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Sam Moyo (1954-2015)

Rest in peace, Sam Moyo

Southern networks hummed with shock and sadness on November 22, 2015. Emails and text messages flashed the news around the world that Sam Moyo had been killed in a car accident in Delhi, India. When the news was read there were tears at a conference in San Diego, California; in Illinois; in Moyo’s home of Harare, Zimbabwe and doubtlessly in Brazil, Ghana and many other places. There were later clarifications that following an academic workshop, Moyo, and his colleagues Paris Yeros and Marcelo Rosa were on their way back to a guest house. Their taxi driver was speeding around a corner where everyone sped around corners. There was a horrific crash, and Moyo was killed.

Anyone who is interested in agrarian issues in the global South has read about the ongoing debate about land reform in Zimbabwe, and in that debate, Sam Moyo’s reliable and copious body of work has been and will continue to be required reading. It is extremely well-cited by scholars and activists around the world. A member of the generation of Zimbabwean scholars who left colonial Rhodesia for higher education and came back to independent Zimbabwe to contribute to the development of the new nation, Moyo was 61 years old – in the full flower of his intellect, commitment and professional reach. I met him once or twice long ago; I remember an unassuming smile and a personal bearing of friendly gentleness. A founder member of the Zimbabwe Institute for Development Studies, and of the African Institute for Agrarian Studies(AIAS), he also had associations with the universities in South Africa. He had served in several capacities at CODESRIA, including as its president from 2008-2011.

Moyo’s professional trajectory is emblematic of the way that his generation of Zimbabwean scholars has been driven out into the world and so their collective scholarship is sustained by the scholarly and activist networks that are an increasingly important presence in the lives of academics of the global South. The AIAS held a summer school which brought people together from around the world to come together to study and contribute to the literature on agrarian issues. Making links between the problems, challenges and solutions in Zimbabwe, India, Brazil, South Africa and beyond – these were transnational scholars who logged many miles in pursuit of finding ways to understand, explain and improve the lives of the millions of peasants in Africa, Asia and Latin America who so often are forgotten by city dwellers and the urban elites.

In their publications, Moyo and Yeros staked out and defended a difficult position on the land situation in Zimbabwe. When, starting in 1999-2000, Mugabe conjured up the tactic of taking farms away from white farmers without compensation and redistributing the farms to black Zimbabweans, the chorus of condemnation issued from nearly all quarters. On the one hand, some observers had sympathy for white farmers implicitly based on their histories of racial privilege. For them, the “fast-track land reform” was nothing but yet another example of the failures of African independence and particularly the folly of having ever acceded to the nationalist demands of Mugabe and ZANU, proving once again that Africans could not be trusted to rule themselves. On the other hand, critics on the left pointed to the violence that had been unleashed on those farmers and on farmworkers in the countryside, as well as on ZANU’s political opponents across the country. For them, “fast track” was seen as merely a land grab to benefit Mugabe’s cronies, flunkies and hangers-on.

Moyo and Yeros, however, asserted that the conclusions of both of these camps were based on hearsay and, basically, prejudice. They argued that the competing claims of racial failure and cronyism were equally spurious because they were not based on any actual research about what had happened in Zimbabwe’s rural areas following the land redistribution. The two scholars acknowledged and condemned the violence with which the reform had been carried out, but also claimed that land went to thousands of people – many more than only Mugabe’s cronies. While ugly in its initial “implementation”, the redistribution of land was an historic step in redressing the wrongs of colonialism. Land reform had been a cornerstone of the promise of independence in Zimbabwe, but earlier programs had failed for lack of funds and willpower. “Fast track” was an example of the right program (land reform) undertaken for the wrong reasons (shoring up Mugabe’s waning rural electoral support). It was, Moyo and Yeros reasoned, an improvement on the stalled status quo of the late 1990s, when after 20 years of independence, the majority of the population remained confined on an agrarian pittance.

The rural people of Zimbabwe are sons and daughters of the soil. If the rains fall and they have land, their crops will flourish if it is at all humanly possible. I did visit a modest homestead in a new resettlement area in Zimbabwe in 2010. It was tidy, thriving and a-building. White farmers had owned but had not used much of the vast acreage they had controlled. Moyo and Yeros pointed out that smaller scale peasant agriculture is a much more logical and historically legitimate use of Zimbabwe’s farm lands.

The two were sometimes portrayed as supporters of the Mugabe regime by their detractors, both in Zimbabwe and elsewhere. It seems, however, that while disagreements became heated, the value of their work and their insistence on data- and research-based conclusions were respected by all.

The peasants and rural dwellers of the South have lost a champion, as have the causes of independent research, transnational academic collegiality and collaboration. These voids cannot be easily filled, if at all. May this son of the soil rest in peace.

Teresa Barnes
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Jan 2016

You can also read his obituary here.