A MOST PROMISING WEED: A HISTORY OF
TOBACCO FARMING AND LABOR IN COLONIAL ZIMBABWE, 1890-1945. Rubert, Steven
C. Athens: Ohio University Center for International Studies. 1997. Pp.
Steven Rubert has done us the favor of
providing an updated labor-based history of Rhodesia's tobacco industry
to 1945. Drawing on government documents, unpublished materials, and
interviews in the 1990s with nearly fifty ex-tobacco farm workers and
farmers, Rubert uniquely presents a tableau of life on tobacco farms.
He manages to interweave industry-specific management, labor, government,
gender, and moral economy. The focus on the Lomagundi and Mazoe districts
reveals that tobacco deserves closer scrutiny because it required labor-intensive,
year-around attention and dominated Southern Rhodesia's agricultural
exports. In fact, Rubert calls tobacco "the linchpin of the colonial
government's European settler policy" (p. xii).
Claiming a primary interest in workers rather than farm management,
Rubert says his first two chapters on the history of Virginia-flue-cured
tobacco farming are background preliminary to his main topics, which
include descriptive analyses of the physical environment of the farms,
labor processes, worker-management relations, gender relations, child
workers, and worker compounds. Obviously, Rubert is concerned to trace
work, what it entails and who characteristically does it, to more places
on the farm than just the fields and stripping barns. Following Henrietta
Moore's Feminism and Anthropology, he argues that work includes
assigned and presumed tasks as well as the conditions of those tasks
and the worth accorded them in the Southern Rhodesian context. This
is a 1990s labor history in the sense that there are more people in
the picture doing more things in more places.
Still, it does take Rubert awhile to get to the workers. His descriptions
of the farms, their equipment, their product and its worth are detailed
and robust --but they take up nearly half the book. The most interesting
bits, for me, appear in chapters 5-8, where the author dips into his
unique sources to offer snippets of worker conditions and relations.
We get glimpses of farmers instilling "discipline" into the
workers through the periodic "good clout" or worse (p. 96).
We see wives and children "volunteering" (which still occurs
on many commercial farms) to work, as a way of supplementing family
food rations on some farms (p. 107). Within the worker compounds we
see tobacco laborers endeavoring to squeeze the time from formal work
schedules to grow family or individual crops. Their plots were ostensibly
free but also became venues of rent-seeking: "I was an employee
so I paid [for the plot] through working" (p. 132). There were
burglaries in the compounds; fires, rapes, and brawls punctuated what
Rubert describes as usually nonconflictual living spaces (pp.142-143).
Women became casual farm workers of some importance from the 1930s onwards,
albeit not without suffering and imposing mixed messages about women's
"proper" roles. Children were employed as casual workers for
the entire period under study (p. 162); often they were beaten by adult
male workers or sexually abused (p. 164).
For those of us who do research on various aspects of work in Zimbabwe,
Rubert's study is most useful and well documented. It also contains
relatively few surprises in methods or substance. It is a straightforward
account and perhaps we should not look for surprises in it. I sense,
however, that supplementary data about tobacco farm work might have
surfaced had the author truly taken a bottom-up view of his topic. Instead,
while claiming to focus on workers and their lives, his presentation
is from the historian's God's-eye view. Rubert sets up his book as though
the big issues to address have to do with where the tobacco industry
fits with labor accounts of other sectors and with E.P. Thompson's contention
that laborers have been casualties of history writing. This is a legitimate
choice of focus but a lamentable one from the perspective of hearing
the local voices Rubert himself sought out. A study starting with the
words of workers, rather than with the historical record of the sector
and words of farmers and government officials, might change the parameters
of the history. Here, however, quotes from workers are short, and they
are structured to illustrate points a historian is making rather than
points workers may have been making quite apart from predetermined chapter
structures. One wonders whether the interview narratives were allowed
to influence the way Rubert planned to present his study.
A related area of some silence, which storms noisily in the teapot by
the end of the book, is labor resistance. Rubert tells us that farmers
described their African workers as "raw" (p. 168). How marvelously
that word encapsulates a world of worker behavior that was deemed improper,
unsuitable, rude, and inappropriate. But Rubert looks at "raw"
from the perspective of those who pronounced it. He lets pass the opportunity
to chronicle all the rude behaviors that might have comprised this three-letter
denigration. He also does not tie farmer perceptions of worker "rawness"
to the few everyday (and perhaps not so everyday) forms of resistance
he describes in terms of the moral economy of the farms. The discussion
of worker strategies is such a small and late-coming aspect of the book
that readers may form a picture of the sector wherein life for the laborers
was always unmitigable. The farmer always won; discipline was imposed.
My interview research on women workers across four sectors of the Zimbabwean
economy (including commercial farms), which is forthcoming, suggests
that this is not quite the case.
Rubert is to be commended for the leg-work he has done and is also encouraged
to let us see the tobacco sector more from perspectives which have been
subordinated here to other scholarly goals. That is, next time around
he might write more of the stories, lives, and histories of the sector
revealed in worker narratives. I suspect he is sitting on golden words.
National Centre for Development Studies
Australian National University