Sam Moyo: A Scholar for the Oppressed (1954-2015) Arindam Banerjee

The tragic and untimely departure of Sam Moyo from amidst us creates a void that can be filled only through an uncompromising commitment towards the poor and an unflinching solidarity with struggles of historically oppressed people. Passionate as he was about correcting the past injustices faced by the ‘South’ through long and variegated histories of imperialism, Sam made his arguments based on crisp logic and hard evidence. Till his last day, he was an inspiring and untiring soldier against injustices and inequality, both historical and of contemporary origin.

The enormous span of Sam’s scholarship covering issues like the land question, agrarian development, food sovereignty and rural development, to name a few, comes across as an integrated and comprehensive critique of imperialism, in its evolving forms, including neo-liberalism as the recent most form. The deep engagement with the exploitative processes of imperialism, often transgressing the boundaries of traditional disciplines in his treatment of the subject, has been an inseparable part of Sam’s academic writings. He has also been truly exceptional in recognizing the necessity of creating indigenous knowledge and understanding from the ‘South’ and devoting his energies to building solidarity between scholars and activists from various ex-colonies.

Through his numerous papers, monographs and books, Sam Moyo has developed and presented a colossal understanding of the land question in his own country, Zimbabwe, and in the larger landscape of Southern Africa. As part of the Lancaster House Agreement which assisted Zimbabwe’s transition to independence, the land question was attempted to be addressed within the neo-classical, market-based ‘willing buyer-willing seller model’, focussing on questions of efficiency and bereft of any recognition of past land alienation faced by the “natives”. In contrast, Sam’s analysis of the land question was always anchored on the long, historical land expropriation from the native black population, through territorial and legal segregation policies, under white-settler colonialism in Zimbabwe, like in other parts of Southern Africa.

He pointed out that such sustained land expropriations meant that at the time of Zimbabwean independence in 1980, 6000 farmers from the white, agrarian bourgeoisie controlled 15.5 million hectares or nearly 50 per cent of agricultural land in the country, while one million black households were confined to the rest of the land. The typical mode of production that such settler-colonialism produced made possible the super-exploitation of a land-short, semi-proletarian black labour, whether in the settler-farms or in the mines, heavily inter-twined with race, gender and ethnic relations. In Sam’s own words:

‘…white-settler capitalism, organised the labour process such that white capital exercised both ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ power over the indigenous black population…The labour process in colonial Zimbabwe came to be characterised by an enduring contradiction between proletarianisation and a politically-engineered functional dualism, by which petty-commodity production in the communal areas, and especially unwaged female labour, would subsidise the social reproduction of male labour-power on mines and farms. This contradiction would produce neither a settled industrial proletariat nor a viable peasantry, but a workforce in motion, straddling communal lands, white farms, mines, and industrial workplaces. (‘The Land and Agrarian Question in Zimbabwe’, Sam Moyo, 2004)[1]

Armed with a Marxian Political Economy framework and a careful analysis of history, Sam was at a distinct advantage to give superior insights when the radicalization of the land reforms agenda in Zimbabwe occurred in the late nineties leading to the introduction of the Fast Track land Reforms Programme (FTLRP) in 2000. As the head of the Land Reform Technical Advisory Team of the Government of Zimbabwe, he remained a close observer of the FTLRP.

Amidst the political furore over FTLRP, mainly from the ‘North’, which also led to an economic isolation of Zimbabwe, a considerable academic literature (mostly from the North) put forward the argument that the Zimbabwean land reforms was nothing but ‘land grabbing’ by the black elites and the ruling ZANU-PF cronies; and that such cronyism led to a culture of violence, chaos and disorder, and destroyed the productivity of Zimbabwean agriculture leading to a food crisis.

Questioning this narrative, Sam pointed out the dangers of dubbing the FTLRP as mere ‘land grabbing’ by the local elites. In an international context, from the nineties, one witnessed a renewed scramble for land in Africa (and other parts of the developing world) by international agri-business capital in the name of raising agricultural productivity and producing ‘clean’ agro-fuels. Under the pressure of neo-liberalism, most African governments reformed their National Land Policies to allow privatisation and the appropriation of extensive land tracts by foreign capital. According to him, to equate the Zimbabwean FTLRP to a similar ‘chaotic land grab’ was to obfuscate the critique of neo-liberalism and to ignore the question of agency. With exceptional clarity about the politics of this discourse, he wrote in 2011:

‘The language of ‘land grabbing’ creates a moral and political equivalence between the restitutive appropriation of colonially dispossessed lands for state-led land redistribution and the recent externally inspired land grabs in Africa, despite the latter’s neoliberal roots. Preoccupation with a ‘chaos’ perspective conceals the structure and agency that evolved during the FTLRP…’ (‘Land Concentration and Accumulation after Redistributive Reform in Post-Settler Zimbabwe, Sam Moyo, Review of African Political Economy, 2011)

Backed by extensive field-work, Sam argued that though a few black elites captured land with the help of government agents, the majority (70 per cent) of 1,65,000 beneficiary households were settled in the small-scale farming sector, with new access to pieces of farmland crucial for their survival. In fact, he underscores that in terms of scale, agency and discourse, the FTLRP was a radical land reform, benefitting people who have been historically evicted from land; and this redistributive reform stood directly pitted against the contemporary and hegemonic neo-liberal logic of capitalist accumulation by dispossession for purposes of export-oriented large-scale food and agro-fuel production.

