Tea growers provide insights into Zimbabwe social justice issues

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Joseph Mtisi

The excuse offered by white Rhodesian officials for not allowing Africans to have their own tea farms was that they would produce inferior, even "dirty" tea leaves. "But as one grower told me, the Africans were the ones who planted the tea, cared for it, pruned it, and harvested it," said Joseph Mtisi. "The Africans did all the labor."

Mtisi is a Center Research Fellow and lecturer in economic history at the University of Zimbabwe, in what was formerly Rhodesia. An authority on smallholder tea growers, he is writing a book that uses the history of tea farming as a case study for exploring social and economic justice issues rooted in agrarian policies. "The tea industry is unique in Zimbabwe, both for its history and for the insights it offers into the web of relationships involved in export crop production and marketing," said Mtisi.

"In the global economy of the 21st century, it is clear that smallholder producers remain vital to the economies of developing nations. They support large-scale corporations and state agencies by providing labor, food and crops for export. In turn, these smallholders rely on the state and large-scale companies to market their goods. Consequently, the relationship between smallholders as producers and the companies and the state is far more than a simple economic dependence. It is also political."

Historically, land is at the heart of the search for social justice in Zimbabwe, said Mtisi. The notorious Land Apportionment Act of 1930 divided land according to race, with white farmers receiving most of the arable ground. The white government in Zimbabwe did not allow Africans to grow cash crops such as tea, coffee and tobacco except as workers employed by whites. Following World War II, however, the rules eased and by the 1960s Africans had begun to grow tea for sale to companies owned by whites.

Because the African farmers are forced to sell to white dealers, now at fixed prices, later land reforms aimed at undoing the inequities have not fully succeeded. This is, in part, because the contracts favor the whites and, what's more said Mtisi, they are often unintelligible to the farmers. This "contract farming is riddled with tensions between the outgrowers and the buyers. . . The key to reform is not so much the redistribution of land holdings as providing inputs and markets, and democratizing the contract."

Mtisi argues that the contract farming model could provide an effective alternative to disruptive land redistribution if the arrangement were to emphasize cooperation among neighboring smallholder farmers, and "transparent" contracts that are understood by and are fair to all parties rather than favoring the white corporations. This approach, he said, "moves the debate over land beyond the blinding racial heritage of Zimbabwe."