Intellectual giant

Samson Moyo (1954-2015) was tireless and unwavering in his quest for a humane and just social order with agrarian reform and social security at its core.

Published : Jan 06, 2016 12:30 IST

Samson Moyo at a conference in New Delhi in November 2015. He met with an accident soon after the conclusion of the conference on November 20.

Samson Moyo at a conference in New Delhi in November 2015. He met with an accident soon after the conclusion of the conference on November 20.

PROFESSOR Samson Moyo (popularly known as “Sam”), an outstanding scholar and progressive activist of the Global South, was snatched away from us in an unimaginable and cruellest fashion in the early hours of November 22, 2015. Sam was in New Delhi as a visiting professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and also to participate in a conference on “Labour Questions in the Global South”. On the late afternoon of November 20, the car in which the Zimbabwean scholar was travelling soon after the conclusion of the conference was involved in a horrific accident. Sam was wrenched from us at the pinnacle of his intellectual prowess, not only as a great Pan-Africanist thinker and activist but also as an icon of the Global South.

For well over a decade I was fortunate to be very close to him, both professionally and personally. Along with a network of comrades from different parts of the world, particularly the Global South, Sam was tireless and unwavering in his quest for a humane and just social order. It may sound like a cliche, but his passing away leaves a void that is impossible to fill.

In his tribute to Sam Moyo, his fellow traveller and comrade for over four decades, Thandika Mkandawire, writes that Sam was an intellectual giant who worked tirelessly on issues of agrarian reform and collaborated with several institutions and governments to bring about structural changes for building a more egalitarian society from the 1980s. As Thandika emphasises, the link between theory and practice was integral to Sam’s work in four different ways. The first was his passion for social justice and belief in land reform as a foundational principle on which an egalitarian society should be based. The second was his intellectual defence of the land reform process in Zimbabwe, which had been portrayed by several mainstream scholars as a mirage set up by “Mugabe and his cronies”. Third, Sam believed that African voices should be heard on critical matters relating to Africa. This, he believed, needed sustained work and institutional backing. Last, Sam was driven by the belief that African research and interests were integrally linked to the cause of working people in the Global South. In fact, Sam’s own effort was to build a network of scholars and activists who would intellectually challenge the exploitative might of contemporary capitalism by linking them to movements of workers and peasants throughout the developing world.

Although a routine recounting of Sam’s research interests foregrounds agrarian studies with particular focus on agriculture, land reforms and food security, it is important to emphasise that these were only some of the important entry points in his tireless mapping of the contours of a progressive economic and social transformation. The core of Sam’s intellectual project, backed by his incisive and rigorous scholarship, was an engagement with a profound vision of the liberation of the oppressed classes across the South. It is in this context that Sam’s remarkable work on agrarian issues, which spanned more than three decades of research, produced publications and involved building collaborative networks with kindred spirits and voices, needs to be located. Of course, the “land question” in Zimbabwe and land reforms remained enduring features of Sam’s research. But it would be myopic to box him as just a “land expert”, thematically or otherwise. These were critical entry points in envisioning the issues and challenges of social transformation trajectories that were socially and economically just, and these remained the overarching frame of Sam’s profound and illuminating scholarship.

Activist and institution builder Sam’s unwavering struggles as an activist and an institution builder for a more equal world were just as legendary as his scholarship. From his deep involvement in the liberation and anti-apartheid struggles in Zimbabwe to being a co-traveller and powerful voice in the service of progressive movements in other countries in Africa and elsewhere, Sam had a trail-blazing journey. And this journey was indeed a difficult one; given the odds, and the vested interests, it could not have been otherwise. But with a twinkle in his eye and a smile on the lips, Sam had an amazingly wonderful ability to laugh off the difficulties. Much of the influential and mainstream scholarship on Africa is, ironically, based outside the continent. But in recent years there has been a growing recognition that it is futile to ignore the work of one of the best and the brightest. And thus, there were more and more toasts for Sam! But he knew how to carry the growing accolades with grace and humility.

In terms of institution-building, Sam had many laurels to his credit. He was an active member of CODESRIA (the Council for Development of Social Science Research in Africa) from the 1970s and became one of its most valued office-bearers in various capacities, including a position at the helm in recent years. The African Institute of Agrarian Studies (AIAS), which he established in 2002 in Harare, Zimbabwe, has come to be respected as a great institution for its substantive research contributions that have often changed the terms of debates and discourses. It would not be an exaggeration to say that, given the quality of its research, the AIAS has become a “must visit” not only for Sam’s friends and fellow-travellers but also for other progressive scholars working on the Global South. In fact, the AIAS, during the last decade became the hub of the Agrarian South Network (ASN), a growing community of researchers and activists not only for the three continents of the Global South but also elsewhere, committed to research, policy dialogues and publications on comparative trajectories of agrarian and broader economic transformation in the South. Key partners of the ASN include University of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Jawaharlal Nehru University (India), federal universities in Brazil (Brasilia and Sao Paulo) and a number of organisations such as Action Aid India, Trust for Community Outreach and Education (South Africa) and others.

The summer school of the AIAS, annually held in the third week of January in Harare, has become an extremely exciting event for established researchers, activists and young scholars from universities and organisations across the broad spectrum of countries in the Global North and the South. Through its seven Agrarian Summer Schools, the ASN has created a fascinating, unique and engaged platform for dialogues across alternative perspectives to deepen the project of progressive socio-economic transformations in the Global South. Under Sam’s visionary leadership, the summer schools were meant to become the training ground for socially conscious young researchers forming the core of the generational transition in “agrarian studies”. Sam frequently emphasised that such a change was necessary to influence the trajectory and understanding of progressive social movements. The summer schools thus became a way of addressing the need for nurturing young scholars and inspiring them to be the carriers of anti-imperialist transformations.

Another major initiative of the ASN is the journal, Agrarian South: Journal of Political Economy , of which four volumes have been published. The other significant endeavour of the ASN has been the publication of several books. Of these, two edited volumes on Reclaiming Land and Reclaiming Nation have drawn much critical acclaim. From envisioning the ASN to piloting all its projects and endeavours, Sam was at the centre. In fact, he was the cementing force of this exciting community and it would be a huge challenge for his co-travellers to take forward his legacy. Apart from the ASN, Sam was also associated with several institutions and networks engaged with policy research in which he played pivotal roles. His was an engaged life of an organic intellectual, connected with several causes and movements and he was “at home” in several countries across the world.

Sam was a fantastic humanist, extremely caring of everyone around him and totally trustworthy and generous to a fault. His mentoring of younger colleagues was legendary and in difficult times he was a natural choice to rely on for almost everyone around him. The loss of the gentle giant, particularly the manner and the time, is impossible to come to terms with. The best that one can do is to cherish the humanist vision he strived and lived for.

Praveen Jha is Professor at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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