- Zimbabwe’s Migrants and South Africa’s Border Farms: the roots of impermanence by Maxim Bolt
The 2012/3 farm worker protests in the Western Cape exposed to a wide public the explosive nature of structural inequalities in South Africa’s commercial farming landscape, especially the internationally acclaimed winelands. The moment prompted immediate debate about the post-apartheid realities for farm workers in a neoliberalised agricultural landscape (see Hendricks et al 2013). In The Roots of Impermanence, Maxim Bolt provides detailed insights in the lives of farm workers on export-oriented fruit farms situated on the South-African/Zimbabwean border. Bolt conducted 17 months of field work during 2006–8 by residing on the labour compound of a farm he calls Grootplaas Estates. The result is a well-researched, award-winning1 narrative that makes a fascinating read about ways in which profound inequalities are generated under conditions of neoliberal agriculture and regional crisis. I will first engage the rich empirical material presented in the ethnography that contributes to our understanding of the agency of farm workers, migrants and to some extent black women on border farms. At the end of this review I critically engage Bolt’s explanation for the roots of impermanence, in particular the notion of ‘accidental’ neoliberalism.
The book consists of eight chapters in which Bolt vividly portrays life on the border farms in the Limpopo Valley focusing on the ways in which the work place shapes social life on the farm. The book portrays how the farm workers organise space and social hierarchies into stable arrangements on which flexible capitalism depends (25). At Grootplaas, [End Page 106] the workforce consists of mostly Zimbabwean migrants who navigate regional instabilities on both side of the border; they are pushed out of Zimbabwe by economic and political upheavals and pulled into South Africa where export-oriented fruit farmers are in search for flexible labour to compete in a neoliberalised agricultural sector. Bolt situates the study in both literatures of labour migration and displacement to understand the mobility of Zimbabweans. In conversation with Polanyi, he asserts that disembeddedness is a precondition for the establishment of the workforce, yet webs of dependencies and relationships enable workers to establish a sense of permanence. In showing how this happens at Grootplaas, Bolt builds his argument that migrants produce permanence and assert belonging, in various ways, almost despite the fragmented environment and uncertain future they face. They root themselves in highly structured arrangements in the work place through relations with senior figures, women, soldiers and the spatial arrangements in the compound and in the rooms. In the process notions of masculinity, ethnicity, and class are negotiated and contested to establish hierarchies in the work force.
After the introduction follows a chapter that introduces the owners of Grootplaas Estates and explores how employers – white farmers – see themselves in relation to black people and the land. Bolt asserts that for South African or Zimbabwean white men, farming is no longer a rooted way of life, but a series of strategic business investments, a life ‘project’. Political and economic pressures fuel their sense of uncertainty. Bolt mentions farmers’ attempts to convince him of their truths, assuring him that they belong on the land due to their hard work and efforts to make a success of farming. Through their self-understandings we learn how farmers continue to assume their superior position in commercial farming and how this is linked to the process of becoming a man.
Chapter three draws on archival data to investigate the trajectory of border capitalism by exploring the relationship between the state and white capitalist miners and farmers during the first half of the twentieth century. In the Limpopo Valley, white farmers were able to use the tension created by the state’s interest in securing the border and their own interest in recruiting labour, to build stable conditions for production and their capitalist enterprises. Bolt traces how notions of farmers’ sovereignty and authority to control land and mobile black people, are embedded in the region’s history...