Tag Archives: land reform

What is a ‘viable’ farm? Implications for land reform and investment

There are many misconceptions about farming in southern Africa, and one of the most insidious is the notion of ‘viability’. A narrow economistic version has predominated that is based on a normative vision of farming based on full-time, large-scale commercial production. But taking a wider view, what is viable can take different forms more appreciative of the diverse ways farming is intertwined with wider livelihoods, and across different scales.

This debate is important as policymakers consider land reform and investment in agriculture and rural development. In South Africa a new advisory panel has been established to consider different approaches to delivering land reform, while in Zimbabwe the new government is gearing up for investment in the agricultural sector.

In both countries the histories of debates about what is viable resonate strongly today. Colonial narratives about ‘good’, ‘proper’, ‘modern’ farming persist, and are perpetuated by powerful forces resisting land redistribution and aiming for particular styles of investment. Such narratives are deeply embedded in institutions, planning frameworks and monitoring and evaluation systems. Too often the dominant framing has been allied to strong normative, racially-inflected, colonial assumptions, supported today by well-articulated political and commercial interests, hooked into a long history of the assumed benefits of a dualistic agrarian system where modern, large-scale agriculture is seen as the ideal. Shedding these blinkered perspectives can be tough, but is certainly necessary.

Some years ago now, Ben Cousins and I wrote a piece – Contested paradigms of ‘viability’ in redistributive land reform: perspectives from southern Africain the Journal of Peasant Studies on the tricky debate about viability, drawing on material from South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia. You can read it here. It made the basic case that a singular, narrow, technocratic, economistic version of viability distorts debate about futures of farming, and can act to undermine attempts at redistribution and a more diverse approach to investment in farming.

By creating a seemingly technical discourse around minimum farm size, economic units, carrying capacity, utilisation, land subdivision, size ceilings and so on, particular visions of viability become enacted through policy and planning without interrogation. But each of these concepts is premised on a set of assumptions. What is the minimum, for whom, and what if other sources of income from off-farm are important? The normative, political dimensions of such perspectives become clear when their history is revealed.

For example, minimum farm sizes (and so appropriate utilisation) were established in the colonial era on the assumption that (white) farmers would be full-time and the income derived from farming according to certain agronomic assumptions would be the same as a senior (white) civil servant. A black, African farmer, offered land in ‘the reserves’ would be expected to have a much lower, subsistence income, and so less land.

So if there is no one version of what is viable, what alternatives are there to the ones that are still assumed to be technically correct, despite their dubious histories? In an ambitious comparison in the paper (Table 1), we contrast framings derived from neo-classical economics, new institutional economics, livelihoods approaches (both developmentalist and welfarist), radical political economy and Marxism. All offer different versions of ‘viability’. Taking a broader view, where for example, sustainable livelihoods, class, gender difference and equity are important, suggests a very different set of options for planning and policy.

In the paper we pose a number of key questions emerging from the different framings, linked in turn to practical responses and monitoring and evaluation criteria (Table 2):

“From the neo-classical economics perspective, the key question is: how efficient is production on redistributed land? A concern with productive efficiency cannot be dismissed; policies that promote the optimal use of scarce land, labour, and capital are important, while not accepting a simplistic emphasis on ‘market forces’ as the driver of wealth creation.

From the new institutional economics perspective, the key question is: what factors and conditions influence the efficiency of different scales of production? Questions of scale of production are highly relevant in the southern African context, and so a focus on factors (including institutions and policies) that influence the efficiency of a variety of forms and scales of production is important, while not accepting the neoinstitutionalist premise of a pervasive inverse relationship between scale and efficiency.

From a livelihoods perspective, the key question is: what are the multiple sources of livelihood for land reform beneficiaries? In southern Africa, a focus on the multiple livelihood sources of poor people would help avoid an overly-narrow focus on farming alone, while not being blind to the structural roots of poverty. From a welfarist perspective, the key question is: what difference does food production make to the household welfare of land reform beneficiaries?

