‘We Want to Belong to Our Roots and We Want to be Modern People’: New Farmers, Old Claims Around Lake Mutirikwi, Southern Zimbabwe

by Joost Fontein

Abstract

Based on fieldwork carried out between June 2005 and July 2006, this paper questions common assertions which suggest that recent ‘fast track’ land reform in Zimbabwe did not fit with local understandings of land tenure. While fast track land reform was not officially planned as a form of ‘land restitution’, in Masvingo District members of different local clans who occupied areas of state land, earlier resettlement schemes or were allocated plots on resettled farms around Lake Mutirikwi, often made very specific claims to land which appealed to autochthonous knowledge of the landscape, invoking memories of past occupations and the burial of ancestors in the land. Such claims were reinforced by the official ‘return’ of the powers of chiefs over resettlement areas and often sat uneasily next to both the increasing participation of technocratic government planning departments such as AREX (Agricultural Research and Extension), and the waning authority of war veterans who initially spearheaded the land occupations of 2000. Dealing with contemporary events in the monumental presence of a large modern dam built under colonial rule in the 1960s, and set in the context of ZANU PF’s revived, if severely narrowed, discourse of anti-colonial nationalist fervour and sovereignty, this case study points to the complexity of what has often been over-simplistically characterised as ‘Zimbabwe’s authoritarian turn’, highlighting how for some ‘new farmers’ and others in the Masvingo area, fast track land reform was understood as a response to older, lingering imaginations of, and localised aspirations for, postcolonial stateness and ‘modernity’ in Zimbabwe.

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Joost Fontein lectures in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. His PhD (2003) won the ASA 2004 Audrey Richards Prize and was published as a monograph by UCL Press in 2006, titled The Silence of Great Zimbabwe: Contested Landscapes and the Power of Heritage. He is editor of the Journal of Southern African Studies, and in December 2008 edited a special issue of that journal titled ‘The Power of Water: Landscape, Water and the State in Southern and Eastern Africa’.