The Sam That I Knew

The Sam That I Knew

On Saturday at approximately 11:45am Beijing time I received a call from an old friend informing me that Prof Sam Moyo had been involved in a high impact accident in New Delhi and we should pray. I didn’t. For some reason I just felt powerless and all I could do was sing songs of praise but could not sleep, then within the same hour the message came- Sam is no more. Shattered! I did not want to believe it. My or rather our world had just turned upside down. For we have always considered ourselves a privileged lot- the students of Prof Sam Moyo. Zvoradza!I met Prof Sam Moyo first through his work in the late 1990s and then face to face way back in 2005 when I had just returned home having completed an MA in Development Studies in the UK. I had been asked by Ray Bush to pass greetings to him and the conversation that followed led to me joining the Africa Institute for Agrarian Studies (AIAS) initially on a three months contract which was eventually extended until 2009. From the first day I realized that Prof Sam -sorry most of us at the institute at that time and even now I supposed were never able to refer to him just as Sam- was a special breed- an international traveller sought after by many others- he was just not our Professor but he literally belonged to the Global South and he took it in his stride and never once complained about travel no matter how difficult or hectic a schedule.

Many others have reflected about the man they knew as Sam and in this piece I will reflect in an eclectic manner on what he meant to me and the manner in which he influenced not only me but hopefully our generation of scholars/activists and practitioners. Let me just start off by stating the fact that he was an extra-ordinary scholar who had a larger than life presence who could not be restricted to a single subject or nation but was a global figure with local relevance. He was a giant of extra-ordinary energy and intellect that we all admired and wished to be like him at some point in our lives.

Prof Sam’s Contribution- beyond Just Land Reform

He was way ahead of his time in almost all his writings but let me state from the beginning that Prof’s lifetime of work cannot be adequately treated in these few paragraphs- all I am doing is providing highlights of what still stands out for me in his work (without referring to the texts). He did not see events or phenomena in isolation but instead saw connections with both the immediate past and also what other regions were experiencing. He recognised that the developing South was shaped mostly by policies and programs designed elsewhere and also continuation of the different forms of subjugation from land alienation to slave like labour regimes on commercial farms. As such he always remarked that Zimbabwe is mostly analysed in isolation from what has happening in other countries even her neighbours.

He made an important connection between economic policy and land reform. In his 2000 book Land Reform under Structural Adjustment he argued that ESAP in Zimbabwe had created incentives for large scale commercial farmers and also for diversification into other commercial land use patterns such as wildlife ranching, new export crops but had not adequately brought smallholders into these circuits of production and accumulation instead it had led to growing inequality. ESAP had also created a disincentive for land reform under the willing buyer willing seller model- given the fact that this was probably a period of boom for large scale agriculture thus there was no need to consider giving up land.

Whilst others were busy dismissing the land invasions as an isolated politically driven process he was the first to argue that there was a connection between the invasions of the 2000s and what we had experienced soon after independence all the way to the late 1990s- land invasions of differing intensity and he did not stop there he went to argue that there is a bigger connection between Zimbabwe’s land occupations  with what was already happening in the Global South- it was indeed a moment of land occupations in places such as Brazil, India and even South Africa (see his Millennium 2001 article). His collaboration with Paris Yeros (2005) was seminal in many respects especially in bringing these connections to the fore. They also went a step further to demonstrate how the failure of the Structural Adjustment Project across the entire global South had yielded land occupations as the response of the marginalized peasantry. In fact their book on land occupations across the global South published in 2005 and the work of other peasant based movements such as the MST (Brazil), the LPM (South Africa) and war veterans + peasants (Zimbabwe) dramatically brought peasant politics back to the policy agenda. In the process Sam became one of the most sought after scholars in Global South capitals such as New Delhi, Sao Paulo, Mexico etc. and sadly he never received adequate attention in his own country- his work (and indeed that of the AIAS) only began to gain currency after Scoones et al had debunked the myths of collapse because of land reform- which Sam had raised earlier but no one had paid attention preferring instead to tag him as partisan. So sad.

Prof Sam was also very careful to avoid notions of silver bullet prescriptions- with regards to land he argued (in a paper co-authored with Prosper Matondi) that land was a necessary but not sufficient condition for effective rural development- instead there is need for broader agrarian reforms. Land reform (entailing redistribution, tenure reforms and improved utilisation) was only the first set of policy actions to be embarked upon. One of my favourite readings of Prof Sam Moyo is a small monograph published by Sapes Trust back in the 1990s entitled ‘Land and Democracy’. The purpose of land reform had mostly been reduced to addressing livelihoods and in this article he demonstrated how the resolution of the land question would on the one hand break the monopoly power of large scale commercial agriculture, broaden participation in the agrarian economy and in it allow for bottom-up participation within the rural political spaces.