From a contemporary radical populist perspective, the key question is: does land reform transform exploitative agrarian structures and food regimes? In the southern African setting, one might therefore take on board a central concern with the need to reconfigure food production regimes and associated agrarian structures (at both the national and international scale), including the distribution of productive enterprises and associated property rights, and their performance in terms of output and net income, while not accepting an over-emphasis on the common interests of ‘peasants’ or ‘the rural poor’.

From a Marxist perspective, the key question is: what dynamics of class differentiation and accumulation occur within land reform? A central concern with evaluating the economics of land reform in terms of a wider concept of social efficiency and the contribution of agriculture to the growth of society’s productive capacities would be an important contribution. This would combine with a focus on the class and gender relations that underpin the organisation of production and of the agrarian structure, while not accepting the idealisation of large-scale farming in some strands of the tradition, or an overly-narrow focus on class dynamics to the exclusion of other relevant factors.”

Shifting the debate about viability (and so what constitutes ‘success’) away from the narrow, technocratic economism that has dominated to date means taking alternative framings seriously. Smallholder farming is not just large, commercial farming scaled down: there are different logics, different practices, different cultures, and so different measures of what is viable. If a future for agriculture and rural development is to be envisaged, then multiple versions of ‘viability’ (and success) – and so investment and policy focus – must be embraced.

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

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NEW PAPER – Medium-scale farms in Africa: history lessons from Zimbabwe

‘Medium-scale’ farms as seen as potential drivers of future agricultural growth in Africa. In Zimbabwe, much hope is vested in A2 farms allocated at land reform becoming productive, with hopes pinned on investment flowing following the election. The A2 farms, averaging around 100 ha in extent, will be a major focus of policy attention in the coming years, as attempts are made to resuscitate the commercial sector. These are also the areas where the political-military elite now firmly in power own land, and there will be multiple political and economic incentives to invest in the A2 land reform areas.

But what will be the future of such medium-scale commercial farms? Can we look to historical experience to suggest possible trajectories? What will happen to the A2 farms several generations on? Will we see a progressive evolution of increasing commercialisation and investment driven by market forces as is sometimes assumed, or will a greater diversity of outcomes arise, as chance, necessity and contingency play their part? A new paper is just out in the journal Africa (open access) that asks these questions.

The paper draws on an historical and contemporary assessment of what were called ‘native purchase areas’ in Zimbabwe. These were medium-scale farms in todays’ parlance, established for black farmers by the colonial government from the 1930s. Through a study of Mushagashe area, we asked what’s happened since, and why?

Structural transformations

A number of recent studies have documented the growth of ‘medium-scale’ farms across Africa, from Ghana to Malawi to Zambia to Kenya. ‘Investor farmers’ – local rural elites, retired civil servants and urbanites wanting a rural base – are creating a new dynamic as land markets – both formal and informal – emerge, and rural traditional leaders, government officials and others get involved in the process, accruing personal benefits along the way.

This redistribution of land towards a new elite results in processes of land dispossession and rural proletarianisation, but also investment, skill development and economic linkage effects between new medium-scale farms and the smallholder plots that surround them. For many, despite the negative consequences for some (perhaps many), this dynamic is seen as the future: a ‘structural transformation’ of the agrarian setting, offering many opportunities for growth and investment.

In Zimbabwe, the land reform of 2000 created a category of medium-scale farms – the A2 schemes. Around 25,000 such farms were allocated, ranging in sizes from around 20 ha (especially with irrigation) to over 500 ha, in dry areas. Like in other neighbouring countries, this has resulted in a new agrarian structure, complemented in Zimbabwe’s case by a massive increase also of smallholder agriculture.

The new A2 farmers have a similar social and economic profile to elsewhere: urban connections, business people, retirees, and they are also often well-connected politically. Unlike elsewhere the new A2 farms did not emerge from a land market, but from direct allocation by the state, subdividing large-scale commercial farms and estates. Although allocations were notionally done on the basis of a formal application process, including the submission of a business plan and a vetting of applicants in terms of qualification, capital availability and investment ideas, this often didn’t happen. Instead, in multiple cases, there was a well-documented pattern of corruption and patronage, especially around election times, when politically- and military-connected elites grabbed farms.

