was no real attempt to bring about a new kind of sociality in terms of everyday practices, which is exemplified most clearly in the maintenance of patriarchal arrangements”.

Together these two papers shed important light on the land occupation period. The occupations were initially an anti-state/party protest, largely autonomous and decentralised, but the war veterans made strategic bargains – in exchange for police protection, transport, food and so on. The state in turn recognised the need to accommodate the invaders, and find space for elite demand for land in the A2 schemes, and so shift tack around the ‘illegality’ of the invasions creating the ‘fast-track’ programme. While the result was certainly a dramatic shift in agrarian structure, the tentative period of radical challenge was quickly undermined.

This is the third of a short series of blogs profiling recent papers on Zimbabwe. This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland. Photo credit: Tapiwa Chatikobo.

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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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