Beyond an analysis of the distribution of land he also devoted significant energy towards an understanding of rural mobilization, power relations and also the social relations of production. He tracked mobilizations for land in terms of the material demands, the class category of those making those demands and contrary to what others have argued he did not seek to romanticize the peasantry but rather engaged critically in an effort to understand their agency so much so that when the 2000 land occupations happened Sam was the only one who could say I saw this coming.

Furthermore Prof Sam (at times working with others) contributed significantly towards our understanding of civil society broadly and NGOs in particular in Zimbabwe. He was very critical of NGOs especially when it came to the manner in which they engaged with land reform policy- which he thought was at the centre of the national question. But to his credit he did not give up on these formations. He volunteered his time to engage in presentations, training and being part of NGO based networks in order to help them improve their positioning and contribution towards land reform.

Sam did not shy away from controversy- he took on many of the so called agrarian experts from the Global North especially when they had made the error of declaring that the Agrarian Question had been resolved. This project was to take up most of his time and led to the establishment of the Journal of the Agrarian South and also was a recurring theme in what has perhaps become the flagship of the AIAS- the Agrarian Summer Institute. I take pride in the fact that Prof entrusted me with the responsibility of organising the very first of these way back in 2009 and I am glad to note it has grown in stature and has become an important platform for agrarian scholars.

On Effectiveness

Initial Observations- The Diary/Calendar

One of the finest aspects (among many others) about Prof Sam Moyo was his availability to everyone who sought his opinion, journalists, students, peers, government officials and the like but it had to be in his diary. Each morning the diary for the day would be prepared and sent and circulated to the managers within AIAS. You did not want to keep Prof waiting. It was Chinese like efficiency and fidelity to a system that has worked for him for years. If you were not on the diary- no matter who you are- forget it- no chance of meeting. By just looking at his diary you would understand the man’s mission on earth-it was great just to watch him work.

From 0 draft to 9th draft

Prof Sam was rigor personified. In my five years at the Institute I do not remember a document that did not go from 0 draft up to the 9th draft with him involved at every stage. I was initially infuriated at the pace at which we were producing our writings but eventually I also caught on. Many of us who were doing our PhD under his guidance  (at times he would just volunteer to go through your thesis) benefitted a lot from this approach and he also used that time to reflect more on his work and some of the debates that were coming out.

His presentations were another matter altogether- there were days when we could literally leave the office very late preparing his slides only for him to change the order or the entire presentation! His was a quick mind and you had to learn to follow as a student. He believed in over preparation there was no small platform for him.

Not only a Leader but a Developer of Leaders

There was no funding partner too big or too small for Prof and we all had to follow his example of professional courtesy, precise reporting, over delivery and also continuous engagement. Within the institute we were all students I observed Prof Moyo teach experts such as Finance Managers and Accountants how to do their jobs. He understood figures and made it easy even for us non-finance people to follow. I quickly came to the realization that working under Sam is an apprenticeship for bigger assignments to come. On his CV he stated that his mission was to train the next generation of scholars. There are many of us who passed through Sam’s hands that are now leading institutions and I am sure my colleagues at TrustAfrica are tired of me always making reference to how I was taught this and that by Prof Moyo. I was taught by the best.

A Man of Integrity and Selfless at all Times

Prof lived by his word. He went beyond the call of duty. I remember at the height of inflation when we were losing several thousands of dollars because we were using the official rate of exchange Prof insisted that we had to abide by the law even if it hurts. Some of us had already devised a number of schemes to beat the system but Prof would have none of it. Whenever we had challenges with financial resources Prof was always the first to volunteer that we do not pay his salary which was already too low compared to his peers working elsewhere. To him it was not about money- if it was he would have secured another job just like that but this was deeper- it was a calling.

