Review of Working on the Margins: Black Workers, White Farmers in Postcolonial Zimbabwe - Journal of Development Studies

Mr. Phiri – NGS World Radio Interview
Washington, DC
November 6, 2006

Problems promote sometimes.  You know when you are suffocated, somehow, sometimes, that challenge comes to be a very strong success.  During the 60s, I got involved in the struggle which really came up to me being dismissed from work.  The government declared that Zephaniah would never have any job in life anymore. When I took my Bible, I read from the Book of Genesis.  I got caught up by the Garden of Eden.  I read about the Garden of Eden.  After reading about that garden, I knelt down and prayed to God for guidance, commitment and love.  I prayed for these three points.  I remembered that my land had no water, yet in the Garden of Eden I read about the river that used to give moisture to the crops or to the trees planted by the Lord.  The Bible really inspired me.  Then from there I started making a garden.  The land where we live, we have a very poor soil.  We have the semi-arid soil, the poorest soil.  And the rainfall is so poor, very little – less than 600 millilitres a year.  It’s very dry.  But when I looked at the region, I found that crop production was so poor, so little.  I then came up with an idea.  To have better crops, one has to have good rainfall or use quite a lot of manure in the land.  Then I started  because in the Bible I had read Pishon was the river that used to water the garden.  I then started water harvesting.  I made quite a big number of structures harnessing the little water that may have fallen rather than letting the water just run off.  Then at the end [of my land], right down below, I went and sunk a well.  This well is a challenge, I tell you, because all the water I have harvested up hill seeped into the soil.  Then when you damage – let’s say I am cut here, you will see the blood oozing.  There is a reason why this blood oozes out.  The nature of a human being and Earth is the same.  I came up with an idea.  I have made the structures up here.  These structures hold water.  How can I whisper to the water in the ground that this water should come to where I want it and do the job?  Ah Zephaniah.  Things are wonderful!  I dug a well; I sank a well below.  Then, you know when you damage the Earth, nature moves the air and the ground moves the water to cover the open point.  When you take the soil out of the pit, the pit remains open.  Nature will make this pit close.  Then seeing the soil is no longer there, nature says to water:  “Water!  Go and fill that opening!”  It became magic.  The concept is that naturally, I love a human being.  I love people.  And when I said my prayer before doing this project, I looked for love.  People come to draw water from my own strength.  I’m not worried and I feel happy when they get this, so that’s how I worked it out.  After which I came up with an advanced idea.  I dug some infiltration pits in the contours.  When the rains fall, indeed this water is reserved.  And I stock fish!  I planted trees, fruit trees.  I intercrop, I have quite a lot of different species in my land.  If you come in that region you’ll find that quite a lot of production toward crop raising is very high because they have seen the secret that in this area we need to have water.  We need to store water, to manure our lands.  Then the successes come up.
FYI from Wikipedia: A river named Perath (Hebrew for Euphrates) is one of the four rivers that flow from the Garden of Eden according to Genesis 2:14. This Hebrew word, derived from either the word "stream" or "to break forth", has been translated as Euphrates[2]. It is the fourth river, after the Pishon, the Gihon, and the Tigris, (Hebrew name is Hiddekel) to form from the river flowing out of the garden. The river of the same name marked one of the boundaries of the land promised by God to Abraham and his descendants (Isaac, Jacob, etc). In the Hebrew Bible, it is often referred to simply as "The River" (ha-nahar). (Genesis 15:18).

JOURNAL OF DEVELOPME'NT STUDIES Vol 39 (1):186-187, 2002

Working on the Margins: Black Workers, White Farmers in Postcolonial Zimbabwe
. By Blair A. Rutherford. London and New York: Zed Press; Harare: Weaver Press, 2001. Pp.xx + 268, ?45/US$69,95 and ?15.95/US$25, ISBN I 84277 0004 and 001 2

