Book Review

From Enslavement to Environmentalism: Politics on a Southern African Frontier

By David McDermott Hughes, 2006
Seattle and London: University of Washington Press in association with Weaver Press, Harare, 285pp
ISBN: 9780295985909

The politics of land dispossession and repossession in Zimbabwe are much in the news, and much written of, invariably in oversimplified terms. This eminently clear and readable account of the complexities of land disputes provides a different conceptualisation of territory and geography from an anthropological point of view. The author, on field expeditions to two small habitations in Zimbabwe and Mozambique, encountered vastly different concepts of territory and geography. How has it come about that a people, divided arbitrarily by a colonial border, view the landscape and the politics of land so differently?

To answer this question, the book explores the past hundred-odd years of the region’s history – a period in which British-ruled Vhimba became ‘territorialised’ and its Mozambican counterpart, Gogoi, did not. White settlement around Vhimba and wildly different forms of administration, development and conservation caused Vhimba and Gogoi to diverge from one another. In effect, the wider colonial state systems – and local reactions to them – created two distinct cultures. Thus, for almost the entire twentieth century, the Zimbabwe-Mozambique border marked a deep disjuncture in the politics of land, chiefly leadership, farming, timber and labour.

In the late 1990s, however, power in Gogoi began to move into line with Vhimba. White South Africans sought to establish timber plantations in and around Gogoi. These loggers – as well as ‘countermappers’ – reoriented the relations between strong and weak parties so that land emerged as the pre-eminent political object. In large measure, these processes in Mozambique recapitulate the dynamics of white settlement on earlier hinterlands.

The ‘land question’ is not a finite dispute; it ebbs and flows like a chess game, with power gained and surrendered backwards and forwards between players. And the game is far from over. In Zimbabwe the land is being taken from the big landowners; in Mozambique these same big players are taking it.

The book also shows that land has not always been the only source of conflict. In Gogoi, the currency of people, ‘ambulatory enslavement’ as it is termed by the author, took precedence over conflicts of land. In Vhimba, too, it is people who created the ‘hornet’s nest’ of turf battles that it is today.

A factor often overlooked in accounts of land conflict is that of ‘environmentalism’, and how environmentalists promote enclosure, and remap space and nature.

The book proceeds in three parts: firstly, colonisation, which is described in terms of ‘frontiersmen’, a concept which resonates of the ‘wild west’ rather than the Raj. Enclosure has always been the preferred tool of dispossession, and this phenomenon extends to the national parks and other tourist enclaves.

Whereas Rhodesia concentrated its energies on taking and keeping the region’s land, Portugal opted to subordinate people by means of chibaro, or forced labour.

Part two examines how the border, though arbitrary and artificial, in fact deeply affected relations between the communities of Vhimba and Gogoi.

The effects of the timber industry on both habitations are also examined. The civil war in Mozambique affected the communities on both sides of the border: through the ebb and flow of refugees, the use of enforced labour in Mozambique, and the allocation of land to refugees in Zimbabwe.

In 1997, in Mozambique, a second ‘great trek’ took place – that of the expatriate logging companies. This later land expropriation also expressed itself in cadastral conflict, with differing units of land measurement.

Part three is entitled ‘native questions’. It leads to the book’s conclusion, which questions how, in the age of black rule, the people of Mozambique and Zimbabwe could continue to be considered as ‘natives’ (though described as ‘communities’, as opposed to ‘investors’, or, ‘the private sector’). How could people in agencies committed to the betterment of rural life ultimately endorse programmes that dispossessed rural people? The author describes the widely-praised Campfire project in Zimbabwe which, in fact, undermined smallholders’ entitlement to farmland and, as tourism receipts evaporated, lost any and all benefits to the people. Mozambique also embraced the concept of ‘community’, and the Campfire concept there served to balkanise the rural community and remove from the people any possibility of wielding power over their lives. As the author states: this, and the much-vaunted transfrontier conservation parks – so-called ‘sustainable development’ – revive and reform earlier modes of colonisation.

The book concludes that the communal areas, native reserves or black lowlands provide a better answer to the ‘native question’ than does settler-led development – of either the trekkers’ or Campfire’s variety. These reserves provide minimal guarantees against dispossession by colonists, plantations and well-meaning ecologists. For the people themselves have a right to reserve land. There are spaces where colonisation should not enfold.


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