Tag Archives: pilossof

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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The Unbearable Whiteness of Being. Reflections on white farming in Zimbabwe

This is the main title of a new book by Rory Pilossof from the University of Pretoria and published by Weaver Press in Zimbabwe. The book documents the voices of white farmers in Zimbabwe through an analysis of the contributions to the CFU’s magazine, The Farmer, especially in the period after the land invasions, a reading of the now burgeoning post 2000 literature by white Zimbabweans, and through interviews with members of the breakaway Justice for Agriculture (JAG) group.

In addition to the brilliant title (although not the only use it seems), it is a fascinating read giving a much needed account of this period from the perspective of those who lost land. The events that unfolded from 2000 with the mass invasion of farms, including outbreaks of sometimes extreme violence in places, are certainly very real. The tales told are harrowing and convincing: somehow more so than the journalistic accounts of Peter Godwin and co. They mix the mundane with the dramatic, and are set in life stories that are very peculiarly Zimbabwean. The appendix of profiles of those interviewed (mostly from Mashonaland) is particularly enlightening. Yet the unreal and strange is also there. These testimonies are from the twenty-first century, but with many views and perspectives belonging to the nineteenth.

As Pilossof recounts, farmers who were willing to speak (obviously a selective sample) were so caught up in the traumatic events that their prejudices were plain to see, and not hidden from an interviewer who, as someone with white skin, was assumed to be sympathetic and of similar views. Strange is perhaps too calm an epithet: to many outside the narrow, isolated social circles of white rural Zimbabwe, such views are shocking; what Pilossof calls ‘condescending paternalism’ and ‘racist ramblings’ in one book he reviews. Together these insights expose of course the extraordinary social and political separation that many in the white farming community got caught in, even 20 years after Independence.

The cultural mores and political biases, and the racial tinge to everything are well documented in David Hughes’ book, with its analysis of landscape, conservation and farming. But somehow this book is more direct. Pilosoff tries to be balanced, and clearly he is affected by many of the stories told, but he also is forced to comment on what he hears.

The pervasive ‘white myopia’, as Pilossof terms it, was upheld by a series of myths. These “served the important function of allowing white farmers to live at ease with the scale of their land holdings, and to believe that they had done no wrong by buying into a system that so obviously segregated black from white”. This was bolstered by the view that farmers were apolitical, and that all they did was farm, despite for many representing the unfinished business of the liberation war. The book identifies a number of ‘myths’ of white farming: how farmers tirelessly struggled to tame an empty and unforgiving bush, how they had equally to control and discipline their workers who were lazy and deceitful, and how the productivity of white farming was the result of such disciplined hard work and investment. As he notes, no mention is made in the accounts of course of the massive government subsidies that kept most white farming afloat, nor the terrible conditions most farm labour suffered.

The accounts offer glimpses into a worldview overshadowed by patronising superiority. People emphasised how they loved and cared for their special servants and farm managers, yet despised and feared their land hungry neighbours, deemed to be ‘gooks’ and ‘terrs’. There is no narrative of belonging or of equality, just one struck through with racial superiority. It is no wonder that most found the land reform utterly surprising and wholly reprehensible. It ran against all things they upheld. Despite being hard working and sometimes quite successful farmers, many simply did not realise that things had to change, and this stubborn resistance to the ‘wind of change’ (40 years after MacMillan gave the famous speech in the South African parliament) is witness to the extraordinarily narrow outlook that many held.

Pilossof concludes:

“While many claimed to have changed their identity, to be Zimbabwean rather than Rhodesian, and to be ‘white Africans’, this is tempered by their use of the word ‘African’ to always and only to refer to blacks. As such, white farmers in Zimbabwe are ‘orphans of empire’, unable to progress past this state of being thus ‘become’ Zimbabwean”.

In some ways the book could be critiqued as unbalanced. Pilossof found it difficult to gain access to information, and many people would not speak, so charged was the atmosphere in the mid 2000s. His interviews are with an extreme group – JAG – which many would say was not part of the mainstream, although it was plentifully supported by foreign donors. He also interviewed people in the heart of Mashonaland where the land invasions were most contested, and where violence was most prominent. Also, after 2000 The Farmer was in its dying days, when it was most shrill in its criticisms of the land reform, rejecting the more conciliatory stances of some within the CFU. He also uses the sometimes bizarre white memoirs and biographies as sources, which many would argue offer particularly odd interpretations of white Zimbabwe. He therefore did not speak to those realists and pragmatists who perhaps saw the land reform as the ‘writing on the wall’, something that was inevitable and that had to be accommodated. He did not discuss with those who did not have an escape route to town, with alternative non-farm businesses, and so did not speak to those who sought compromises and accommodations on their farms. And he did not speak to those few who actually supported land reform, even if not the form it took. This is another dimension of white farmers’ voices that needs to be told, and awaits another book.

But such gaps do not undermine the value of the book, as the array of perspectives garnered while showing variation and lack of clear consensus, definitely shows a particular and well recognised discourse. As a documentation of the perhaps inevitable end of an era spawned by a brutal form of settler colonialism it provides a rather sad and telling doorstop to a troubled period.

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

updated, June 2013, thanks to David Moore for spotting an earlier mistake!


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