Subaltern Struggles and the Politics of Place: Remapping Resistance in Zimbabwe's Eastern Highlands

Peer Reviewed


In August 1996, I climbed a steep ridge overlooking a portion of the Kaerezi River valley in Zimbabwe's Eastern Highlands, its rugged mountains cascading toward the sunrise over Mozambique. The well-worn path, carved by the feet of children's daily travels to the small school in the next river valley, snaked its way up the slope. Fresh tracks bore the imprint of an oxen-drawn sledge, a popular mode of transport despite its violation of state conservation law. Nationalist guerrillas and Rhodesian forces traversed the same terrain in the 1970s, when armed skirmishes dotted what was then the white-owned Gaeresi Ranch. At Independence, the land became the state-administered Kaerezi Resettlement Scheme. Fields were to be allocated to household heads, spatially separated from concentrated residential grids, to promote the administrative vision of or- derly land use. Yet more than 15 years after Zimbabwe's independence in 1980, the planned linear resettlement grids consisted of unpeopled, barren plots marked by rusted metal stakes. Beyond these demarcated zones, local defiance of government policy inscribed the landscape with mud-and-wattle and sun-dried brick huts scattered across the river valley. Maize fields emanated from thatched huts in the heart of most homesteads, spreading out into pastures that climbed toward Mount Nyangani, Zimbabwe's highest peak. A bright blue cement house stood out sharply from the agrarian mosaic of green and brown hues.

JackyR, "Chimanimani, Zimbabwe1." March 8, 2006 via Wikipedia Commons.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published many essays on place. See, for example, Gastón Gordillo's "The Dialectic of Estrangement: Memory and the Production of Places of Wealth and Poverty in the Argentinean Chaco" (2002); Andrea Muehlebach's "'Making Place' at the United Nations: Indigenous Cultural Politics at the U.N. Working Group on Indigenous Populations" (2001); and Raffles's "44Local Theory": Nature and the Making of an Amazonian Place" (1999)

Cultural Anthropology has also published many essays focused specifically on Zimbabwe and Mozambique.  These include Juan M. Obarrio's "Remains: To Be Seen. Third Encounter between State and 'Customary' in Northern Mozambique" (2010); David McDermott Hughes's "Third Nature: Making Space and Time in the Great Limpopo Conservation Area" (2005); and Blair Rutherford's "Desired Publics, Domestic Goverment, and Entangled Fears: On the Anthropology of Civil Society, Farm Workers, and White Farmers in Zimbabwe" (2004).

About the Author

(adapted from his UC Berkeley profile)

Prof. Donald S. Moore is an Associate professor at UC Berkeley.  His work focuses on power, spatiality, and race.  He has conducted over 30 months of ethnographic fieldwork on agrarian micro-politics in Eastern Zimbabwe. This work explores the cultural politics of landscape and identity, focusing on both colonial and postcolonial governmentality, those assemblages of practice that promote self-disciplining subjects.  He uses both historical and ethnographic prisms to examine racialized regimes of rule in southern Africa, notably conflicts over land, labor, and livelihood. This ethnographic work on situated struggles tries to bring a more enlivened spatial sensitivity to contemporary anthropological formulations of the cultural politics of place, power, and identity. A brief period of field research in South Africa focused on post-apartheid land claims and the cultural politics of recognition and redistribution.

His more recent work maps an emergent field of the cultural politics of race and nature. How do race and nature work as contested terrains of power? Drawing from Race Critical Theory, postcolonial theory, and the field of environmental politics, this project tracks the traffic between nature and culture that routes through historically specific formations of racism. Part of this work resulted in a collaborative project that produced the co-edited Race, Nature, and the Politics of Difference (Duke, 2003).

His research and teaching interests include: governmentality; cultural politics; spatiality and power; environment and development; race and the politics of difference; and postcolonial theory. 

Additional Work by the Author

2003    Race, Nature, and the Politics of Difference. Edited by Donald S. Moore, Jake Kosek, and Anand Pandian. Durham: Duke University Press.

2003    "Beyond Blackmail: Multivalent Modernities and the Cultural Politics of Development in India." In Regional Modernities: The Cultural Politics of Development in India. K. Sivaramakrishnan and Arun Agrawal, eds. Pp. 165-214. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

1999    "The Crucible of Cultural Politics: Reworking Development in Zimbabwe's Eastern Highlands." American Ethnologist 26(3):654-89.