The result has been a mixed set of outcomes for A2 farms. Some have done very well, investing and producing; many though have not, and the farms are languishing. Very often this is due to the lack of capital and finance, which has not been forthcoming due to lack of collateral security. The process of issuing 99 year leases has been painfully slow, and for a variety of reasons the banks have been reluctant until recently to accept them as guarantees. The general lack of liquidity in the economy due to recurrent crises has also hampered investment.

The recent studies of medium-scale farms across Africa have focused on farm structure (in the MSU studies they have taken a huge range of sizes from 5-200 hectares to represent this group) and who owns the farms, and largely not their fortunes as productive enterprises, patterns of investment and long-term viability. Our new studies under the DFID-supported APRA (Agricultural Policy Research in Africa) programme, which is linked to a set of MSU studies led by Thom Jayne, is looking at A2 farms: investigating their sizes, ownership patterns and through some detailed surveys in Mvruwi and Masvingo, investigating both production and investment.

Most post-land reform studies have focused on the A1 smallholder farms (appropriately so, given they are the majority), so this will be the first in-depth assessment of the A2 farms, beyond very selective audits carried out by the state a decade or more ago. This will help us understand whether the dynamic in Zimbabwe, generated by the A2 allocations in land reform, replicate or contrast with, what has been found in other countries in the region.

Native Purchase Areas 80 years on

In addition to this study, our work has been looking at longer-term histories, and a previous allocation of ‘medium-scale’ farms (also averaging 100 ha) from the 1930s in Zimbabwe. These are the Native Purchase Areas and an earlier blog series has highlighted some of the findings already. Our new open access paper in Africa synthesises and extends the analysis, based on Mushagashe small-scale commercial farming area near Masvingo.

Our findings show that unbridled optimism (or indeed pessimism) about the future of medium-scale farms is unwarranted. The MSU studies from across Africa have spotted an important shift in size structure, but they tell us little about the future. The idea that there is a linear evolution of farm systems from smallholder to medium-scale to large-scale commercial, as land areas consolidate and market forces drive comparative advantage needs to be challenged.

The big debates about structural transformation in agriculture currently being revived in agricultural economics are often starkly ahistorical. They assume simple, unidirectional evolutionary change as incentives shift. But there’s a lot else that goes on besides. When we look at history in detail – as we did for Mushagashe, but more impressively Sara Berry did for Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria and Zambia – we see that commercialisation doesn’t happen like this. There are stops and starts, booms and busts, generational changes, policy shocks and so on. History is about contingency, conjucture and chance, not predictable, linear evolution.

As we found in Mushagashe, 80 years on some farms were thriving; others had been but were languishing now; others had plans for the future, but weren’t getting going; while others had been abandoned, or were in the process of being so. Still others had different views of the land: this was home, somewhere to seek refuge from ‘communal area’ life, or where other family members could be settled, in what, over generations, had become more like villages than conventional farms.

Commercialisation we found wasn’t a one-size-fits-all phenomenon. For some it was the classic pattern of increasing external inputs, greater deployment of labour and higher, more marketed outputs. But for others commercialisation was selective: in projects run by particular family members, or in particular plots, where water was available.

Lessons from history

While history cannot predict the future, it can help us ask questions about what might be. And the Native Purchase Area lessons documented in the new paper suggest that it is unwise to be too gung-ho about the future of medium-scale farms in Africa. The restructuring of farm sizes we are seeing now will have many outcomes, and the sort of processes that unfolded in Mushagashe since the early 1930s will likely play a part in creating a wide diversity, both in the A2 farms and in other medium-scale farms in the region.

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

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Catch up on Zimbabweland

Zimbabweland is taking a break for the next few weeks. By the end of this time we will know the outcome of the Constitutional court case brought by the MDC Alliance disputing the presidential (not parliamentary) election results. Maybe there will be a run-off, maybe a new president will be declared, maybe something else. With the drama and uncertainty of the past weeks, no-one can be sure. The nine men and women of the court have a complex job to do, delivering a fair and just outcome and assuring stability in the country.

