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Rooting production: life and labour on the settler farms of the Zimbabwean-South African border

Bolt, Maxim (2012) Rooting production: life and labour on the settler farms of the Zimbabwean-South African border. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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This thesis is about a workforce in the midst of regional economic fragmentation. It is an ethnographic study of a commercial farm on South Africa’s border with Zimbabwe, where farmer-landowners are white Afrikaners, and workers black and overwhelmingly Zimbabwean. Fleeing the hyperinflation and violent state oppression of the ‘Zimbabwean crisis’, farm workers encounter South Africa’s neoliberal restructuring, contraction of labour-intensive industry, and land reform. Economic informalisation in both countries – a shift to short-term strategies of ‘making do’ – seems to hail the disappearance of southern Africa’s longer-term patterns of racialised migrant labour systems. This thesis, however, argues for a labour relations or ‘productivist’ perspective on current trends. Agricultural workforces on the Zimbabwean-South African border, with their established forms of everyday organisation and on-site residence, profoundly shape the local setting. Their highly structured arrangements bear the mark of the region’s labour history, yet also reflect the forms of fragmentation currently characterising southern Africa. The thesis begins by exploring white border farmers’ self-understandings through their notions of success. It then offers a wider historical account of the border’s settler capitalists, their struggles for control of land and labour, and the role played by their enterprises as hubs of settlement. Focusing on one border farm today, the study turns to the black workforce itself. It investigates how permanent workers consolidate their powerful positions in diverse areas of life, blurring spheres of work and non-work; how seasonal workers, many displaced from Zimbabwe, with diverse socio-economic backgrounds, engage with the hierarchies built around their permanent counterparts; and how, in the midst of all this, senior black workers struggle over status by means of contrasting models of authority, pitting established paternalism against idioms of corporate management. Together, these perspectives reveal how a workforce’s internal arrangements both reflect and refract the wider dynamics of the border and of Zimbabwean displacement. The thesis finally develops this central theme by addressing the position of farm work in a wider economy of trade and services on the farms and across the border. Based on ethnographic fieldwork on one border farm, and in the border area more generally (November 2006-April 2008), and supported by archival research, this thesis contributes to the anthropology of work. It shows how workplace dynamics act as a prism, refracting the meanings of work, movement and upheaval in an era of informalisation, and embed displaced migrant workers in dense webs of dependence and obligation.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2011 Maxim Bolt
Library of Congress subject classification: G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GN Anthropology
H Social Sciences > HD Industries. Land use. Labor > HD100 Land Use
H Social Sciences > HT Communities. Classes. Races
Sets: Departments > Anthropology
Supervisor: James, Deborah and Engelke, Matthew and Engelke, Matthew

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