1998    "Clear Waters and Muddied Histories: Environmental History and the Politics of Community in Zimbabwe's Eastern Highlands." Journal of Southern African Studies 24(2):377-404.

1996    "Marxism, Culture, and Political Ecology: Environmental Struggles in Zimbabwe's Eastern Highlands." In Liberation Ecologies: Environment, Development, Social Movements. R. Peet and M. Watts, eds. Pp. 125-47. London: Routledge.

1994    "Optics of Engagement: Power, Positionality, and African Studies." Transition 64: 121-127.

1993    "Contesting Terrain in Zimbabwe's Eastern Highlands: Political Ecology, Ethnography, and Peasant Resource Struggles." Economic Geography 69(4): 380-401.

damien_farrell, "Ancient terracing, Zimbabwe North-East." September 18, 2006 via Flickr.


Rhodesia 1976, a TV news Report

VOA News' Profile on President Robert Mugabe

"Map of Zimbabwe." March 27, 2005 via Wikipedia Commons.

"Map of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland." May 18, 2007 via Wikipedia Commons.

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. Moore identifies a lack of attention to the politics of place in resistance studies.  Why is this lack of attention problematic?  Also, when space is referenced in such studies how is it characterized and why is this characterization inhibiting?  What is Moore’s solution?

2. How does James Scott analyze resistance in Malaysia?  How have feminists critiqued Scott’s analysis?  Relate the feminist critique to Moore’s critique of Scott. 

3. How are agrarian studies and subaltern studies related?

4. What strategy did the Tagwena chieftainship undertake to prevent the eviction of him and his followers in 1967-1972?  How did the colonial officials counter this strategy?  How is this strategy resurrected against the postcolonial state?

5. Is there an autonomous space of resistance?

Related Readings

Abu-Lughod, Lila

1990    "The Romance of Resistance." American Ethnologist 17:41-55.

Alonso, Ana Maria

1995    Thread of Blood: Colonialism, Revolution, and Gender on Mexico's Northern Frontier. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Comaroff, Jean

1985    Body of Power, Spirit of Resistance: The Culture and History of a South African People. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Foucault, Michel

1980    "The Question of Geography." In Power/Knowledge. Colin Gordon, ed. Pp.63-77. New York: Pantheon.

Gramsci, Antonio

1972    Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, eds. New York: International Publishers.

Guha, Ranajit

1982    "On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India." In Subaltern Studies I. Ranajit Guha, ed. Pp. 1-8. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Kondo, Dorinne

1990    Crafting Selves: Power, Gender, and Discourses of Identity in a Japanese Workplace. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Massey, Doreen

1984    Spatial Divisions of Labour. London: Macmillan.

1995    "Thinking Radical Democracy Spatially." Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 13(3):283-288.

Mitchell, Timothy

1990    "Everyday Metaphors of Power." Theory and Society 19:545-577.

Ortner, Sherry

1995    "Resistance and the Problem of Ethnographic Refusal." Comparative Studies in Society and History 37( 1): 173-193.

Scott, James

1976    The Moral Economy of the Peasant. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

1985    Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

1990    Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty

1996    "Subaltern Talk." In The Spivak Reader. Donna Landry and Gerald MacLean, eds. Pp. 287-308. New York: Routledge.

Editorial Overview

In his 1998 essay “Subaltern Struggles and the Politics of Place: Remapping Resistance in Zimbabwe's Eastern Highlands” Donald Moore "problematizes the predominant ways in which resistance, subalternity, and their presumed social spaces have been mapped" by exploring the use of place in Zimbabwe's Eastern Highlands as it transitions from colonial control to independence.  Offering a brief history of this space, Moore examines how the Kaerezians’ use of and right to this space is influenced by British colonial powers and ranchers, the rise of African nationalism, and “tribal” chieftainship’s fight for recognition and authority.  Through his ethnographic examples, Moore demonstrates how place is not passive, but rather is a fluid entity constantly made through historical, political, and cultural struggle.  By arguing that "agency produces locality and identity through a complex cultural politics of place" he calls for more awareness to space and the politics of place. 

Moore’s essay offers a succinct introduction to the South Asian Subaltern Studies collective. The essay explores the overlaps and disagreements on resistance as understood by Gramsci, Agrarian Studies, and Subaltern Studies.  Through this comparison Moore identifies a lack of attention to the politics of place in studies of resistance and questions the idea of the “autonomous domain” of resistance.  He also declares subalternity as “relational and dynamic, rather than absolute and essential.”

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