Blair Rutherford obviously found himself in a very awkward situation with this book. It is based on fieldwork undertaken in 1992  93 for his doctoral thesis. (The book's origins remain recognisable and not all typos have been eliminated from the revised product, but only one   on page 166   interferes with the c1early intended meaning.) He completed the manuscript in July 2000, just after Zimbabwe's most recent Parliamentary elections and sonic four months after 'war veterans' had started in earnest to 'occupy' white owned farms (including those he had studied), but before the full picture had unfolded. Possibly being overtaken while in press by rapidly moving events is the scenario authors dread most.
Yet Rutherford's analysis of the relationship between 'domestic government' on the 14 farms studied (12 purchased after Independence) and its potential threat to centralised nationalist control of the state, is sufficiently well founded to survive fairly well this traumatic experience, even though he wisely refrained from any predictions as to how this crisis might actually develop. 'Domestic government' Rutherford defines (p.14) as 'domestic in two senses: by officially promoting the "private" over “public" domain   the rule of the farmer over that of state officials   and by administratively valuing paternalistic relations between male workers and their families and between farmers and "their" workers'. This governmental system also provided farm workers with housing, education and health services, with some financial assistance from non governmental organisations, while the state funded (in part or whole) the salaries of teachers and health assistants.
This book is valuable as the only full length study of workers on large farms in Zimbabwe. One regret I have, though, which may be shared by others with an interest in plantation systems, is his complete failure to compare his subjects with workers on large farms elsewhere. Rutherford's own theoretical preference is to situate his work in a 'postcolonial' frame, in preference to master narratives of either a Marxist or 'dual economy' orientation. Unlike many other western authors exercising such a preference, however, he has used it to extricate himself from ‘solidarity' (p.242) with any of those who provided him with the information to produce this book   until his Afterword, which reveals perhaps more than he intended of his own sympathies, as Zimbabwe's political process began to squeeze most but not all of his respondants.
The analysis is particularly acute of how female workers 'work the margins' of the 'domestic government' on farms, which relies heavily on extended family power-broking at different levels of the farm hierarchy. Indeed, rather surprisingly from a male author, one learns more about the small minority (26 per cent) of overwhelmingly temporary women workers than about their male counterparts. Most intriguingly, it becomes clear that some young urban women have been prepared to seek an income from farm-work, as a stepping stone to a better life under their own control, often to support their children outside marriage. 'They were marginalised because they were “unattaclied", so to speak, to the forms of authority of domestic government' (p. 184). Yet through the possibility of entering the farm hierarchy via marriage (in exchange for abandoning their outspoken independence), women were not totally alienated from a system they threatened from the outside while still effectively single and independent of men. They were co optable, if not exactly co operative.
The result of Rutherford's analysis is somewhat depressing. Despite ‘development speak' by government (of which he is very critical) and evidence of their limited accumulation of financial and social capital. 20 years after Independence Rutherford suggests that Zimbabwean farm-workers as an occupational category remained caught between the patriarchal ‘domestic government’ of the farms and an unsympathetic central government, like its colonial predecessors, inclined to regard them as ‘foreigners' responsible for their own poverty. A possible exception to this general rule were the surprisingly vocal female workers, who were prepared to make the state act where its policy and statutes stated it would and occasionally intervene in labour relations on their behalf   at the cost of their own longer term employability on the farms.
But this structural problem may already have experienced its final solution   by government support for the destruction of commercial farming in Zimbabwe of the type Rutherford analyses. The land issue became 'even more opaque' throughout the last decade of the last millenium (p.55), and the criteria for resettlement on land acquired by the State from commercial farmers even more unsympathetic to those regarded as supporting not only the 'domestic government' of white farmers but also the new and rapidly growing political opposition party (the Movement for Democratic Change). In this situation, farm workers have lost their jobs, their housing, their schooling and the residues of their human dignity as internal refugees. 'Are the varungu [whites] that cruel to us black people that they don't want us to eat?’ demanded one woman queuing for farm subsidised maize meal during the 1992 drought (p. 157). Ten years later, the same rhetorical question has been redirected   this time against the Zanu PF government of Robert Mugabe which has permitted, if not encouraged, the destruction of farm worker livelihoods. If Rutherford's respondants were typical of' Zimbabwean farm workers, only 45 per cent of those who have lost most of their life's work and possessions in their displacement from the farms may have direct or indirect access to a residual security in the communal lands.
In the near future, the very 'identity' of' 'edifiable' farm worker is likely to disappear. When it does, Rutherford's study will acquire an unanticipated and unintended historical value within 'salvage(d) anthropology'.


