The Land Question and the Peasantry in Southern Africa

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Moyo, Sam. The Land Question and the Peasantry in Southern Africa. En libro: Politics and Social Movements in an Hegemonic World: Lessons from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Boron, Atilio A.; Lechini, Gladys. CLACSO, Consejo Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales, Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires, Argentina. Junio. 2005. pp: 275-307.
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Sam Moyo*

The Land Question and the Peasantry

in Southern Africa**


The land questions facing Southern Africa are dominated by the negative effects of distorted settler-colonial decolonization and the associated failure to address the national question, sustainable development, and democracy, within the context of incomplete national democratic revolutions. While important differences exist in the nature of the Southern African countries’ land questions and ways in which these have been addressed, there are critical similarities in the fundamental socio-political and economic questions that arise from the persistent conflicts that ensue from unequal land distribution and discriminatory land tenure systems (Moyo, 2003).

Land remains a basic source of the livelihood of the majority of Southern Africans, and is essential to the development of agriculture, tourism and housing. Economic development within a context of agrarian transformation and industrialization tends to be distorted by the spread of skewed agrarian structures in the region. Thus, the land question is not only an agrarian issue but also a critical social question regarding inequitable patterns of resource allocation within the rural-urban divide and the agricultural-industrial divide. This underlies the persistently conflictive relations of class, gender, race and ethnicity, as well as the processes of inter-class labour exploitation, differential taxation and resource access and benefits, in the context of the marginalization of the majority rural populations in the region. Even in South Africa and Zambia, more urbanized than elsewhere in the region, high unemployment rates (ranging between 30-50%) have caused land questions to be attenuated by the wider crisis of homeless and jobless urbanization and dependence on straddling rural-urban livelihoods. Inequitable land ownership and utilisation patterns distort the integration of space and developments strategy due to the predominance of narrow enclave development (Nzimande, 2004).

The peasant question in Southern Africa has for long been subordinated in terms of ideology and substance by white setter landlordism and institutionalized racial discrimination by the state and capital, and justified by an agrarian modernization project based on peripheral export oriented capitalist agriculture (Moyo, The land question in Africa). Thus, land and racial conflicts that affect Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe have remained unaddressed for long, despite the fact that their peasantries continue to be marginalized and to expand. In other Southern African countries, new land questions arise from emerging land and agrarian differentiation.

Zimbabwe has broken with this trend, and exhibits critical insights on the future of the peasantry having reshaped its agrarian structure substantially in terms of the scale and quality of the producer base and social relations. This has yielded rural and/agrarian class formation processes which, while enabling the peasantry to maintain itself at basic levels of social reproduction, have spawned a new differentiated agrarian class structure, which however privileges “peripheral” (or semi-peripheral) capital accumulation among an expanded but deracialised economically straddling elite. This essentially bimodal path of agrarian change presents the contradictory class interests of large capitalists, middle “peasants” and “poor” peasants and workers, whereby resolving racial aspects of the land question through a peripheral export economic model predicates the continuation of poverty among a peasantry within a marginalized economy.

On the other hand, the land question in South Africa remains unresolved partly because of its own gradualistic neoliberal approach to land reform, but largely because the peasant question (or even the small farmer development trajectory) has been denied by official land reform policy and intellectual debate. This reflects teleological tendencies of debates, which envision greater industrial and non-agricultural employment growth that is expected to diminish peasant demand for land, as well as ideologies that decry the “inefficiency” of peasant production systems and livelihoods per se. The growing urban and peri–urban demand for land, required for housing and petty commodity production, which is contingent upon growing semi-proletarianisation and unemployment, has however also been neglected by South Africa’s market based land reform and neoliberal social security policies. These trends raise the spectre of increased land conflicts resulting from the demands of a growing but blocked peasantry and the urban poor, as well as a nascent black bourgeoisie, poised against minority white landlords.

The dilemmas of the land question in Southern Africa arise from a poor understanding of the peasant question in particular, and of the constraints on “articulated” development in the semi-periphery.

