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Book Review: Chiefs of the Plantation

A review of the 2019 book by Lincoln Addison, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Published onDec 20, 2021
Book Review: Chiefs of the Plantation

Chiefs of the Plantation: Authority and Contestation on the South Africa-Zimbabwe Border, by Lincoln Addison (2019). Montreal, QC and Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

In Chiefs of the Plantation, Lincoln Addison offers a compelling case study of a tomato plantation—Mopane Estates—as a means of understanding how labor relations are formed and organized in post-apartheid South Africa. Even as his presence initially aroused anxiety and suspicion among managers and workers alike, Addison managed to live in the plantation compound and to become a trusted member of the community it anchors. His study focuses on the “chiefs of the plantation,” the Black intermediaries put in charge by white owners in the context of the post-apartheid restructuring of agriculture. Following a long tradition of activist scholarship, Addison builds on the concepts of labor regime and moral economy to delineate the spatial, sexual, and spiritual forms of contestation that emerge as workers negotiate and resist the harsh labor conditions they encounter. The book includes rich ethnographic material featuring the voices of the laborers, thereby complementing Maxim Bolt’s (2016) and Allan Rutherford’s (2016) similar explorations of the lives of Zimbabwean laborers in the region.

In Chapter 1, Addison outlines the labor regime of the plantation. He begins with a brief but helpful history of Mopane Estates, from the racist paternalism that marked the apartheid era to the economic reforms that incorporated Zimbabwean workers and destabilized an earlier labor regime. The region was previously inhabited by white farmers who enjoyed government support but, with the end of apartheid, struggled financially and eventually left, selling their land to the banks. “It was in that environment of liberalization and the end of apartheid,” Addison explains, “that the current owner of Mopane Estates, Philip, began acquiring land along the eastern border [with Zimbabwe]” (p. 36). This proximity enabled an influx of Zimbabwean workers, who subsequently altered the labor composition of the plantation. A pioneer in this regard was Clayton, one of the current chiefs of the plantation, who manages the compound with his white counterparts. Over the years, Clayton and other chiefs became what Addison describes as “both conduits of Philip’s paternalistic authority and alternative centers of power in their own right” (p. 56). Through their exercise of paternalism, the chiefs can control laborers even as they allow Philip to distance himself from being accountable for what happens in the compound.

This racially determined hierarchical structure allows for several types of conflict to arise. In Chapter 2, Addison demonstrates how these conflicts are spatialized, as laborers engage in activities considered illegal or undesirable but which nonetheless facilitate their survival. Disputes over tomatoes, cigarettes, and piece rates reveal both gaps in moral-economic understanding between Blacks and whites as well as the leverage that lower-ranking workers can gain within this labor regime. On the one hand, whites tend to see the plantation as a collective enterprise; even as their views sometimes diverge, “what unites [the whites],” Addison writes, “is a general sense of the plantation as fair—that it offers migrant workers a reasonable income and benefits in exchange for their labor” (p. 69). On the other hand, for the Black workers, the plantation represents a way to build prosperity in Zimbabwe. The term kuvaka musha encapsulates a moral code holding that the financial gains earned on the plantation must be channeled toward building a homestead in the workers’ places of origin. Much is sacrificed in the name of kuvaka musha, although under certain circumstances, workers can act against the interests of management to make life more bearable for themselves. Two examples are the theft of tomatoes due to the scarcity of food and the smuggling of cigarettes as a way to supplement the low incomes that workers receive. Though illegal, these activities are justified, to the Black workers, by the higher moral purpose of building one’s homestead.

The role of intermediary figures in these conflicts is explored in Chapter 3, where Addison focuses on a particular event—the theft of some chemicals—to show how “middle managers represent particular sources of instability on the plantation” (p. 113). The chapter ends with a poignant exercise in reflexivity, as Addison describes being temporarily evicted from the plantation due to his close association with one of the people involved in illegal activities. Reading this section, we gain insight into Addison’s internal struggle as he finds himself torn between his commitment to his interlocutors, the research process, and the challenges imposed by the way that Philip runs the plantation.

