From Enslavement to Environmentalism: Politics on a Southern African Frontier

By Fay, Derick A. | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

From Enslavement to Environmentalism: Politics on a Southern African Frontier


Fay, Derick A., The International Journal of African Historical Studies


From Enslavement to Environmentalism: Politics on a Southern African Frontier. By David McDermott Hughes. Culture, Place, and Nature series. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2006, in association with Weaver Press, Harare. Pp. xviii, 286; 11 illustrations. $50.00.

Drawing on fieldwork on both sides of the Zimbabwe-Mozambique border, David McDermott Hughes has written an important and accessible study of transformations of the social control of land and natural resources from the late nineteenth century to the 1990s. The work combines historical analysis, ethnographic fieldwork, and reflections on contemporary debates on neoliberal land policies and the post-apartheid northward migration of white South Africans. It concludes with a provocative argument in favor of continuing the "thoroughly illiberal, paternalistic practice of reserving land for black smallholders]" and "maintaining and raising barriers against buying, selling, or investing in smallholder lands" (p. 18).

Despite common cultural-historical origins, at the time of McDermott's fieldwork in the late 1990s, the populations on either side of the border held strikingly different, but gradually converging, notions of property and ownership. Vhimba, on the Zimbabwean side, was characterized by "cadastral politics": land and forests were seen as being clearly bounded, with definable and exclusive owners, reflecting histories of colonial and postcolonial dispossession and struggles over access, and an economy in which wealth was defined in terms of control over property. In Gogoi, on the Mozambican side, the colonial (and precolonial) economy had been largely based on control over labor: "while administrators made a fetish out of counting people, they hardly investigated the land" (p. 38), which remained largely unmapped until the 1960s. Contests over land alienation, rural boundaries and "squatting" in Gogoi had only begun with the end of civil war in Mozambique in 1992, and the arrival of South African and Zimbabwean businessmen and international NGOs later in the decade.

McDermott makes an important critique of studies that would emphasize the fluidity and permeability of national borders in Africa: the Zimbabwe-Mozambique border, as he shows, is "hard" and differentiated in its effects: "people cross it, but emigration strips ... some people of rights and securities they regularly enjoy at home" (p. 76). Vhimba headmen treated Mozambicans who crossed into Zimbabwe differently than more savvy Zimbabwean migrants; they allocated land to Mozambicans in disputed territories: "unwilling squatters in national parks and elsewhere, these Mozambicans served as transnational pawns in Zimbabwean turf wars beyond their ken" (p. 79). On the other hand, these boundaries "exert only minimal friction on the movement of capital" (p. 194) in the form of South African and Zimbabwean foresters, farmers, and tourism operators. …

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