The fate of the peasantry in terms of its socio-economic character and political significance under capitalism remains central to neo-colonial Southern African futures1. Is the peasantry disappearing economically or becoming politically insignificant (Moyo and Yeros, 2004) given the emerging perception on agrarian change, since “the implementation of structural adjustment policies and market liberalisation worldwide has had a dissolving effect on peasant livelihoods”? (Bryceson, 2000). In this light, what is the land question in Southern Africa?

The land question in Southern Africa

From decolonization to radical and neoliberal land reforms

Different forms of settler colonization in the region, with regard to the degree of colonial expropriation of land, define the main differences in the land questions faced, particularly with regard to the nature of the unresolved national questions. Thus, where mild land expropriation and white settler occupation was obtained, for instance in Swaziland, Botswana, Zambia, and Malawi, less explosive land questions are found, although over time land concentration among blacks has become the issue. Extreme settlerist land expropriation in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique and Angola led to a more protracted liberation struggle and persistent land conflicts. However, it is critical to recognise the regionally systemic nature of the land questions that the legacy of colonialisation brought to Southern Africa. Namely, that land expropriation in parts of the region, generalized migrant labour mobilization (especially in Lesotho), and dispossession of land in the current free state of Malawi, the former Rhodesia and South Africa, were intertwined facets of the growth of South Africa’s regional agro-industrial, mining and commercial farm enclaves, and of Zimbabwe and Zambian mining and agricultural enclaves in the middle of the last century.

The regions’ economies founded on labour migration and enclave settlement patterns depended on the subsidizing of urban wage incomes by the so-called rural subsistence economies, based on marginal lands, as well as on the combined rural-urban livelihoods that define popular income flows in the regional economy. The linkage of agro-industrial capital in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) region today reflects historically hegemonic settler interactions and common models of land and agrarian management, within an agro-industrial development strategy focused on European exports, and are mediated mainly through large South African capital and regional labour markets. This development model defines the highly inequitable income and consumption distribution patterns, and the persistence of marginalized rural and informal economies.

The form and outcome of the national liberation process has had varied implications on the manner in which the national question, the land questions and democracy have been addressed in Southern Africa. Specific national approaches to resolving the land question reflected the varied decolonization processes and mobilizations of the liberation movements, particularly since the mid-1970s, when détente emerged, and the waning ‘end’ of the cold war from the 1980s. Hence, the varied tactics of land reform experienced in Southern Africa since the 1970s (in the Lusophone zone), in the 1980s and early 1990s in Zimbabwe and Namibia, and the post-apartheid approaches (of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia) as well as the neo-liberal land (essentially tenure) policy formation processes experienced since the 1960s in other SADC countries. Where liberation was decisively concluded, as in Mozambique and Angola, in spite of internal armed conflicts over the national question, fuelled by external destabilization, the land question appears to have been broadly resolved. Where liberation was partially concluded, as in the main settler territories of Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa, negotiated settlements left both the national and land question relatively unresolved. In particular, the racial dimensions of the national question have not been adequately addressed, as we have seen recently. Thus, racially inequitable structures of wealth, income and land distribution remained intact, while liberal democratic constitutions and market principles protected these inequalities and inequities. This limited the scope and pace of land and agrarian reforms.

Moreover, the corporatist-liberal states that emerged, and their articulation within global capital through the IFIs (especially the Bretton Woods Institutions), the development aid structures (bilateral and multi-lateral donors and lending structures) and the trade system, eventually consolidated the neo-liberal framework used to address the regions’ national questions and the land reform strategies adopted. The latter can be seen to have been interconnected by an increasing common neo-liberal ideology and common economic management strategies of externally imposed and homegrown SAP-type macro-economic stabilization, outward-looking trade liberalisation and de-regulation of domestic markets (land, labour and commodity). These processes led, over four decades, from Tanzania to Zimbabwe, to varying degrees of de-industrialization of growth enclaves that had been based on capital-intensive industrialization processes, since the 1950s, alongside an increasing dependence of most of the regions’ economies on land for social survival. The lessons from this are common failure of land reforms and economic transitions, and narrow dissidences of approach to land reform and economic management.

