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Documentaries on land reform in Zimbabwe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Robert Mugabe… what happened?

On Friday last week, 32 years and 2 days after Zimbabwe’s independence, we hosted a  screening of the widely-acclaimed film of “Robert Mugabe… What Happened?” to a packed house of about 160 at the University of Sussex. The panel which discussed the film afterwards, included Simon Bright (the film’s director), Denis Norman (the first Minister of Agriculture in independent Zimbabwe in 1980 and former head of the Commercial Farmers Union), Peter Freeman (the Overseas Development Agency – now DFID – representative in Zimbabwe in the early 1980s and subsequently within DFID responsible for Africa programmes), McDonald Lewanika (Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition coordinator) and Phillan Zamchiya (Oxford  University and former President of the Zimbabwe National Students Union).

It was an extraordinarily powerful and effective film, and it was a great panel discussion – with participants ranging from those intimately engaged in the post-Independence transition in 1980 to those who were not even born then, but heavily involved in contemporary struggles over Zimbabwe’s future.  In due course, I will post some links to a podcast/video of the panel discussion, but for now, here are a few reflections on the film and follow-on debate.

Everyone agreed that the film offered an insightful glimpse into the complex past of Zimbabwe. It used fascinating archival footage, together with interviews with key figures in the opposition movement in Zimbabwe – intellectuals, politicians, media figures and others. It deployed music of different styles, eras and genres to keep a pace and flavour of time and location. And it told a sympathetic, if critical, story about the man himself. As Simon Bright explained, this was a very personal project. As a Zimbabwean from a white, liberal background who had been imprisoned and then fled, he felt moved to tell the bigger story. Like others who asked ‘what do you do with a respected father figure who goes wayward?’, Simon wanted to explore what happened to his hero, and why he felt despair and disgust at his actions today.  As he explained it was not a ‘balanced presentation in the way of the BBC’ (as if the BBC is balanced about Zimbabwe!), but a personal, political exploration. In this sense it is highly effective. And indeed far superior to the film, ‘Mugabe and the White African’, which portrays such a one-sided, simplistic picture, without any attention to complex and contested histories.

Of course, as the film’s title suggests, the story is told around one man – Robert Gabriel Mugabe. Mahmood Mamdani pointed out in his controversial essay for the London Review of Books:

“It is hard to think of a figure more reviled in the West than Robert Mugabe. Liberal and conservative commentators alike portray him as a brutal dictator…. There is no denying Mugabe’s authoritarianism, or his willingness to tolerate and even encourage the violent behaviour of his supporters…. [but this] gives us little sense of how Mugabe has managed to survive. For he has ruled not only by coercion but by consent, and his land reform measures, however harsh, have won him considerable popularity, not just in Zimbabwe but throughout southern Africa. In any case, the preoccupation with his character does little to illuminate the socio-historical issues involved”.

Mugabe has thus become such of a focus for the Zimbabwe crisis that sometimes these wider issues are not addressed. As Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni points out in a recent review of a series of books on Zimbabwe in African Affairs, (April 2012 issue) a ‘big man’ political analysis can undermine our understanding of the multi-layered issues at play:

“The concept of ‘struggles within the struggle’ not only captures the crucial issue of continuity and change that traverses the nationalist liberation struggle and the post-colonial period. It also encapsulate issues of personal clashes, ethnic clashes, generational clashes, ideological schisms, power struggles, strategic and tactical differences informed by exigencies of the liberation struggle – all this as a broad historical and discursive terrain within which Zimbabwe was born and leadership styles were honed. It is also the terrain within which political identities of patriots, puppets, sell-outs, revolutionaries, and counter-revolutionaries were formed. Analysis of ‘struggles within the struggle’ and ‘struggles after the struggle’ reveals the failure of nationalists to nurture and build democratic traditions, and the absence of peaceful coexistence of races, ethnicities, genders, and generations that invites the rule of violence and coercion. It exposes the nationalist struggle as a school of violence, intolerance, and commandism. Mugabe is a graduate of this school.”

It was these more complex issues that the panel and audience picked up in discussion. Inevitably the film has limitations: it is after all a 85 minute documentary which must sustain a strong storyline. There are gaps, omissions and an underplaying of some important complexities. The panel and audience discussion highlighted a number of these.

The role of the British, for example, was not really explored, yet the British government’s complicity (for example in the silence about the massacres by the Fifth Brigade in Matabeleland in the 1980s) was significant. The failure of the British to push a more complete settlement at Lancaster House – the ‘fudges’ that Peter Freeman talked of in discussion – and of course the diplomatic gaffe of the infamous ‘Clare Short letter’ were all part of the picture. And while the film was critical of white Rhodesia, although pointing out liberal traditions in white society, it did not explore the failure of a more complete reconciliation and integration of whites in the new Zimbabwe following independence. This was a question posed to Denis Norman who served in Mugabe’s cabinet at that time, and came from being the head of the white commercial farmers’ union. He conceded that more could have been done. But the unwritten political contract between white farmers and the new state that whites could farm and make money, but not be involved in politics (or at least oppositional politics), was not explored in the film.

And of course the big elephant in every room when Zimbabwe is discussed is land. In the film land is of course there as part of the narrative, but the implications and consequences of land reform are not discussed fully. The 1980s land reform is identified as a success, but the reasons why land reform effectively ceased in the 1990s and the inevitability tensions around land subsequently are rather papered over. The post 2000 land reform is, as usual, painted as a universal disaster, and the standard portrayals are repeated, without sufficient nuance or qualification. The panel tackled some of these issues in discussion. Phillan Zamchiya for example highlighted the importance of understanding land in the contemporary political context, as linked to a pattern of state-led violence, while also recognising the importance of land access for those who gained it. I pointed to the findings of our research, showing how land reform has not been the unmitigated disaster portrayed by the film, and why a more integrated agricultural sector was necessary to break the the economic, geographic social and political separation of (white) large-scale and (black) small-scale farming to create a more sustainable and productive agriculture for the long term.

A number of contributors to the discussion also pointed out the continuities in the way politics has been played out in Zimbabwe since Independence. A lack of tolerance of alternative views, violence and oppression have all been part of a consistent pattern, and stretch into a particular history of the pre-Independence period and the nationalist struggle. It is not so much a question of seeing a golden age of the 1980s to contrast with the period since 2000; while there have been important changes, there are also repeated patterns. And this, as McDonald Lewanika pointed out, is why now a democratic transition, with a strong constitutional base, is so critical, to shed once and for all this violent history.

In a documentary film, such issues are impossible to portray in full. This is the job of academic analysis and wider debate. For now, Simon Bright and his team have done a great service in producing this film for a more public audience. With its inevitable limitations, it still offers a more rounded, historically-informed account of ‘what happened’. But it of course does not provide any clear answers, as to ‘what next?’, although it does show that it is not going to be straightforward.

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