It’s been a dramatic few weeks. You can read my pre- and post election round-ups of useful articles here and here, with some reflections on land and agriculture themes raised by the manifestos, here. In terms of contributions in the past week, Alex Magaisa offered a useful overview of the legal process associated with the constitutional case, while Chipo Dendere provided a thoughtful reflection on the implications for the opposition following the election: notably the need to take rural issues seriously.

This year Zimbabweland has already published 24 articles, and has an archive now of 333 going back seven years. Do sign up for a regular email alert or follow me on Twitter @ianscoones. Don’t forget that there are two cheap books that offer compilations of the blogs, with commentaries on different themes. You can get hold of both via Amazon, here and here for £11/$20. And our 2010 book, Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realities is available for under £15/$25 here. Or, if you are in South Africa or nearby, you can get it directly from Jacana for 250 Rands by emailing: sales@jacana.co.za.

The 20 most popular articles read so far  year are listed below, which include some of the ten reviews I have done this year on new work on land and agriculture by Zimbabwean authors. The series on entrepreneurial agriculture (chickens get the top slot)  and overviews of land and agricultural policy challenges continue to feature highly. Of those published this year, the commentary on South Africa’s debate on land expropriation was very popular, particularly as the trope of Zimbabwe as cataclysmic disaster is so readily deployed further south. An alternative view that argues that land redistribution is both necessary and can result in positive outcomes is a rather rarer viewpoint.

The three articles I did for The Conversation in January, which also appeared on the blog, were very widely read, and were picked up particularly by South African media. They focused on  the issue of compensation for expropriated land, the need for an effective land administration system and ten priorities for agriculture. These issues all remain crucial, and we look forward to a new administration committed to land, agriculture and rural development.

Here’s the list of the 20 posts most read so far this year. Happy reading!

  1. View – Zimbabwe’s new agricultural entrepreneurs II: Poultry
  2. View – Panic, privilege and politics: South Africa’s land expropriation debate
  3. View – Policies for land, agriculture and rural development: some suggestions for Zimbabwe
  4. View – Zimbabwe’s new agricultural entrepreneurs I: pig production
  5. View – Reconfigured agrarian relations following land reform
  6. View – Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector goes from ‘bread basket to basket case’? Or is it (again) a bit more complicated?
  7. View – Command agriculture and the politics of subsidies
  8. View – Zimbabwe’s new agricultural entrepreneurs III: irrigators
  9. View – Rural cattle marketing in Zimbabwe
  10. View – Getting agriculture moving: finance and credit
  11. View – What role for large-scale commercial agriculture in post-land reform Zimbabwe: Africa’s experience of alternative models
  12. View – A hot commercial success: growing chilli in the eastern highlands
  13. View – Tobacco and contract farming in Zimbabwe
  14. View – Women and land: challenges of empowerment
  15. View – Abbatoirs and the Zimbabwe meat trade
  16. View – Zimbabwe’s beef industry
  17. View – Mining and agriculture: diversified livelihoods in rural Zimbabwe
  18. View – Land and agriculture in Zimbabwe following land reform
  19. View – “No condition is permanent”: small-scale commercial farming in Zimbabwe
  20. View – Land tenure dilemmas in Zimbabwe

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

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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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Scarcity narratives: will Zimbabwe join the global land rush?

Narratives of scarcity dominate policy discourses about resources, including land. This was certainly the case during the peak of the global land rush, as we show in a paper just published online in Geoforum (open access, which is part of a forthcoming special issue on the politics of scarcity).

The paper is written with Rebecca Smalley, Ruth Hall and Dzodzi Tsikata and is based on a textual analysis of 135 documents produced during the period 2007-2013 relating to land investments, particularly in Africa. Through this analysis, we aimed to explore contrasting narratives (storylines about the global land rush) and their underlying framings.

Is a land rush in Zimbabwe in the offing?

