Examining the social infrastructure of rural labour in Zimbabwe’s borderlands – Fellows’ seminar by Blair Rutherford

2 May 2024

“Migration is a hot topic everywhere. I’m looking at how the borderlands trouble many of the assumptions. It’s a story about rural work and about the social world from the edge,” said Blair Rutherford of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.

In what he described as “an emerging book project” Rutherford hopes to examine the “important ways in which people interact, to focus on individual agency and, in so doing, challenge the dominant narratives of migration studies”.

“The borderlands challenge state-centric models,” he added.

“Like in most regions, rural work in southern Africa these days is typically far from the concerns of policymakers, the programmes and advocacy of civil-society organisations, and any mass-mediated ‘public interest’ more broadly,” he explained. “It tends to be folded into or completely obscured by wider attention given to the growing urbanisation of the region, rural investment opportunities and promotion, or rural-development programmes more broadly. Yet, different forms of income-generating or support-securing rural labour are crucial components of livelihoods, precarious as they often are, for millions of individuals and households in the region today.”

STIAS Fellow Blair Rutherford during his seminar on 25 April 2024

Rutherford’s work is based on over 30 years of research and fieldwork in the region incorporating projects in Hurungwe in Zimbabwe in 1992/3, in Mashonaland East between 1997 and 2003, in Northern Limpopo, South Africa between 2004 and 2010, and in the Manica District in Central Mozambique from 2014 to 2018.

His book will focus on the gendered social infrastructure that conditions and facilitates rural labour and will examine how men and women gain, are exploited, and contest different forms of work in different parts of rural southern Africa.

For his seminar presentation he examined aspects of rural labour in two distinct parts of Zimbabwe’s borderlands: South African commercial farms south of the Limpopo River and north of the Zoutpansberg mountain range and artisanal gold mining in Manica district, Mozambique.

Tangled histories

Rutherford talked through some important aspects in the history of the three countries.

“In 1970 in Rhodesia there were three million Africans on about half of the land and 6000 white farmers on the other half,” he explained. “In 1994 in South Africa there were 13 million blacks on 13.4% of land and 60 000 white farmers on 63% of the land.” He noted that land tenure acts in the colonial and apartheid eras in the two countries had created these unequal land divisions through which the majority of the populations were shoehorned on less, generally poor, agricultural land based on race and ethnicity.

“The 1955 Freedom Charter talked of land shared. There were similar sentiments in the liberation struggles in Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Land redistribution was important for the new governments, but post-independence land reform has been limited except in Zimbabwe after 2000 and there have been some controversial ’land grabs’ in Mozambique by foreign companies with support of the Mozambican government.”

Land occupation, usually led by war veterans, was a widespread feature in Zimbabwe for a few years from 2000 – “the government called it fast-track land reform in which 10 million  hectares were redistributed from white farmers to black Zimbabweans but the farmworkers themselves didn’t get much as they were largely viewed as ’foreigners’ given that many of their relatives were migrant workers from colonial Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique, and were aligned with the white farmers.”

The percentage of the Zimbabwean population in the formal labour force at independence in 1982 was 42%, this fell to 27% in the late 1990s due to the impact of structural adjustment programmes and fell further in 2014 to just 10%. All of which facilitated migration from the country, especially in the wake of the 2008 crisis which was characterised by the world’s highest inflation rate, unemployment, violence and displacement.

“There was huge migration to South Africa – according to the South African census over 1 million Zimbabweans were in South Africa in 2022 making them the largest group of migrants in the country.”

“70 to 80% of Zimbabweans are currently unemployed. Most want jobs outside Zimbabwe – ideally Europe but also South Africa,” he added.

In 2022 the World Bank estimated the Zimbabwean rural population at 68%, Mozambique’s at 62% and South Africa’s at 32%. There is also very high rural poverty with 52% of the rural population in Zimbabwe living in poverty. This is even higher in Mozambique – estimated at 64% of the rural population.

Rutherford explained that although there was a strong history of the expectation of modernity via work in the formal sector, the situation in Zimbabwe after structural adjustment programmes in the 1990s and then the crisis since 2000 led to the development of the so-called kukiya-kiya economy or “doing whatever you can do to make a living”.

This extends to rural dwellers who rely on various ways to make money including wages, remittances, social services, casual farm labour as well as the growth of artisanal small-scale mining (such miners are called Zama Zama in South Africa).  In Mozambique artisanal mining similarly exploded in the period after the end of their civil war in 1992.

Focusing in detail on the two sites, Rutherford pointed out that the border area North of the Zoutpansberg was regarded as a ‘special employment zone’ where white farmers had agreements in place to import Zimbabwean workers quasi-legally right up until the late 1990s and where they even created their own identity card systems to register workers up until 2005. Government presence in the area was largely via the South African National Defence Force until 2006.

He described some of the compounds as being like refugee camps given the high number of Zimbabweans crossing the Limpopo River in 2008 – with illicit payments, sexual exploitation and a racialised, gendered, hierarchical labour regime. During this period, many Zimbabweans sought work and shelter on these farms, even for a short time, while some of those who managed to get permanent work also saw their formal status as a way to carry out other livelihood activities – like running spaza shops and smuggling.

“The social infrastructure is about power dynamics, dependency relationships and belonging, but the ties can be precarious,” he noted.

In Manica, Mozambique, he is focusing on artisanal gold-mining sites. Formal mining licences are generally only required for the small-scale, hard-rock gold-mining areas and there has been a growing number of small-scale mines since 2015. In the artisanal gold-mining areas, “up to half the people at these sites are from Zimbabwe”.

He particularly highlighted the highly gendered labour regime where women are only permitted to do certain tasks and, unless they are divorced or widowed, may find it hard to excavate and, for some, sell the gold they find. Men by contrast have a chance to climb the hierarchy and become, ideally, gold buyers.

“In these social infrastructures the work is transnational, nationality plays out differently in the two border zones, labour is precarious, and the various social dynamics of belonging cut across formal/informal boundaries, state and non-state initiatives.”

“The developing human activities are entangled in power dynamics. And being formal or informal matters in many ways but not in the way through which mainstream development discourse envisions this boundary,” he added.

Rutherford believes such case studies provide a window not only into different forms of (transnational) accumulation (and exploitation) but also the ‘social infrastructure’ that conditions and facilitates rural labour and the distribution of any remuneration and support in these work sites. “This social infrastructure – and the social landscapes of rural areas more broadly – has been strongly shaped by the entangled colonial, apartheid and postcolonial histories of the region, resulting in different combinations of racialised, gendered, classed, nationality and familial dynamics and (inter)dependency relationships operating in rural work sites. These become more apparent when analysing the ways in which rural labour can access differential remuneration and other forms of support through (sometimes very exploitative) relations of (inter-) dependence and politics of belonging.”

“In this book project, I aim to show the weight, contingencies and uses of key social boundaries – including their varied enforcement by differing and overlapping applications of state and non-state forms of authority – in the social work of rural work and some of the implications for (often precarious) rural livelihoods and wider (mis)understandings of them.”


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph:  Noloyiso Mtembu







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