Despite his strong defence of the FTLRP at a time when his country and government was internationally isolated, it would still be difficult for those who disagreed with Sam to place him in the camp of the Zimbabwean ruling establishment. Even as he reiterated the radical nature of the Zimbabwean land reforms, in the same breath, he criticized his government for making neo-liberal concessions due to pressure from the ‘West’. In a cautionary spirit, he drew attention to the fact that the radical land struggle had still not led to the social democracy that it promised. He observed that most of the farm workers did not benefit from the FTLRP and practices of ‘compound farm labour tenancy’ and low wages continued to reproduce cheap labour as in the past, even when the land monopoly had been broken. Sam’s discourse never abandoned the exploited.

In more recent years, Sam had devoted his scholarship to bringing back the ‘national question’ within the development discourse. Along with his comrades and colleagues from the South, Praveen Jha and Paris Yeros, he explains how the ‘emancipation of peasantries’ from colonial oppression was a central question of the national liberation struggles of colonies and why the peasant question continues to remain relevant under neo-liberal globalization. He saw the latter as a process of re-colonization of the Third World peasantries and natural resources, and peasant resistance to these neo-liberal processes as the ‘primary component’ of the agrarian question in the South presently.

Inspired by the views of Franz Fanon and Amilcar Cabral, Sam argued that the peasantry in colonies emerged as a truly revolutionary force under colonialism, channelizing their energies towards the national liberation struggles, and that the latter was a ‘process of self-becoming of a people denied of history by colonial rule and racial doctrine’ (quoted from ‘The Classical Agrarian Question: Myth, Reality and Relevance Today, Sam Moyo, Agrarian South: Journal of Political Economy, 2013). According to him, under contemporary globalization, the new agrarian question is defined by the resistance that the peasantry builds up, in defence of its gains from national liberation, against the neo-colonial systems of domination that have emerged under the aegis of international finance capital.

For Sam, neither the peasantry is ‘dead’, nor is the agrarian question irrelevant. Rather the peasantry was the ‘wretched of the earth’ (to use the term he borrowed from Fanon) carrying all the hopes of resistance to injustice and progressive transformations, both in the colonial period and under imperialist globalization currently.Along with his comrades, Sam tirelessly gave leadership to the project of developing the conception of the agrarian question from the ‘South’, including the publishing of the Agrarian South: Journal of Political Economy. He was, however, not satisfied merely by making his own point convincingly but placed equal importance in creating future generations of scholars who would engage with the peasant question and imperialism. As head of the African Institute of Agrarian Studies (AIAS), he ensured that scores of young scholars from various countries of the South would interact with each other in the annual training workshops in Harare.

On the few occasions that I had the privilege of interacting with him, I always found him inspiring in his own warm and exceptional way. Of these interactions, two need mention. Once when I met him at the South-South Forum for Sustainability, at Lingnan University, Hong Kong, upon knowing that I teach a course on colonialism, he inquired whether I have included African colonial history in the syllabus. Later in the evening, when the sessions were over, he caught hold of me in the corridor and over tea, started a conversation on the colonial past of Africa. By the end of the fairly long conversation, I found myself greatly enriched in my knowledge. I also realized that bringing Africa into the discourse on colonialism, no matter in which corner of the world such a discourse may be developing, was extremely important for Sam!

On the other occasion, when he visited the Ambedkar University in Delhi for a lecture to research students and faculty members on agrarian development, he asked the organizers (who were a bit intrigued by the request) to project a map of Africa on the screens. Using the map, he spoke to the audience for more than an hour, delineating the geography and history of agrarian relations in colonial Africa. During Sam’s lecture, the map came to life as he traversed through the various facets of colonial history and the struggles of the African peasantry. Truly, Africa, its people and the history of their subjugation cannot be comprehended without recognizing the contributions of Sam Moyo. Needless to say, struggles to change that history of exploitation, not only in Africa but in the larger developing world, for a better future where the oppressed are emancipated, will be the noblest tribute to his memory.

* Arindam Banerjee is at the Department of Economics of the Ambedkar University, Delhi.

[1] Quoted from the draft of this paper presented at the Conference on ‘The Agrarian Constraint and Poverty Reduction: Macroeconomic lessons for Africa’, Addis Ababa, 17-18 December, 2004/