Unlike many other countries across Africa, where land was assumed to be abundant and where governments were desperate for investment, Zimbabwe wasn’t subject to the ‘land rush’ in the same way. Global capital looking for investment opportunities didn’t see Zimbabwe as an option in 2007-08. Indeed quite the opposite. While the economy stabilised with the abandonment of the Zimbabwe dollar, several years of hyperinflation had wreaked havoc.

Things may be changing though. Investors looking for rapid growth from a low base, a government that is ‘open for business’ and policies that liberalise the economy and land markets may choose Zimbabwe as an investment destination post elections later this month, whichever party wins. Already the narratives of ‘idle’ or ‘underutilised’ land, and the need to boost agricultural investment through external, large-scale agribusinesses and joint ventures are rising.

Mainstream storylines ignore politics

According to our analysis in the new paper, the mainstream narratives on the land rush generally follow a fairly standard structure, with a beginning that highlights the problem of resource limits, boundaries and the urgency of action; a middle that presents a context of relative abundant and idle land; and an end, centred on solutions around investment and capturing comparative advantage for land investment in Africa and beyond.

In the paper we examine whether narratives by five different groups – international policy actors, African regional policy organisations, investors and financiers, agribusiness and civil society groups or NGOs – align with contrasting classical framings of scarcity. These are characterised as absolute scarcity (following Malthus), relative scarcity (following Ricardo) and political scarcity (following Marx). We found that most mainstream narratives deployed a combination of absolute and relative scarcity framings, and excluded any mention of the political. When discussions of political dimensions appeared in some civil society/NGO discussions they were very limited and circumscribed.

The new paper emerges from the now-completed Land and Agricultural Commercialisation in Africa (LACA) project, part of the Future Agricultures Consortium’s land theme. It was originally written as a framing paper looking at debates around scarcity in response to a funding call from DFID-ESRC with a theme on ‘resource scarcity, growth and poverty reduction’. The original call, way back in 2011, was very much framed around the conventional mainstream narrative discussed above. It stated:

“Growing resource scarcity is threatening to undermine advances made in development. [Various reports] all highlight resource scarcity and an impending squeeze on the availability of food, water, land, energy and minerals as major policy issues…. Ensuring sustainable access to land, water and energy is critical to addressing global poverty and sustaining pro-poor growth. Vulnerabilities to increasing scarcity of resources vary widely with geography, wealth, political, social and human capital….. increasing resource scarcities might also provide crucial sustainable growth and development opportunities. For example, it (sic) will catalyse new markets and innovation resulting in new products and it may change the comparative advantage across countries”

We had problems with this, given the extensive debates about the notion of scarcity in political ecology, development studies and beyond. While we didn’t voice our concerns directly in our grant proposal (we wanted the grant…), we did say we’d examine scarcity as a concept in the context of the on-going land rush. This paper is the result.

The importance of a political framing of scarcity

The paper’s final published form has been a long time coming for a number of reasons, but it helped guide some of the subsequent work looking at the consequences of different types of land investment – from large-scale estates to contract farming to commercial agriculture blocks. You can find a discussion of our results in a special Forum of the Journal of Peasant Studies, published last year with papers on Ghana, Kenya and Zambia, introduced with an open access overview.

In the in-press paper, we argue that bringing a more political perspective to the debate about scarcity is vital. This must include emphasising how resources are distributed between different needs and uses, and so different people and social classes, accepting that scarcities are manufactured in political, social and historical contexts. In this view, scarcity is not independent, but is constructed in relation to historically-specific patterns and forces of production, distribution and consumption. Resources, and so scarcities, are produced and are relational, meaning that changing the relations of production and consumption can transform what is scarce where and for whom.

Reframing pathways: implications for Zimbabwe?

If the debate about the land rush is to be reframed, allowing alternative pathways of land use and control to emerge, bringing a political scarcity framing to the fore is an essential move, we argue. We hope that this paper encourages reflection on this debate, offering pointers to alternative, more political perspectives on scarcity that can open up the debate about the global land rush, avoiding often simplistic framings around absolute and relative scarcity that constrain and exclude.

