The land question: when South Africa meets Zimbabwe.

Taruvinga Magwiroto

This article has its genesis with a meeting I had yesterday with Dr. Andrew Ainslie, a white, male South African Associate Professor in international development at the University of Reading. (He is an anthropologist by training, so he understands the importance of “positionality!”). Needless to say, our meetings are always intellectually stimulating, and he asked me a question that really stumped me, but upon reflection, is really fundamental to research, development practice and intervention of any sort, certainly in the Southern African context.

“So ultimately, in all the facilitation, intervention and brokering work you are doing, what is your ultimate aim?” I blinked once, twice: a hare caught in the merciless glare of a hunter’s torch.

Well, setting “aims” is exactly what I am trying to avoid doing! I am not setting any rigid goal or objective, save the rather esoteric “aim” of “facilitating development processes”. (We can’t completely avoid aims, can we? Force of training I guess). What sort of development, nobody knows from the outset. What I know is that it must be development that “leaves no one behind”, must be sustainable (whatever that means), and based on valid knowledge (wherever it comes from). Complexity theories counsel us from setting goals anyway, because no one person has enough agency to influence the totality of processes within complex systems. What we can do, and what I am trying to do is to enhance the likelihood of positive outcomes through “boundary crossing” or brokering processes of participation, innovation and learning within digital spaces and among multiple stakeholders.

Among all this abstract intellectual wrestling and meandering, the land question in South Africa popped up. Exactly how, I don’t know. All I know is that we were suddenly talking about it, and he was bemoaning the fact that seeing the land question in terms of “agriculture” only runs the risk of losing the bigger picture. Land transcends agriculture: it is practically the source of almost all wealth on earth. Underground water is a land resource, so are forests; soils and minerals; wildlife depend on land; tourism certainly depends primarily on land; property is built on land; surface water, dams …it is a wide-gauged resource. Whilst agriculture tends to dominate discussions on land issues, when we come to the “ground”, many people are surprised that agriculture is the least of people’s concerns.

 So Dr. Ainslie went further with his probing and asked: “South Africa needs to ask itself: what is the ultimate aim of the land reform? When all is said and done, what does it seek to achieve, considering the needs for food security, and the de-capitalisation inevitable in the process of change?” Well, as a Zimbabwean, I could relate to this question, because it has been an intractable issue with us for the past 20 years and counting. For South Africa, this question is a source of great intellectual debate, with symposiums in Oxford, Reading, and South Africa. They have not yet crossed the Rubicon, and it is still great speculation and debate for now.

Well, as a fairly well educated Zimbabwean, and having lived through the land reform process and aftermath in Zimbabwe, I am in a place to observe one or two things about this debate. First, as the Zimbabwean experience showed, it is almost impossible to come to a consensus on this type of problem. For one, the problems of land in Southern Africa are steeped too firmly in history to be fully understood in terms of socio-economic or political economic consideration of the day. People need to go back in history and revisit the wounds of racial expropriation, murder, and plunder. They have to be prepared for the primal emotions that such soul searching can unleash. They have to abandon the “economics-centric” arguments of “efficiency, trickle-down, consolidation, economy of scale”, etc. They have to also consider ethical issues of equity and fairness. Can you deny a person their birthright because they are not “efficient” producers (whatever that means)?

Whilst Andrew’s question was rational and pertinent, it is clear that a balance needs to be struck between equity and productivity; between “wealth-creation” and wealth distribution. That balance is the crux of the matter, which has been eluding us in Zimbabwe for far too long. Making pure economic consideration does not work, because economics presuppose rationality in man, of which, as experience has shown, that is not always the case. All things are certainly not equal, the poor are demanding their pound of flesh, the rise of radicalism in the world is testament to that. To begin to answer the enigma, let us throw away the blinding blinkers of disciplines and disciplinarity, and instead listen to the distant drum beats, as us Africans know the significance of the drum.

Because Julius Malema is beating the drum beats in South Africa. Every African understands the mobilising significance of the drum. It is a deeply primal language, which elicits a deeply primal response. While intellectuals organise symposia and debates and position papers, populist politicians mobilise popular anger and whip it into a coiled, red hot spring of destruction. When primal instincts get in the way of reason, every human being is an animal. Radical politicians (from both the left and right) know this, that’s why they can get away with murder and their supporters still follow them. Trump in the USA is an insular enigma; Johnson in the UK is riding on the Brexit anger; Malema can ride on the tide of land anger in South Africa.

I had the sense that Malema is looked upon as a leftist sabre-rattling rubble-rouser, but nothing much beyond that. Well, that may well be the case. I am not a South African; and have limited knowledge of the internal political dynamics of that country. But my hunch is that it could become a case of “the stone that the builders cast away has become the chief cornerstone”. Watch Malema.

So what am I getting at? Well, it is a complex situation, in South Africa. South Africa is certainly not Zimbabwe, neither does it have the same history. But the two countries share enough similarities for our neighbours to learn much from our experiences and (mis)adventures in agrarian reform. But as I tried to tell Andrew (unconvincingly I guess), the trick of resolving the issue is to manage the processes.

We have come full circle to my thesis on transformative facilitation: managing wicked problems requires transformative facilitation of development processes. Broad-gauged participation and involvement of all relevant stakeholders, including especially the Malemas of this world and not just the red-gowned dons in ivory towers talking to each other in esoteric gobbledygook; learning from history, from each other, from neighbouring cases, from experts, from n’angas and traditional leaders, from research; and embracing change and innovation (which can be described as the creative transformation of practices, processes and ideas through new combinations of organisation, knowledge and technology).

What can South Africa learn from Zimbabwe about land and agrarian reform? That is even a tougher question, to be attempted in another instalment.

For now, suffice it to observe that it is certainly good to have a broad aim, but to be flexible and modest enough to leave space for conflict and serendipity. And of course not forgetting that individual people and personalities can change the course of history in unpredictable ways. I should know. We had Robert Mugabe.


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