"They Promised That the Game Fences Would Be Torn Down": Nationalist Politics and Contested Control of Natural Resources in Southeastern Zimbabwe, 1960s-1970s*

By Mtisi, Richard | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, September 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

"They Promised That the Game Fences Would Be Torn Down": Nationalist Politics and Contested Control of Natural Resources in Southeastern Zimbabwe, 1960s-1970s*


Mtisi, Richard, The International Journal of African Historical Studies


Introduction

Joshua Nkomo was a prominent nationalist leader of Zimbabwe's anti-colonial struggle. In the period from 1964 to 1974, he gained widespread support in Chilotlela, Seng we, a remote corner of southeastern Zimbabwe. Scholars have traditionally attributed Nkomo' s rising popularity to the appeal of nationalist or ethnic solidarity.1 Rather than stressing national independence, however, Nkomo cultivated local support by emphasizing regional issues involving land and the environment, and by paying respect to religious institutions. The majority of the villagers backed Nkomo and the subsequent armed struggle that broke out in the mid-1970s because they saw their support as an opportunity to eliminate the constraints that local colonial functionaries had imposed on their access to land and natural resources.

Classic works such as Ranger's Peasant Consciousness (1985) and Palmer's Land and Racial Domination in Rhodesia (1977), illustrate the importance scholars traditionally placed on land as the primary reason for popular participation in the anti-colonial struggle in Zimbabwe.2 Although this literature emphasized the alienation of land for settler agriculture, it did not focus on the creation of game reserves, which in some areas constituted an equally powerful source of conflict between the state and local agrarian communities. In fact, the problems created by the demarcation of game reserves differed from those caused by land alienation in the well-watered parts of Rhodesia where most European settlement occurred.

In the new game reserve areas, villagers felt that colonial officials privileged animals at the expense of humans. The establishment of reserves in drier parts of the country also hit livelihoods hard, leading to desperation and harsh critiques of the colonial system. Restrictions on hunting and cattle keeping, loss of farmland, animal depredations, and curtailed access to vital forest products made agrarian economies less diversified, and reduced their capacity to respond successfully to ecological uncertainty. These experiences (restrictions, prohibitions, and evictions) closely parallel those of other African groups in Southern Africa.3

The next section of this essay provides background on colonial land alienation and discusses the impact of the creation of the Gonarezhou Game Reserve on villagers' livelihoods between the 1920s and the 1960s. The paper then examines the tension between nationalist politics and local concerns about land and the environment from the 1960s to the mid-1970s. It shows that Nkomo's appeal to local grievances and his understanding of regional environmental discourses earned him popular support. But it also shows that while locals welcomed Nkomo and the later guerillas' message about restitution, villagers were less interested in national politics than in regaining access to lost natural resources.

Sources of Conflict: The Gonarezhou Game Reserve and Its Impact on Chilotlela

To understand why residents of rural Chilotlela supported Nkomo and the anti-colonial struggle, it is useful to briefly examine the complex history of the Gonarezhou Game Reserve and its impact in Chilotlela and neighboring areas (see Figure 1). Southeastern Zimbabwe was earmarked as a suitable location for an official game reserve as early as the 1920s.4 In a circular dated 23 May 1928, the Secretary of the Wildlife Protection Society of Southern Rhodesia expressed serious concerns about the ineffectiveness of existing game laws.5 He encouraged the government to found game reserves and national parks, recommending the formation of three game reserves- one each in the North, West, and Southeast of the country. By 1931, the Rhodesian government supported the creation of game reserves in which it would be unlawful to hunt without special permission.

The Rhodesian Minister for Commerce and Transport, R.P. Gilchrist, was especially passionate about the idea, citing the potential for tourism. …

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