Review of Working on the Margins: Black Workers, White Farmers in Postcolonial Zimbabwe - Journal of Southern African Studies

Working on the Margins: Black Workers, White Farmers in Postcolonial Zimbabwe
Blair Rutherford
2001: (pp: 288) 215 x 135 mm
ISBN: 0797422412 (Pb)

Journal of Southern African Studies
Volume 28, Number 4, December 2002, pp. 7-8
Reviewer: Joann McGregor

Farmworkers in Zimbabwe

Working on the Margins is a timely and important book. Zimbabwe's two million farmworkers (one fifth of the population) have a history of being marginalised from national politics and policy debates, and have scarcely featured in the voluminous academic output on the country. Attention began to be drawn to them through a union and NGO advocacy programme from the mid-1990s, but they moved centre stage quite suddenly in early 2000, since when they have been the prime targets of war veterans' violence on commercial farms. This book is not primarily about the dynamics of this violence (though a useful 'afterword' touches on the initial war veterans' invasions). Rather, it aims to explain the historical marginalisation of farmworkers in official policy and to provide an insight into the lives of the different social groups who make up the commercial farming community.

Specifically, it explores the social life of the Chidhadhadha tobacco farm where Rutherford lived for a year in 1992–93. The book's timeliness lies in providing a deeper understanding of the circumstances of people whose perspectives and strategies have been poorly understood in the past, and who are now threatened as the result of a highly politicised assault.

Rutherford's explanation for the marginalisation of farmworkers is twofold. First, it hinges on their liminal status: their ambitions and livelihoods simply do not fit the categories through which Zimbabwean space has been imagined and development policy defined. Their social networks span international borders, reaching beyond Zimbabwe into Zambia and Mozambique, their livelihoods cross internal boundaries separating 'commercial' and 'communal' land, and they themselves cannot be accurately defined as either full-time workers or full-time peasants. The second aspect of their marginalisation results from the elaboration of what Rutherford refers to as the 'domestic government' of commercial farmland. By this he means the way in which the state came to see black farmworkers less as citizens in their own right than as the responsibility of European farmers. As Rutherford explains, government on the farms 'is 'domestic' in two senses: by officially promoting the 'private' over 'public' domain – the rule of the farmer over that of state officials – and by administratively valuing paternalistic relations between male workers and their families and between farmers and 'their' workers' (p. 14). Rutherford spells out his concept of domestic government through a critique of political economy approaches to labour regimes on white farms, which have cast the regimes as 'quasi feudal' and in need of modernisation. The point of reference is the work of Duncan Clarke in the 1970s (author of the only other extended monograph on the topic of black farmworkers in Zimbabwe).

The book begins historically, with an exploration of the evolution of official policy towards commercial farmland from the 1940s to the 1990s, focusing on how this worked out in Hurungwe. It then turns to Hurungwe's white farmers themselves, and to how their understanding of themselves as 'European' and civilised produced a sense of responsibility for 'their' workers. The middle section of the book investigates management practices and relations of power on the farm, before finally exploring farmworkers' strategies for getting land and creating lives for themselves in the communal areas.

I found two aspects of Rutherford's analysis of the power relations of the farm particularly interesting. The first is his emphasis on the way in which the giving and receiving of credit acts to structure paternal relationships between white farmers and workers. This 'assistance' has often replaced brutality as a means of enforcing discipline, and has come to be one of the assumed responsibilities of the farmer, underlying the implicit 'rules of the farm'. As Rutherford summarises: 'Greater violence in the colonial period often meant higher wages. Harder work in the first decade and a half of Independence often meant greater access to credit' (p. 133).

Secondly, Rutherford's attention to the situation of women farmworkers brings into focus the influence of marriage, gender and sexuality. Rutherford sees women as doubly marginalised, because they have difficulty in getting permanent contracts and are perceived primarily as temporary workers, even by the farmworkers' union supposed to represent their interests. But he also explores differences related to the women's status as single or married, their reputation for respectability or prostitution, and their ability to secure better conditions through marriage to a permanent worker or through informal cooking arrangements with male counterparts (through which they are known as vakachaya mapoto, literally 'those who beat the pots', p. 178).

Rutherford's ethnographic approach has produced a text that is rich with vignettes of daily life on the farm, and personalised through potted biographies of the workers, stewards and farmers he got to know. It is also revealing of the difficulties of carrying out such a study, which involves trying to cross the firmly racialised and gendered barriers of farm life.

In the light of the current politics of commercial farming in Zimbabwe, it would have been interesting to hear Rutherford's reflections on how the labour regimes of Chidhadhadha farm and the tobacco belt compare with others, such as those that characterise the contract outgrower schemes promoted over the last ten years or those that typify farms owned and managed by the growing numbers of black commercial farmers. Although Rutherford does not discuss a broader regional literature on labour relations on white farms (which might have been a valuable addition), his explicitly Foucauldian approach is novel and will doubtless be stimulating not only to Zimbabweanists, but to a broader regional audience concerned with the conditions of, and policy towards, farmworkers.

© The author/publisher