On His Independence

Prof Sam was a thinker and even without him saying it he cherished the freedom to write as he liked without the constraints of pleasing any form of authority. He was not anyone’s man. Many will recollect that he spurned the government’s offer of a cabinet position and even the offer of a farm at the height of land reform -although some of us tried to convince him to take it as part of the sustainability plans of AIAS- he would not budge. The famous statement was my ‘I am a scholar and not a politician or even a farmer’. When he left SARIPS he received many offers to lead regional offices of donor institutions but again he insisted on his being a scholar preferring instead to pour his savings into establishing the AIAS.  His writings were non-partisan but instead driven by a deep sense of nationalism which was not subordinated to any political party. Although there were moments where his views seemed to agree with those of a political party he remained critical and carefully watching out for elite capture- he was his own man.

On Industry

Prof Sam worked like he knew that his life on earth will be cut short. In terms of research outputs I do not know of anyone who can match his productivity. When we were preparing our individual annual reports Prof’s one always looked like a little booklets- listing his publications, conference papers he prepared and presented, students he mentored, interviews he gave. He always insisted that we all produce these individual annual reports to make sense of the rush of the previous year and plan better for the next year but we always ended up a bit embarrassed when we presented our 2-3 pagers compared to his 15-20 page reports. He never shied away from assignments and was always prepared to put in more hours than all of us. Anyone who worked with him knows fully well that hitting the midnight oil was part of the routine and not the exception.


Prof Sam Moyo was one of Zimbabwe’s greatest ambassadors. I have had the privilege of travelling with Prof countless times into different cities and sharing platforms with him and he was never intimidated or retreated from his line on the need to understand Zimbabwe in a better way- i.e. the need to understand colonial redress, the need to guard against hyperbole when describing the crisis and stay focused on the real data and yes- he called out the sanctions as harming the economy. But he was realistic enough to note even earlier than others that Zimbabwe needed to normalize her relations with the international community.  He was not as others claim an apologetic for the state – he was nationalist at heart and was more objective in analysing Zimbabwe (even the violence) but within a framework that was embedded in understanding the evolution of colonialism to neo-colonialism, the impact of centre-periphery relations and also the role of international economic development policies on developing countries such as Zimbabwe.

He did not only represent Zimbabwe- he also represented Africa (especially the community of scholars) and excelled at this on the international global stage. A sure ticket of being treated well in places like CLASCO, Third World Forum etc. was to name drop that you worked with Prof Sam!

On Family

Working at AIAS was fun! We were a small family of committed and upcoming scholars- I am sure nothing has changed there. Hardly two months would pass without Prof Sam finding a reason for all of us to gather together with his immediate family for a celebration of sorts. Oh he loved life! His favourite dish was pepper soup and most of the times he would prepare it and insist that everyone at least taste it.

More importantly for me Prof adored his daughters. I personally saw how his two young girls Qondi and Zandi were the only ones who could easily interrupt his schedule. On a recent trip where we travelled together (and sadly the last one) I asked about the girls he was proud that Sibongile is doing very well in the banking sector but maybe because he knew that I started working with him when Qondi and Zandi where in High School- he started telling me about their academic exploits and I had never seen him so proud. He asked about my 23 month old daughter and insisted that I visit No.96b so that he could see her – it was not to be because I procrastinated. Another instruction he gave me which I realize now were his parting words ‘…try to buy a house now’ so typical of a father.

On Generosity

Prof Sam’s generosity knew no boundaries. Ever smiling- in that mischievous but also very disarming way. I can’t remember a time when he ever said no when we asked him for a consultation, to help us complete a task or when others came requesting technical support even without a budget for it. One of his assets which had taken a lifetime to accumulate has always been his friends from all over the world. They were not just people who he had met at a conference but these were his friends. He had a way of connecting and keeping in touch for life. Some of us got the opportunity to meet some of Prof’s close friends – Fred Hendricks, Lungisile, Issa Shivji, Adebayo Olukoshi, Dzodzi Tsikata, Mercia Adrews and the list goes on. He also had his own heroes and you could only beam with admiration as he spoke so glowingly of Archie Mafeje, Thandika Mkandawire, Issa Shivji and I suspect his best friend Praveen Jha. When I heard that he had been involved in an accident it struck me that his best protégé to date- Paris Yeros- would be with him and for sure- the two had become like brothers –in one light moment I called them Marx and Engels. Prof and Paris’ collaboration led to a number of important interventions which have significantly shaped the broad discourse on land and agrarian reform in the global South.

Prof enriched our lives in an immeasurable way. We have lost a caring father, a leader, a mentor, a friend and above all a fine human being.

Prof Sam Moyo- Gone Too Soon- Kamba kahle. Lala ngoxolo.