Therefore, the specific trajectory of land reform processes in the SADC region needs to be examined in terms of the 40-year history of national liberation, if the apparently varied experiences of the evolving land questions facing Southern Africa and the land reform tactics used are to be understood. Whereas different socio-economic and political specificities need to be critically reflected upon, it is however the gradual shifts in the terrain of national independence and liberation struggles among the countries since the 1960s, in terms of their ideological and political mobilisation of social forces in response to imperial tactics, which distinguishes the specific land reform strategies experienced.

Thus, the SADC region of the 1960s and 1970s experienced a clear divide between the radical nationalist-cum-socialist orientation to land reform and liberal approaches. The former were based upon the nationalization of settler lands and foreign commercial/industrial structures of capital (as pursued in Tanzania and Zambia during the 1960s and early 1970s) and in Mozambique and Angola (from the mid-1970s). In contradistinction to this, the more liberal strategies of land reform were found during the same period in the smaller colonial ‘protectorates’, which predominantly faced indirect colonial rule accompanied by minor degrees of white settlerism alongside cheap migrant labour systems in Botswana, Swaziland, Lesotho and Malawi. In the latter countries, the land reform experiences involved a limited degree of market-based expropriation of settler lands, accompanied by market-led compensation with some colonial finance, as was the case in Swaziland and Botswana, for example. Such lands held by small settler communities were mainly indigenized with limited foreign and white minority-dominated large-scale land ownership and with estate farming, remaining alongside the emergence of state farms and the resilience of largely peasant and pastoral agrarian structures.

The nature and outcome of land reform radicalization also varied. Whereas Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique had pursued socialistic land and agrarian reforms largely based upon state marketing systems, and land settlement and use reorganization (villagisation and rural development in Tanzania and resettlement and integrated development in Zambia), Mozambique followed land nationalization with even more intensive attempts at socialistic transformation of the land and agrarian question through state and cooperative farms. Angola, which started mired in civil war throughout, did not pursue further significant land reform after the land nationalisation from 1975. Civil war in the Lusophone territories, fuelled by South African destabilization and relative international isolation, however contained radical agrarian reforms there.

The liberal approach to the resolution of the land question varied slightly. It consisted mainly of limited market-led land re-distribution efforts and attempts to modernize peasant agriculture within a contradictory context of imbalanced public resources allocations. The latter were focused primarily on developing the large-scale indigenized and state capitalist farming sub-sector and its increasing incorporation into global agricultural export markets. This form of land and agrarian reform led to intensified land concentration in the various Southern African countries, a steady growth of agrarian social differentiation based on capitalist accumulation, labour exploitation and rural marginalization, and a bi-modal agrarian structure, which became entrenched at different scales throughout the region.

The nature and significance of the peasantry in Southern Africa

Peasantry –small-scale/family agriculturalists operating within the generalized system of commodity production– does not constitute a class in itself, but inherent in it are the antagonistic tendencies of proletarian and proprietor. The ideal-type ‘peasant household’ reproduces itself as both capital and labour simultaneously and in internal contradiction, but this combination of capital and labour is not spread evenly within the peasantry, for two reasons. First, the peasantry is differentiated between the rich, middle, and poor petty-commodity producers, a spectrum that ranges from the capitalist who employs labour-power, beyond the family, to the semi-proletarian who sells it. As such, the middle peasantry is the only category that embodies the ideal-type of petty-bourgeois production, managing to neither hire nor sell labour-power –and which in turn is rare (Moyo and Yeros, 2004). Second, the combination of capital and labour is not spread evenly within a single household either; differentiated by gender and generation, patriarchs will control the means of production, while women and children will provide unpaid labour. While this may appear on the surface as a ‘different’ mode of production, it has been argued convincingly that petty-commodity production is firmly embedded in the capitalist system and in fact is a normal feature of capitalist society, even if subordinate and unstable (Gibbon and Neocosmos, 1985).