So, although this paper is based on material from a previous period of land investment, the key lessons apply now; and may be highly relevant for Zimbabwe in the coming months and years. This means thinking hard about the way land and its use is framed, and who gets included and excluded in the policy narratives around the post-elections rush for investment. For, if we don’t pose questions about distribution, class, gender, race central to the politics of scarcity, then the gains of the land reform may be quickly reversed by speculative investment, betting on Zimbabwe’s rich and valuable land.

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

Picture credit: Mechanized tea harvest, Koricho. CIFOR Flickr CC license (P. Sheperd)

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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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Race and privilege in Zimbabwe: a rural and urban divide

A recent paper in Africa by Rory Pilossof and Jacob Boersema offers a nuanced and differentiated account of ‘white’ attitudes to land reform. Distinguishing urban-based whites and ‘farmers’ (although recognising the blurring and connection between the two), they highlight that there was not a simple racialised solidarity in the face of the land invasions.

Interviewing urban whites, they surprisingly found limited sympathy for the plight of the farmers. Their informants argued that farmers had “retained their power, settler identity and colonial attitudes” and “had called the attacks upon themselves”. While white owners of businesses in town were worried that the invasions might spread and affect their properties, this in the end did not happen (although ‘indigenisation’ policies certainly caused some problems).

One urban informant thought that “the suffering of white farmers was overplayed, particularly internationally. He argued that the farmers used their white privilege to mobilize international sympathy, while at the same time bringing the whole white community into disrepute for drawing attention to whites and (inadvertently) to their continued privileged position in the country. He also contended that farmers were not the only ones put under pressure in the years following 2000. Civil servants, opposition supporters, unemployed workers, the urban lower class and evicted farm workers also faced hardships.”

The paper notes that “White farmers certainly suffered… but their wealth also assured them relative comfort after their evictions. Urban whites claimed that many farmers maintained a comfortable lifestyle due to the wealth they had accrued as farmers.” The paper argues that “urban [white] privilege has remained invisible because white Zimbabweans and white privilege are imagined to be connected to the land and to being a farmer”. Maintaining this stereotype of course helped to conceal the on-going benefits of white urban privilege, which had remained intact through this turbulent time.

The paper observes that urban whites “still defend their privilege, although in a different way than the farmers do: not by denial but by naturalizing it or by pointing to the new black elite”. A greater reflexive awareness of privilege was seen among the interviewees, a direct result of the post 2000 situation. While racialised tropes are still trotted out, particularly by the older generation, an appreciation of the impacts of race, class and white privilege was evident amongst others, even if defended and legitimised.

Given the often simplistic, essentialised and racialised accounts of Zimbabwe’s recent history, this paper is extremely useful. Not all whites are the same (of course). As has been pointed out many times, ‘rural’ whites (farmers) were not uniform either, with different groupings associated with the CFU, JAG or independent. As the outcomes of land reform show, the attitudes of different farmers to their workers and surrounding communities over time had a huge impact on how land invasions played out initially, even if land was later acquired by those distant from local political accommodations.

The international media wanted a good vs bad, white vs black story grossly simplifying a complex situation. Stereotyped heroes and villains were presented alongside the highly selective media imagery of violence and chaos. These misleading simplifications of course helped no-one, except perhaps a few journalist hacks and newspaper editors looking for racially-inflected copy from the ‘dark continent’.

This manufacturing of a storyline of course helped push both Mugabe/ZANU-PF and the British government into extreme positions, peaking under Tony Blair’s premiership, when he was rumoured to have threatened armed intervention by the former colonial power on behalf of beleaguered whites (confirmed again by Thabo Mbeki in a recent interview). No wonder many whites in Zimbabwe thought this was the worst sort of ill-informed ‘diplomacy’ from the mother country.

Given the diversity of perspectives seen across informants, and the political imperative to move beyond these racially divided positions, the paper concludes with a challenge: “Whites will need to move beyond acknowledgement, become less defensive, and take more robust steps to undo the advantages they have enjoyed.”

38 years after Independence, this is rather a shocking indictment of Zimbabwe’s post-colonial story.

This is the eighth 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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