"THAT PLACE WAS WONDERFUL!" AFRICAN TENANTS ON RHODESDALE ESTATE, COLONIAL ZIMBABWE, C. 1900-1952

By Nyambara, Pius S. | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, May 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

"THAT PLACE WAS WONDERFUL!" AFRICAN TENANTS ON RHODESDALE ESTATE, COLONIAL ZIMBABWE, C. 1900-1952


Nyambara, Pius S., The International Journal of African Historical Studies


This study traces the experience of African tenants on Rhodesdale Estate in colonial Zimbabwe,1 and their subsequent transformation into squatters by World War II. It further explores tenant resistance against forced destocking and colonial labor demands and concludes by analyzing their struggle against forced removal from Rhodesdale. The first part of the study focuses on the lives of Rhodesdale tenants on Crown land, and demonstrates the resilience of their economy in the face of the colonial onslaught, as shown by the economic success of some black entrepreneurs. The majority of former tenants of Rhodesdale who were interviewed described the estate as "a wonderful place," because there was abundant and fertile land and most tenants owned large herds of stock that provided draft power and enabled them to fulfill many of their socioeconomic and religious obligations. The tenants were therefore naturally reluctant to enter into labor agreements with European farm owners, and even when forced to sign these agreements, they did not always honor the terms.

Informants exhibited a profound sense of nostalgia about Rhodesdale when they compared the favorable conditions there with the problems they encountered in Gokwe, where they were settled after eviction from Rhodesdale. Gokwe was a dry, malarial, and inhospitable region of northwestern Zimbabwe. It was part of the Sebungwe region, which lies within the Zambezi River valley tsetse fly belt, and had therefore been uninhabitable. Rhodesdale was situated on the highveldt, the best agricultural region of the country, which had an ideal climate and rich soils suitable for the cultivation of a variety of marketable crops and stock raising. In addition, informants compared the earthly bother of the reserves, for example, the maize control regulations and the official, colony-wide centralization initiatives in Gokwe to the relative absence of similar regulations in Rhodesdale.2 More significant was that Rhodesdale tenants were settled in Gokwe under the Land Husbandry Act (LHA) of 1951, which severely restricted the amount of land and the number of stock each household could own.3

This article argues that in their response to the machinations of the colonial system, the tenants on Rhodesdale estate were neither passive nor malleable-on the contrary, they resisted coercion and subordination as they struggled to carve out a living for themselves and their families. The residents established a viable socioeconomic niche that enabled them to survive in Rhodesdale. A clear manifestation of their determination to create an independent existence was their unwillingness to accept the labor demands of settler farm owners. Official reports are replete with evidence that clearly indicates the reluctance of Rhodesdale tenants to enter into labor agreements with the farm owners. They preferred to work on land where they alone controlled production rather than seek employment with the European farm owners. They also resisted pressure to reduce their herds because their socioeconomic existence was largely dependent on the ownership of large numbers of cattle.

Several studies on southern and eastern Africa have demonstrated that in the early years of colonial land alienation, labor tenants had a much stronger hand to play in negotiations with the landowners, as the owners were then undercapitalized and desperately short of labor.4 The present study makes a significant contribution to this growing body of literature by demonstrating that the lives of Rhodesdale tenants were not entirely reorganized around the interests of white settlers, with the latter wielding enormous power over helpless victims. It is argued here that in settler areas, control of social life of the tenants was negotiated between the settler farm owners and the tenants in ways that render the conception of domination inadequate. While the colonial state put in place legislation to circumscribe the activities of tenants, the reality on the ground was that tenants often enjoyed a high degree of autonomy and economic independence. …

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