Women unseen and left behind in Zimbabwe's struggle for land

A grandmother's story yields a lesson in land redistribution

18 March 2018 - 00:00 By PANASHE CHIGUMADZI
Women in a Zimbabwean maize field. Women have played an important role both in agriculture and the struggle for land, but have not been able to participate fully in land reform.
Women in a Zimbabwean maize field. Women have played an important role both in agriculture and the struggle for land, but have not been able to participate fully in land reform.
Image: Getty Images

Not long after Zimbabwe's independence, as my grandmother Mbuya Beneta Chiganze recalls with a laugh, her oldest brother-in-law, Sekuru Dickson Chiganze, came to tell her, "Mainini, huyai tiende ku minda mirefu," ("sister-in-law, come and let's go to the wider lands").

African women like my grandmother formed the bulk of Zimbabwe's rural peasantry in the "native reserves" while their husbands were away working in the towns, missions or mines. My grandfather, a primary school teacher, worked at the mission. My grandmother tilled their fields in Gandiya village, about 200km east of Harare.

When the liberation war spread to Gandiya in the late '70s, Mbuya Chiganze was among those who supported the movement. Even with the threat of the Rhodesian soldiers, most of the village cooked for the comrades, clothed them, acted as lookouts and at times sabotaged the surrounding white commercial farms, most of which were eventually abandoned during the war.

At night vigils celebrating independence they would sing: "VaMugabe tipei mapurazi tirime nyika yaayedu" ("Comrade Mugabe, give us farms so that we can plough, the land is now ours").

The villagers did not wait for Mugabe and "self-provisioned" the abandoned land. When the time came, Mbuya Chiganze accompanied her brother-in-law and his wife to stake her claim in the minda mirefu. In the end, considering the effort required in the new war of conquest for the best land and the distance from her current homestead, Mbuya Chiganze decided to stay put while her brother-in-law began a new life on the old white farmlands.

The villagers' actions coincided with the post-independence government's early redistribution programme operated on the willing-buyer, willing-seller framework. About 81% of land redistributed during the '80s was acquired in the three years following independence. Vast tracts had been abandoned during the liberation war.

To correct a situation where 4500 white large-scale commercial farmers owned 39% of land and communal areas took up 42%, 52000 families, representing 420000 beneficiaries, were resettled on 2.8 million hectares by 1989.

Throughout the '90s, an agitated constituency of war veterans, restive rural communities, local politicians and black business people pressured the government to radically transform the agricultural sector. By 2000, the war veterans were fed up with the government's refusal to take over land and staged a campaign over that year's Easter weekend when 170000 Zimbabwean families occupied 3000 large white-owned farms.

Initially opposing the move, the government later backed the veterans, sanctioning what Zimbabweans refer to as jambanja, chaos that characterised the Fast Track Land Reform Programme.

Almost 20 years after the beginning of jambanja, a landscape once dominated by 4500 mostly white large-scale commercial farmers is shared by about 145000 smallholder farmers occupying 4.1million hectares, and around 23000 medium-scale farmers on 3.5million hectares. After low productivity, they are picking up as the new farmers and government gain in experience and expertise. Last year, maize farmers reached the highest productivity level in two decades with 2.2million tonnes. Tobacco farmers are producing 200million kilograms a year, matching the pre-fast-track days.

The story of how my grandmother came not to stake her claim in Gandiya's early resettlement is one she tells me after working her finger millet fields. Those fields have won her first place several times in the annual five-ward agricultural field day's category for widows. She and other widows campaigned for this category, complaining that their efforts could not be compared to those of younger married couples.

There are parallels between her situation as a widowed woman and her decision not to claim new lands. Both reflect the broader ways in which African women are often erased in our imagining of land and liberation. At the start of the fast-track programme in 2000, 81% of labour in agriculture was female and 58% was male.

While figures are not yet conclusive, it would appear that the majority of resettled farmers were men. Women's full participation in land reform has been low. The few women who have benefited are largely ex-combatants and civil servants.

The government tried to address some of the issues facing women's access to land with the introduction of joint naming of spouses in offer letters for farms. This did not address gender relations, particularly in communal areas where women are subject to patriarchal customary law, itself a colonial invention.

If this was to be a real revolution, the government lost an opportunity to liberate African women. It could have been addressed at the foundation of the fast-track reform programme rather than as an afterthought.

Black women have been made landless in their own right, not just as appendages to fathers and husbands. Women such as those of Gandiya village have taken on the struggle for land and other freedoms as their own. And yet, when our visions of freedom have been limited by what the scholar Horace Campbell has called the "patriarchal mode of liberation", it would seem that African women have been left behind.

At a time of calls for land to be returned to Africans in South Africa, the stories of African women like my grandmother need to be heard, or we risk the repetition of a land revolution limited by a patriarchal vision of liberation.

