Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

Narratives on Land: State-Peasant Relations over Fast Track Land Reform in Zimbabwe

Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

Narratives on Land: State-Peasant Relations over Fast Track Land Reform in Zimbabwe

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: In the last few years, slogans have become more elaborate and fervent with regards to promises of delivering land to peasants in Zimbabwean communal areas. Conditions in communal areas suggest that peasants should be highly receptive to the slogans and the narratives from which they are drawn. But empirical data from a densely settled communal area challenges the universality of the slogans and exposes their irrelevance in the context of the realities of household assets, social processes, and production systems. We suggest political relations over land between peasants and political elites in the state have resulted in disengagement by the peasants.


   The government treats us like dogs. You know how a
   hunter treats his dogs? When the dogs catch the
   prey, the hunter chases the dogs away. Then he skins
   the animal, places the animal skin beyond the reach
   of the dogs lest the dogs eat it. After cooking the meat
   the dogs are not given anything. If there is left over
   meat or soup, the women are told to lock it in the
   kitchen so that the children can have it the following
   day. The hunter makes sure that the dogs do not get
   anything, even left over soup. He says if the dogs
   taste the meat, they will not hunt, instead they will
   steal. When the meat is finished, the hunter throws a
   piece of maize-meal porridge at the dogs and takes
   the dogs for another hunting episode. That is how the
   government treats us. During the war we were
   promised that we would live happily after attaining
   independence but tell me, is this good life? Where is
   the good life? I cannot buy any of its programmes. [1]

The current narratives by the state suggests that the government acts in the interest of the peasants and speaks for them, but this metaphor of the hunter and the dog is one of many told by peasants--they illustrate the peasant view of current state narratives. Narratives have been described in the literature as a way of developing meaning and organizing experiences. [2] But these experiences are constantly being rethought and repositioned depending on who is narrating it. Narratives are powerful: they validate action, mobilise action, and define alternatives. [3] We use this metaphor as a starting point to explore the multiple dimensions of state-peasant relations over land in Zimbabwe.

We explore state-peasant relations by examining slogans, rhetoric in the media, and events leading up to and following the spontaneous invasions of commercial farms near Svoswe and Nyamandhlovhu. We also present data collected between September 2001 and February 2002 from key interviews and focus group discussions in two study areas within a densely populated communal area in Southern Zimbabwe to explore in more detail how state narratives on land are being interpreted. [4] Peasants who have experienced fast track land reform challenge the state narratives. We suggest that peasants from the study areas are disengaging from the state.


Research has suggested that political relations can be understood using the concepts of engagement and disengagement. Four forms are recognised. [5] The first is state-sponsored engagement, where state elites try to regulate behaviour through authoritative means. The second is state-sponsored disengagement, referring to retrenchment of state elites who encounter limits to the reach of public authority. The third form is society-sponsored engagement, which refers to collective action by citizens, in this case by peasants attempting to gain control of state power. Finally, society-sponsored disengagement refers to actions by ordinary citizens to withdraw from the realms of state authority. The choice to engage or disengage in political action is conditioned by the actor's access to power. [6] Citizens question their relations with the state and experience a sense of disenfranchisement under three conditions: when citizens believe the government is using its power against them or not helping them; when citizens find policies to be ineffective, inefficient or otherwise problematic; and when citizens do not feel part of government, feel ignored, or feel misunderstood by government. …

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