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Response to Review of Zimbabwe’s Migrants and South Africa’s Border Farms : the Roots of Impermanence

I am very grateful for this detailed and generous review of Zimbabwe’s Migrants and South Africa’s Border Farms: The Roots of Impermanence. Richard Daglish has brought out nicely how the particular setting that it explores is shaped both by shifts in commercial agriculture and by the dynamics of the Zimbabwean-South African border. This is a story of the fallout of the Zimbabwean crisis and subsequent increase in cross-border migration, as it meets agrarian labour arrangements characterised by post-apartheid turbulence and liberalisation. Below, I intertwine my responses to the issues that Daglish raises with further elaboration of the themes. The result, I hope, is an informative companion piece alongside the review.

One key theme drawn out in the review is how different people on the border farms respond to the resulting uncertainty – white farmers and managers; black permanent and seasonal workers and dependents. Incorporation into the workforces promises provisional stability. But the foundations and prospects are uncertain. South African land reform produces the palpable concern that the farms may disappear altogether. As Daglish notes, white farmers and black workers create and maintain multiple livelihood possibilities. These contrast sharply. The border’s farmers, who have their own history of mobility and starting again, and who in some cases now own planes, can buy entire new estates. Their workers may trade cigarettes in the workers’ residential compound or use cash wages to trade goods home.

I am therefore not sure about Daglish’s suggestion that the white farmers are more pragmatic about the future. I would argue, rather, that different conditions produce their own forms of pragmatism. Faced with a radically uncertain future and few clear alternatives, it makes perfect sense for long-term, resident farm workers to continue making the most of what they do have – resident employment; important and powerful roles along the border even beyond work; the incomes to save and/or remit to kin in Zimbabwe. And seasonal migrants attempt to make strategic choices as they join, remain in, or leave the border’s labour forces. They sometimes do so, however, with limited information about what awaits them in alternative destinations such as Johannesburg. Conversely, farmers’ own plans are more or less realistic. Indeed, they often cast each other’s ideas as either pragmatic or as fantasy – something about which I am writing more at the moment. The crucial difference, of course, is that farmers are sufficiently wealthy to weather less successful decisions and investments. The border is a mosaic of attempts to envision and enact viable futures.

This study is an ethnographic perspective on a particular world in flux. It draws centrally on extended participant observation living in the labour compound with workers. As Daglish notes, this means that the number of units (people, farms) is relatively small. The logic of the methodology, however, is not simply about aggregation. Ethnography enables a more nuanced understanding of how a range of broader factors interact in a particular social setting – something Daglish illustrates nicely in his review. That is why the book moves between different experiences and aspects of life. Daglish is right – there is always more to say, and articles provide the opportunity (on money and remittances, for example – incidentally, mobile money was not in evidence during the study). The way ethnography works also means that extrapolation has to be undertaken with caution. My study works outwards – very close attention to one workforce; then familiarity with other estates on the border, both by moving around with workers and by meeting and interviewing farmers; and historical depth though archival and oral historical research. More generally, there are dynamics here that are shared across southern African agriculture, which we know from existing and ongoing research.

In this world in flux, a snapshot enabled by ethnographic fieldwork revealed the juxtaposition of traditionalist self-conceptions among older farmers with a post-apartheid corporate managerialism. In the latter, racial difference and responsibilities beyond the contract – both central in the traditionalist model of the farmer – are downplayed. As Daglish notes, this relies on minority black figures such as the ‘personnel manager’, Michael, who is depicted as ‘management’ not ‘labour’, yet is housed in the barrack-like compound and treated as a worker.

Yet it is important also to note that employers can only create distance from established roles as fatherly protectors because of what I have called a ‘mediated paternalism’. Senior workers enact paternalist roles in the workforce on behalf of farmers, in a devolution of everyday authority, control and protection. This enables farmers’ corporate self-presentations, yet senior workers may conversely stand locally for an established model of agriculture. Foremen who speak Afrikaans – seen as the language of the farmers and of lifelong farm dwellers – have particular symbolic significance. Afrikaans represents complete worker socialisation in the unequal plantation worlds of the farms, which is precisely what has cast South African agriculture as a colonial anachronism.

Where all this is heading is a good question. One consequence of an ethnographic study is that the research was conducted at a particular time (and by a particular researcher, with particular relationships and ways of seeing). Since my fieldwork, hyperinflation ended with the end of the Zimbabwean dollar. Yet it has been replaced by struggles for the foreign currencies that are now legal tender in Zimbabwe. Meanwhile, Zimbabweans continue to come to South Africa in large numbers to seek employment (the Rand they earn are now among the legal currencies at home). But I cannot hope to develop these dynamics properly, for now. The book is the view from one vantage point.

Once again, my sincere thanks to Richard Daglish for his careful and thoughtful review.