Under capitalism, the peasantry remains in a state of flux, within the centre-periphery structure spawned by colonialism, as proletarianisation co-exists with peasantisation and semi-proletarianisation. The form and scale of the actually existing peasantry is both an empirical and an interpretive problem to be understood from the composition of household income by source, including non-exchangeable sources of sustenance, and from an analysis of household residential patterns, and between town and country. It has been argued that under structural adjustment peasants have become ‘problematic’, insofar as they are ‘multi-occupational, straddling urban and rural residences, [and] flooding labour markets’ (Bryceson, 2000). Yet, the peasantry has been problematic in this way for much of the twentieth century2.

Structural adjustment has been accompanied by intensified migration. Africa now has notched up the fastest rate of urbanization in the world (3.5% annually), and nearly 40% of the population is now urbanised. This fact is often used as proof that the land/agrarian question is losing its relevance. Migration does not mean full proletarianisation or permanent urbanisation, but the spreading of risk in highly adverse circumstances, with urbanization moving alongside de-industrialisation and retrenchments, illegal and unplanned settlement, so that, for example, half the urban population of Kenya and South Africa lives in slums (Moyo, The land question in Africa).

Migration is not merely one-way. Workers retrenched from mines and farms are also known to seek peasantisation, as recorded in a case study of rural ‘squatting’ in Zimbabwe (Yeros, 2002a), or as urbanites enter the land reform process (Moyo, The new peasant question in Zimbabwe and South Africa). Also, as opposed to secular urbanization, which Kay (2000) terms the ‘ruralization of urban areas’ and ‘urbanization of rural areas’, whereby rural and urban workers compete for both jobs, including agricultural jobs, and residential plots in both urban and rural areas. It has also been observed that retrenched workers from mines and industry have joined this struggle and sought to become peasants themselves (e.g. Bolivia where former miners have taken up coca production) (Petras, 1997).

Thus urbanization and proletarianisation are not definitive, and agrarian reform cannot be seen as anachronistic (see also Petras and Veltmeyer, 2001), nor must one underestimate the political significance of the countryside, in which the ‘end of land reform’ thesis writes off an alternative pattern of accumulation. The semi-proletarianisation thesis, under current agrarian change within the contemporary centre-periphery structure, does not provide for massive population relocations to the north (Moyo and Yeros, 2004).

The effect has been the rise of a richer class of peasants, compared to the rest, who became semi-proletarianised or landless. Full proletarianisation was generally forestalled, not least by state action, and rural households held onto a plot of land and maintained the dual income strategy of petty-commodity production and wage labour (Harriss, 1992; Breman, 2000). Rural non-farm activities and markets proliferated, so that between 30 and 40% of household incomes are now derived from off-farm sources (Mooij, 2000). This dual trend suggests that ‘the informal sector [in the urban economy] is not a stepping stone towards a better and settled urban life, but a temporary abode for labour which can be pushed back to its place of origin when no longer needed’ (Breman, cited by Moyo and Yeros, 2004).

The transition to capitalism in the periphery has taken place under disarticulated accumulation and subordinated to the accumulation needs of the centre. In consequence, it has not been characterised by an ‘American path’ (Moyo and Yeros, 2004), as identified by Lenin –that is, a broad-based accumulation by petty-commodity producers ‘from below’– but by varied paths (Ibid and see inter alia de Janvry, 1981; Byres, 1991; and Moyo, The new peasant question in Zimbabwe and South Africa). These include a ‘junker path’ of landlords-turned-capitalists in Latin America and Asia (outside East Asia), with its variant in the white-settler societies of Southern Africa, operating in tandem with transnational capital (whether landowning or not). Recently, with large agrarian capital it has also expanded and converted land away farming to wildlife management, or ‘eco-tourism’ ventures, a ‘merchant path’ comprising a variety of urban [petty] bourgeois elements with access to land, whether leasehold or freehold, via the state, the market or land reform, farming on a medium scale but integrated into export markets and global agro-industry (Moyo and Yeros, 2004).

