Traditional authorities and the new peasants in Zanu-PF’s Zimbabwe

A recent article by Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa) president Patekile Holomisa lauding Robert Mugabe as a “true African hero” begged the question: “What is the role of Zimbabwe’s traditional authorities in that country’s complicated political economy?” Holomisa didn’t ask. Rather, he wrote that Zimbabwe’s Fast Track Land Reform Programme (some call this simply “the land invasions”) have eventuated in a “land-owning peasant community … putting the land into productive use”.

This is a more positive spin than even the most optimistic chroniclers of (or propagandists for) the land reform programme attest. As with Hanlon, Manjengwa and Smart’s Zimbabwe Takes Back its Land and the slightly less evangelical Scoones et. al’s Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realities, it’s as if Adam Smith stepped down from an economics department in the sky, said “my, but (most of) these peasants are toiling, trucking, and trading hard – successfully, if they are not too lazy”, and ignored both how they got there, the social relations of production and reproduction embedded in their seemingly atomistic souls, and the rocky road to primitive accumulation on which they are embarking – although most of the pro-new farmer academics and journalists would like more assistance from the state and non-governmental organisations than the founder of liberal economics would have advocated.

Aside from arguments about the pros and cons of Zimbabwe’s new mode of farming, Holomisa’s claim that a new Eden of private property has emerged in Zimbabwe is false. In most cases the around 145,000 recent recipients of small “A1” farms are still waiting for leases from the state, and far from all of the 16,500 “A2” larger ones have private or other forms of secure tenure. If and when they do get them they can be revoked for a number of reasons*. Far from “owning” their land in a purely capitalist sense, as Holomisa stated, the new Zimbabwean farmers at worst remain in a reinvigorated feudal system or at best, as Prosper Matondi, puts it, their land rights are “juggled”. Chimowu and Woodhouse’s “vernacular” land markets – including agrarian labour markets (lots of free labour from families and neighbours) and new modes of political production (“electoral authoritarianism” has emerged recently as a way to conceptualise Zimbabwe-like regimes) – have emerged phoenix-like in the wake of Zimbabwe’s crisis.

Although the almost prolific literature on Zimbabwe’s emerging agrarian economy often does not state this outright – aside from Murisa’s and Zamchiya’s excellent exceptions, albeit the former is more directly concerned with chiefs and headmen than the latter – the political gaps are as wide as those appearing between the “market” and whatever jostles alongside it. “Traditional leaders” are plugging those cracks very quickly. In some cases, the less established members (for example, the “war vets”) of the “committees of seven” established to parcel out the land after the first phase of invasions fell away. In others, party appointees lost touch, befuddled by confusing messages from above and below. Chiefs filled the holes. As the new farmers in Zimbabwe divide into rich and poorer, the strategies of the chiefs will change too.

The Zimbabwean party-state has not been very efficient at the distribution of leases – or much else in the process by which a new countryside is being created in the wake of jambjanja (“force”) that took the land at the turn of the millennium (and about which the extent of and relationship between state/military or “war-vet”/social-movement leadership is debated still). In many cases traditional authorities fill the vacuum. In the 1980s and 1990s efforts to construct VIDCOs and WARDCOs (village and ward development councils) to side-step the “communal” mode of power practically withered away.

The chiefs, headmen, and other authorities (including messengers), empowered by lineages of age-old and colonially altered power, stayed and prospered. Indeed, many become effective party “agents”. They are well-known for making sure their subjects vote properly in elections, and they are well-paid and gifted for so doing. Many did so in the most recent election at the end of July returning Zanu-PF to the heights from which it was only temporarily lowered in 2008, and they continue to punish members of the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai. For example, in Shamva, a small town about 90 kilometres north-east of Harare, the chief destroyed an MDC supporter’s vegetable garden and put his cattle there.

Thus the guardians of old have worked with an authoritarian-populist party-state. They have taken much of the power of land allocation and regulation from their communal modes to the new ones, as they have been left by the “war veterans” and a party-state more concerned with extracting diamond wealth than building up agriculture. What Karl Marx might have called the “muck of ages” is still sticking very firmly to the fragile walls of Zimbabwe’s agricultural system.

It is doubtful if a future of proletarianisation and industrialism envisaged by the 19th century social scientists will be replicated in places like Zimbabwe anytime soon – especially given the de-industrialisation and re-peasantisation of the past decade and a half. Even if the current phase of agrarian re-ordering is “transitional” in that regard and, in combination with a state-led form of “indigenisation”, rebuilds an industrial base – something like the Asian dream somewhat ahistorically elicited by Scoones – the time-frame will not be short. As Bernstein argues, the end-point is far from certain. In that sort of conjuncture – especially if the “centre” of political power does not hold in the event of ZANU-PF fracturing after Mugabe’s departure – the precedence of “tradition” holds sway.

In the meantime, the UN’s IRIN reports that 2.2 million Zimbabweans face the prospect of severe hunger from October 2013 to March 2014. With the traditional authorities’ help, ZANU-PF often manages to gain control of food aid in situations of widespread hunger, denying it to all but party card-holders.

One wonders if Contralesa’s president and his peers hope for such a future to befall them, dressing up their dreams with the ideology of the day: private property and productivity.

* Also read New policies undermine security of tenure on similar developments regarding land tenure for rural people in South Africa.

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