The neoliberal restructuring of land and agriculture in Africa: two new books

Two important new books have come out on the neoliberal restructuring of land and agriculture in Africa recently. Both take a radical agrarian political economy stance on the theme, but from different angles. Such analyses have important implications for thinking about agrarian reform, the role of contract farming and the place of land and agriculture in African economies.

Processes of neoliberalisation

The first book Capital Penetration and the Peasantry in Southern and Eastern Africa is edited by Freedom Mazwi, George Mudimu and Kirk Helliker, respectively from the Sam Moyo African Institute of Agrarian Studies, PLAAS at UWC and the Zimbabwe Studies Institute at Rhodes University. The collection has contributions on South Africa, Uganda, Namibia, Malawi, Zambia, Kenya, Mozambique and Eswatini, and two on Zimbabwe and makes the case that “the hallmark of the neoliberal agenda, for agrarian spaces, has been the entrenchment of landed property rights and the push for market-led land reforms”.

Neoliberalism, the editors explain, is characterised by “unequal exchange on global markets, large-scale land dispossessions, underfunding of the agricultural (particularly smallholder or peasant) sector, and macro-economic initiatives such as the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).” The contemporary form of financialised, globalised capitalism in particular allows capital to penetrate places that had previously been ignored, resulting in significant extractive profits. This they argue results in marginalisation, impoverishment and increasing differentiation alongside elite capture.

In this book, neoliberalisation is seen as a process, not a singular state – a useful point that gets away from some of the very simplistic and polemical treatises misusing the term. As the introduction to the book explains, the processes of neoliberalisation are variegated, uneven, contradictory and subject to repeated crises and moments of rupture. Interests associated with neoliberalisation are pushed by class interests, which are allied globally with monopoly capital and western powers aligning with national elites in Africa, but there are equally forms of resistance, locally and nationally.


This process seen across Africa and illustrated across the chapters of the book is very much centred on processes of extraction, which serve the needs of metropolitan states. This includes “land concentration and grabbing (by private, domestic and international capital), monopolistic control over natural resources, and new forms of production arrangements (for example, contract farming) involving agrarian capital— in which there is corporate control over flows of commodities, credit and value.”  As Ye Jingzhong and colleagues explain, extractivism has moved from a pattern of single sites of mining, land grabbing to a more generalised process, encompassing whole agrarian systems.

Several case studies in the book (e.g., Sakata, Mhlanga and Bruna) home in on ‘contract’ farming as a globally-driven agricultural production and marketing strategy that, they argue, reduces the autonomy and livelihood opportunities of the peasantry. The result is, they argue, increasing impoverishment and differentiation and a reinforcing of the international division of labour, with value extracted elsewhere.

While there is a much wider debate about contract farming, including some (such as our work) that highlights its immediate benefits for the relatively (but not extremely) poor, situating the growing phenomenon in a wider historical and political frame is definitely useful. It is the contingent political economy that influences whether contract relations ‘upgrade’ and so support local production or ‘capture’ the peasantry through extractive relations, as Kojo Amanor has pointed out.

Overall, the book argues that sustaining the neoliberal project is in the interests of metropolitan powers and capitalist interests globally, with strong alliances across nations, drawing on ‘theories of imperialism’ as articulated so effectively by Utsa and Prahbat Patnaik. Those countries that challenge the neoliberal tenets are isolated, and sanctions are imposed to get them into line, the book argues.

The case of Zimbabwe’s land reform is of course the example given, but there are others. As they argue, following Sam Moyo, Praveen Jha, Paris Yeros and others, “this raises complex questions about state autonomy vis-à-vis global capital as well as the importance of resolving the national question through pursuing relatively autonomous development paths”, a theme picked up especially in the second book.

An Afrocentric perspective?

The second book for this review is edited by Vusi Gumede and Toendepi Shonhe, respectively from the University of Mpumalanga and formerly of UNISA in Johannesburg, and is called ambitiously “Rethinking the Land and Agrarian Questions in Africa” (available as an e-book and a hard copy), again with a number of case study chapters from across east and southern Africa.

Developing the ideas of the great thinkers of African agrarian studies including Samir Amin, Archie Mafeje and Sam Moyo, the book makes the case for an Afrocentric perspective, where ideas around agrarian change – and land reform in particular – are recast, away from a Eurocentric epistemology. Such standard Eurocentric views “underscore the preoccupation with property rights and thus the need to remain in harmony with global capital, enabling colonial systems to persist.”

Instead, the book argues for an alternative way of thinking about land and its value that decolonises the land and so provides “a basis for creating new platforms for social change and broadened accumulation”.  This focus on constructions of knowledge around land, law, policy, property and so on is a really useful intervention, and opens up new areas of debate not framed in a restrictive way by conventional thinking.

Delinking and autonomous development

In arguing for a radical departure from neoliberal, colonised thought and practice and a liberation of the mind towards ideas that are rooted in African initiative and local economies, the work of Samir Amin on delinking comes to mind (whose work is drawn upon in both books). His 1987 short note on delinking encapsulates many of the ideas being revisited by African scholars of agrarian settings today, inspired of course by the important mentor to many, the late Sam Moyo (who the second book is dedicated to and whose work informs much of the thinking in the first).

“The development of countries at the periphery of the world-capitalist system, consequently, passes through a necessary “break” from this world capitalist system – a “delinking” – that is to say, the refusal to submit national-development strategy to the imperatives of “globalization”. But the meaning we give to the concept of “delinking” is not at all a synonym for autarky. We mean the organization of a system of criteria for the rationality of economic choices based on a law of value, which has a national foundation and a popular content, independent of the criteria of economic rationality that emerges from the domination of the law of capitalist value that operates a world scale.”

Amin goes on to suggest a model of national and popular auto-centred development, which “does not consist of rejecting all relations with the outside, but in submitting the external relations to the logic of an internal development that is independent from them.” This means accepting trade relations, market exchanges, technologies and aid/external support on different terms, resisting the extractivism of neoliberalism and the imperatives of a particular style of agrarian policy.

In this sense, the vision is different to one of localised, autonomous ‘food sovereignty’, but accepts that a break with hegemonic power (and as Gumede and Shonhe argue, ideas and styles of knowledge-making) allows for liberation, even if ‘western’ technologies, external trade and so on are part of the solution. As Amin and others argue, a key question is who can benefit from such popular, nationally-determined development? Questions of class and the dangers of capture once again come to the fore. As with neoliberalisation, struggles for alternatives must be seen as a process.

In the Zimbabwean context, the “break” with the West occurred following land reform and the imposition of ‘sanctions’ and the subsequent lack of investment and finance. This perhaps should have offered some of this opportunity. Indeed, in some of the land reform settings we work in a sense of autonomy and independent economic activity on farmers’ own terms is evident. And during the pandemic, due to force of circumstance, this accelerated as people generated resilience and capacities to survive the effects of lockdowns in a collapsing economy. However, as we have discussed many times on this blog, these opportunities remain constrained. This is why Amin argues that delinking is not just autarky, instead a progressive national state needs to support such endeavours and this has been lacking.

Resisting imperial impositions from metropolitan powers and transforming the depredations of neoliberalism requires more than just getting by as farmers in rural Zimbabwe are incredibly good at doing, but requires a mobilisation, across classes and with allies in the state and beyond, for liberation to be realised. These books help us think about this process, but (as ever) there are no easy answers.

This blog was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared here on Zimbabweland

%d bloggers like this: