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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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