Chigumadzi is an essayist and novelist, whose book 'The Bones Will Rise Again' will be published in June 2018

Julius Malema and the EFF have been at the forefront on the issue of land in SA.
Julius Malema and the EFF have been at the forefront on the issue of land in SA.
Image: Getty Images

When the liberation war spread to Gandiya in the late '70s, Mbuya Chiganze was among those who supported the movement. Even with the threat of the Rhodesian soldiers, most of the village cooked for the comrades, clothed them, acted as lookouts and at times sabotaged the surrounding white commercial farms, most of which were eventually abandoned during the war.

At night vigils celebrating independence they would sing: "VaMugabe tipei mapurazi tirime nyika yaayedu" ("Comrade Mugabe, give us farms so that we can plough, the land is now ours").

The villagers did not wait for Mugabe and "self-provisioned" the abandoned land. When the time came, Mbuya Chiganze accompanied her brother-in-law and his wife to stake her claim in the minda mirefu. In the end, considering the effort required in the new war of conquest for the best land and the distance from her current homestead, Mbuya Chiganze decided to stay put while her brother-in-law began a new life on the old white farmlands.

The villagers' actions coincided with the post-independence government's early redistribution programme operated on the willing-buyer, willing-seller framework. About 81% of land redistributed during the '80s was acquired in the three years following independence. Vast tracts had been abandoned during the liberation war.

To correct a situation where 4500 white large-scale commercial farmers owned 39% of land and communal areas took up 42%, 52000 families, representing 420000 beneficiaries, were resettled on 2.8 million hectares by 1989.

Throughout the '90s, an agitated constituency of war veterans, restive rural communities, local politicians and black business people pressured the government to radically transform the agricultural sector. By 2000, the war veterans were fed up with the government's refusal to take over land and staged a campaign over that year's Easter weekend when 170000 Zimbabwean families occupied 3000 large white-owned farms.

Initially opposing the move, the government later backed the veterans, sanctioning what Zimbabweans refer to as jambanja, chaos that characterised the Fast Track Land Reform Programme.

Almost 20 years after the beginning of jambanja, a landscape once dominated by 4500 mostly white large-scale commercial farmers is shared by about 145000 smallholder farmers occupying 4.1million hectares, and around 23000 medium-scale farmers on 3.5million hectares. After low productivity, they are picking up as the new farmers and government gain in experience and expertise. Last year, maize farmers reached the highest productivity level in two decades with 2.2million tonnes. Tobacco farmers are producing 200million kilograms a year, matching the pre-fast-track days.

The story of how my grandmother came not to stake her claim in Gandiya's early resettlement is one she tells me after working her finger millet fields. Those fields have won her first place several times in the annual five-ward agricultural field day's category for widows. She and other widows campaigned for this category, complaining that their efforts could not be compared to those of younger married couples.

There are parallels between her situation as a widowed woman and her decision not to claim new lands. Both reflect the broader ways in which African women are often erased in

our imagining of land and liberation. At the start of the fast-track programme in 2000, 81% of labour in agriculture was female and 58% was male.

While figures are not yet conclusive, it would appear that the majority of resettled farmers were men. Women's full participation in land reform has been low. The few women who have benefited are largely ex-combatants and civil servants.

The government tried to address some of the issues facing women's access to land with the introduction of joint naming of spouses in offer letters for farms. This did not address gender relations, particularly in communal areas where women are subject to patriarchal customary law, itself a colonial invention.

If this was to be a real revolution, the government lost an opportunity to liberate African women. It could have been addressed at the foundation of the fast-track reform programme rather than as an afterthought.

Black women have been made landless in their own right, not just as appendages to fathers and husbands. Women such as those of Gandiya village have taken on the struggle for land and other freedoms as their own. And yet, when our visions of freedom have been limited by what the scholar Horace Campbell has called the "patriarchal mode of liberation", it would seem that African women have been left behind.

At a time of calls for land to be returned to Africans in South Africa, the stories of African women like my grandmother need to be heard, or we risk the repetition of a land revolution limited by a patriarchal vision of liberation.

Chigumadzi is an essayist and novelist, whose book 'The Bones Will Rise Again' will be published in June 2018

The government tried to address some of the issues facing women's access to land with the introduction of joint naming of spouses in offer letters for farms. This did not address gender relations, particularly in communal areas where women are subject to patriarchal customary law, itself a colonial invention.

If this was to be a real revolution, the government lost an opportunity to liberate African women. It could have been addressed at the foundation of the fast-track reform programme rather than as an afterthought.

Black women have been made landless in their own right, not just as appendages to fathers and husbands. Women such as those of Gandiya village have taken on the struggle for land and other freedoms as their own. And yet, when our visions of freedom have been limited by what the scholar Horace Campbell has called the "patriarchal mode of liberation", it would seem that African women have been left behind.

At a time of calls for land to be returned to Africans in South Africa, the stories of African women like my grandmother need to be heard, or we risk the repetition of a land revolution limited by a patriarchal vision of liberation.

Chigumadzi is an essayist and novelist, whose book 'The Bones Will Rise Again' will be published in June 2018


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