Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Pan-African intellectual towered above us

Nomalanga Mkhize, Business Day

JUST more than a week ago, the inimitable Zimbabwean intellectual Prof Sam Moyo died in a car accident in Delhi, India. When the news came, it felt as if there was a sudden stillness; the immensity of the loss was so palpable. I imagine that is what happens moments after a giant tree has fallen in the forest; Moyo was that towering tree to so many of us.

The "towering tree" description is a cliche, but it is an apt image in remembering Moyo’s form of intellectualism, which was a kind of social ecology of sharing, relating and nurturing.

He was that old-school pan-African scholar whose social and political outlook was shaped by anticolonial and anti-apartheid struggles and the ideal of African unity. He was a citizen of Africa, not just of Zimbabwe.

He was multilingual and multi-idiomatic.

Like so many of his generation, Prof Moyo had the mind of an elephant. He never forgot people and related to colleagues as though we were one big clan of the global south. When I was first introduced to him properly at a conference, he had already made the connections when he saw my name. Before I explained who I was he said, "Oh, I am friends with auntie so-and-so, who was a friend of your parents back in exile in Zimbabwe." He was that guy who seemed to know everyone, and everyone knew him.

I was initially intimidated to meet the great Prof Moyo, but after our introduction, I knew I was valued in the clan of African scholars. It was a good thing too that he made me feel at ease as a young scholar because my doctoral work had to contend with his work on land and agrarian questions and I was terrified of what he would think when he finally got to read the thesis.

Prof Moyo was most prolific on the question of land in Africa. There were two key arguments that ran through his work. First, he maintained that land remains a key source of livelihood in Africa and other parts of the global south. If this were to be taken seriously, radical measures would be necessary to protect land access for the poor and ensure the viability of the economies of developing countries.

For him, the European trajectory of "successful" industrialisation and urbanisation had proven untrue to conditions in many countries of the global south; thus land cannot be viewed as singularly as a market commodity when it is so fundamental to survival.

Prof Moyo saw settler-colonial landholding patterns as a barrier to the development of southern African economies. In this region, he saw racially skewed landholding patterns as a key driver of the continuous social crises that had accumulated in southern African states such as SA and Zimbabwe.

To that end, he was an advocate of fast-track land reform in Zimbabwe in support of the original veterans of the Zimbabwean struggle, although he remained critical of Zanu (PF) and maintained his intellectual independence.

I agreed with him on land in Africa; we must protect diverse land rights as a matter of principle, and restrict the wholesale implementation of market-driven ownership models.

I only half agreed with him on Zimbabwe. Yes, land is now equitably held, but it is as yet unknowable what kind of land markets will open up as Zimbabwe’s economy grows again. Furthermore, Zanu (PF)’s suffocating authoritarianism is grinding away at the spirit of the citizens.

The social cost of dictatorship erodes the gains in land justice.

The last time I saw him, we discussed the African National Congress’s Mangaung conference at the end of 2012. Ever the scholarly uncle, he asked questions and then listened intently to my predictions, if with some amusement.

We will continue to engage his ideas and maintain his tradition of intellectual commitment to Africa.