Colonialism: Bone of contention was land


AMONG the Shona people in pre-colonial Zimbabwe (before 1890), there was no land shortage.
This would extend to the entire country until the colonial period, when land use and tenure systems began to undergo an externally imposed transformation.
Land among the Shona people, was traditionally managed through local chiefs, appointed by ancestral spirits, to monitor its use. These pre-colonial societies were closely knit and the chiefs used local taboos, myths, restrictions and ceremonies to manage the ecology and land resources.
They were educated on the importance of taboos while they were still young and because of their fear of the unknown, such measures were not questioned.
This, in turn, helped to safeguard the value and physical integrity of the resources.
Land use was sanctioned by indigenous laws of the land. Prior to colonisation, the Shona depended on land for their livelihoods. Besides providing for produce cultivation, land also provided grazing pastures for their cattle that had great socio-cultural significance for the peasantry.
Cattle were important assets in marriage, rites of passage, death and social justice. As such, the land and its resource were central to the well-being of Zimbabwe’s societies — for without access to land, it was not possible to hold cattle.
Among the Shona, all households had access to cattle and land; either through cattle ownership via a system of cattle loan known as ‘kuronzera’; access to land was by residence or by lineages respectively.
Pre-colonial society had social hierarchies, but with systems in place to ensure wealth was filtered down to the poorer groups in society.
Furthermore, the manner in which land was utilised and managed had, and still has, implications for food production, food security and the general welfare of the people, communities and the nation.
Proper use of land has the potential to improve human lives and reduce poverty.
Unequal and/or insecure access to land and its associated resources affects the outcomes for marginalised groups such as women and children.
The pre-colonial period, up to the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) period in Zimbabwe, reflects important evolutionary transformations of land use systems, loss of cultural heritage as represented in peasantry struggles and the rise of African nationalism as a result of the various colonial land acts that were passed during this period to legitimise the theft of land from the indigenous owners.
Reduction of land among the indigenous people led to the reduction in the number of cattle they owned.
As a result, they sold most of their cattle and migrated to towns and cities in search of employment – selling their labour cheaply.
Consequently, a class of compliant workers or proletariat, emerged.
Those who remained to survive on the more marginal land formed another class – the peasantry.
Indigenous people who were fortunate enough to access education became teachers, agricultural extension officers (demonstrators), nurses as well as clerks and formed another class – the petit bourgeoisie (low middle-class).
With the external imposition of this class structure, the history of Zimbabwe became a history of class struggles with land as the major cause of contention.
Equally, the peoples’ strong attachment to cattle for cultural purposes also strongly influenced their view on land ownership – even in the 21st Century, with cattle playing a central role in a wide range of cultural practices and belief systems.
Today, since the colonial period, Zimbabweans have been grappling with the need to gain food security and reduce hunger and poverty.
Yet, Zimbabwe has a rich history, including a socio-agricultural heritage dating back to 1100 AD.
Oral tradition and archaeological evidence suggest that during much of the 10th -14th centuries, Great Zimbabwe was an important political, commercial and trading centre.
The inhabitants of the land traded items such as gold, iron, copper, tin, cattle, ivory or cowrie shells in exchange for glassware from Syria as well as Persian and Chinese ceramics. The majority of the people supplemented their livelihoods through agriculture.
In fact, most societies in Africa had a strong attachment to, and relied on land for subsistence and cultural purposes.
As soon as the British South Africa Company (BSAC), led by Cecil John Rhodes, arrived in Zimbabwe in 1890, the history of Zimbabwe took a new outlook.
The whole of Zimbabwe’s colonial history became a history characterised by conflict over land and this, in turn, impacted on the ability to own cattle; a critically important cultural asset, affording wealth, status and continuity of traditional ways of social interaction.
Given that the lived experience of rural Zimbabweans was on the land, the issue of land ownership provoked the brutal conflicts that resulted in numerous conflicts, including the war of liberation of circa1965-1979, which ultimately brought about the demise of the settler-state.
The arrival of the British in Zimbabwe in 1890 resulted in rapid social changes, especially the land use systems that underwent radical transformation with a concomitant impact on cattle and social structures.
The specifications of both the land unit and land utilisation changed over time as a result of British land management systems and transfers of ownership.
During the colonial period in Zimbabwe, the majority of people in the country suffered greatly as a result of poorly orchestrated land policies that were essentially designed to support the white commercial farming model of agricultural production, which resulted in conflicts, as a result of intense competition over land and its natural resources.
The change in land use systems and their associated effects, culminated in conflict between races. The people suffered as a result of colonial land policy which appeared unresponsive to and unrepresentative of the needs of the indigenous populations. The aim of the colonial government was to maximise profits through the use of cheap labour. This could only be achieved if the indigenous people were deprived of their means of subsistence, the land.
In the process, the peasantry were slowly being turned into wage labourers.
The same strategy had been tried and tested with success in Europe during the Feudal period when the enclosure system was implemented.
It then became the standard European approach in the scramble for Africa at the end of the 19th Century.
Loss of land and new taxes forced African indigenous peasants to seek wage labour on white-owned farms and in towns.
Cheap labour became the embryo of capitalist development.
The colonial government, through various land acts, allocated less and poorer quality land to different ethnicities, thereby forcing them out of their land and at the same time developing a taxation system that required participation in a cash-based economy to enable these ethnicities to pay taxes that in turn supported the policies of the colonial powers.
In time, the history of Zimbabwe became not just a history of land struggle, but also a history of class struggles within which land was the major bone of contention. Zimbabwe became a land divided by its history as a British colony and its experiences of exploitation and liberation struggles. Thus, national identity, cattle, land use and their cultural importance in the development of grievances and struggles in Zimbabwe is a strong force in moulding national consciousness.
It is the storehouse through which people develop a sense of their social identity and their future prospects.
Dr Michelina Rudo Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant lecturer and specialist hospitality interior decorator. She is a published author in her field. For views and comments, email:


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