Measures of ‘poverty reduction’, including ‘integrated rural development programmes’, sought to bolster this functional dualism at its moment of crisis from the 1980s, leading to the abandonment of the poverty agenda, and the tendency for proletarianisation to accelerate, although direct and indirect political action, and a series of social catastrophes, have (World Bank, 1990) even brought back land reform in its market-based form (Moyo and Yeros, 2004). Where the neoliberal social agenda failed spectacularly in Zimbabwe, large-scale re-peasantisation had taken place outside the control of the World Bank, and hence, because of penalties imposed from the north, a new pattern of ‘accumulation from below’ has not yet emerged (Yeros, 2002b; Moyo, The new peasant question in Zimbabwe and South Africa).

Various social hierarchies derived from gender, generation, race, caste and ethnicity have intensified under capitalism and functional dualism (Yeros, 2002b; Moyo, The new peasant question in Zimbabwe and South Africa), since disarticulated accumulation and its corollary of semi-proletarianisation provide the structural economic basis for the flourishing of powerful social hierarchies that either fuse with class (e.g. race, caste) or cut across it (gender), and reproduce apparently ‘non-capitalist’ forms of ‘landlordism’, even despite the historical culmination of the ‘junker path’ (Yeros, 2002b; Moyo, The new peasant question in Zimbabwe and South Africa). The synergy between class and race is notable in Zimbabwe and South Africa, where both historical domination and the process of resistance have fused class and race discourses (Moyo and Yeros, 2004).

Consequently, demands for agrarian reform have struck at the heart of the dominant national/cultural identities through which the conditions of super-exploitation are reproduced. In Africa, however, the issues of race and class have been strongly politicised for a longer period (Fanon, 2001; Cabral, 1979), and armed national liberation struggles against colonialism intensified them. The attainment of majority rule across the continent, within the neo-colonial framework, was characterised by the nurturing of small indigenous outward-looking bourgeoisies combined to defend nationally the disarticulated pattern of accumulation, while in Southern Africa neo-colonialism coincided with structural adjustment. National politics have been galvanised by rural and urban class struggles informed by growing class differentiation among blacks, and inter-capitalist conflict between emergent black bourgeoisies and established white capital, both outward looking, and both bidding over the land question. The result has been a stark bifurcation of the national question: on the one hand, black capital has confronted white capital, transforming the meaning of ‘national liberation’ in its own terms and hijacking land reform. On the other hand, the historical realities of class and race persist, characterised by functional dualism within a white supremacist framework, including the racialised landlordisms to which it gives rise (Moyo, 2001; Rutherford, 2001; Yeros, 2002b).

Gender hierarchy has been as intrinsic to functional dualism as race, male labour for mines and farms resting on a policy of confining women to the communal area by institutionalised means, under despotic chieftaincies (Channok, 1985; Schmidt, 1990; Mamdani, 1996). While chieftaincy has been transformed in variable ways, and women have entered the labour market in large numbers, they have continued to be a rural pillar of functional dualism. Under structural adjustment, gender hierarchy has been thoroughly instrumentalised, as structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) have curtailed social services and relied on female reproductive labour, which in turn has intensified, as well as on child labour. At the same time, women have also been compelled to diversify the sources of household income. However, the traditional obstacles to access to land have persisted and remained subject to patriarchal kinship relations, while the illegal use of land has in many cases proliferated (Moyo, 1995; Agarwal, 1994; Deere and León, 2001).

The above trends underlie the emergence of scattered but significant land conflicts in the region, a direct negative outcome of neo-liberal land reforms, which tends to fuel renewed struggles over national and democracy questions. The rest of this paper examines these land questions and land reform experiences in Southern Africa, including the nature of the neo-radical fast-track land reforms of Zimbabwe, and the regional implications of these for the future land questions in the SADC region.

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