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 cheap viagra generic 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 very cheap cialis 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.

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