Chapter 4’s focus is the sexual economy of the plantation. In detailing the death of two babies, Addison exposes the diverse manifestations and consequences of this sexual economy for women. Participation “can bring them substantial economic reward,” Addison explains, “but they are not necessarily ‘empowered’ in the process” (p. 121), as patriarchal license enables high-ranking male employees to prey on them for sexual favors. Moreover, responsibility for the death of infants is solely placed on their mothers, “obscuring the highly unequal power structure that leaves most people, specifically women, with few other options than to participate in the sexual economy” (p. 124).

In the fifth and final chapter, Addison analyzes the role of Christianity in labor relations on the plantation and argues that the labor regime at Mopane Estates does not reflect the progressive strains of religion identified in other studies (e.g., Maxwell 2005). The plantation’s management supports a lone church that is aligned with its paternalistic views, and besides life on the plantation demands too much of laborers to leave time for religious introspection. Any free time they have on Sundays, for example, is spent on activities such as gathering wood for cooking, washing clothes, visiting relatives, playing sports, and pursuing love affairs. The strongest expression of Christianity, therefore, ends up being some “Christian-inspired charitable action [that] softens the emotional difficulty of living in a context of high inequality but [leaves] the structural causes of that inequality intact” (p. 147). I would like to have read more about the author’s involvement in the religious life of the compound; early in the book, Addison mentions that his Christian identity played a vital role in his acceptance on the plantation as he “increasingly settled into the public identity of ‘missionary’” (p. 20), but there is not much on his positionality other than these few asides.

Chiefs of the Plantation is a remarkable ethnography. It offers a nuanced and engaging description of interpersonal relationships and their implications for life on the plantation, addressing an imbalance in the literature as most comparable ethnographies are conducted in multiple locations and may not present the same richness of detail. The book also expands our understanding of large-scale agriculture in South Africa and skillfully exposes some of the roots of its more exploitative labor relations.

Addison’s book is particularly illuminating in light of persistently high unemployment rates among South African youth, in some places as high as 50 percent. Although the agricultural sector could be a source of job creation, Luke Metelerkamp et al. (2019) have pointed out that young South Africans often see jobs in agriculture as backbreaking and unrewarding, associating them with both low pay and poor treatment. A twenty-year-old from the area of Mopane Estates reports in Metelerkamp and colleagues’ study:

I once went to a certain farm to buy tomatoes, while I was there, there was a huge argument between the white boss and a worker who put wrong grades of tomatoes, she was kicked and fell on tomatoes in front of the customers, I started to have questions about working in agriculture (Metelerkamp et al. 2019: 159).

Although such an incident could easily have taken place at Mopane Estates, Addison remains hopeful and engaged: “If we think of plantations as irredeemable, we risk reinforcing the marginalization of migrant workers and foreclose potential efforts by unions and social movements to support their struggles” (p. 163). His belief in progressive change is made clear as he carefully demonstrates, page after page, how the plantation’s many spaces of contestation offer opportunities, however partial, for workers to redefine the terms of their labor relationships.


I would like to express my gratitude to Samuel Weeks, Steven Gomez, and Sage Buckner for their insightful comments on earlier versions of this review. 

Author Bio

Gustavo H.R. Santos is a PhD student in the IBTS Centre at the Faculty of Religion and Theology of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. He serves as Program Manager for the Master’s program in Leadership, Theology, and Society at Regent College and as a Research Affiliate at the Vancouver School of Theology. His research focuses on the labor experiences of the working poor in Brazil and Canada.


Bolt, Maxim. 2016. Zimbabwe’s Migrants and South Africa’s Border Farms: The Roots of Impermanence. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.

Maxwell, David. 2005. “The Durawall of Faith: Pentecostal Spirituality in Neo-Liberal Zimbabwe.” Journal of Religion in Africa 35(1): 4–32.

Metelerkamp, Luke, Scott Drimie, and Reinette Biggs. 2019. “We’re Ready, the System’s Not—Youth Perspectives on Agricultural Careers in South Africa.” Agrekon 58(2): 154–79. 

Rutherford, Allan Blair. 2016. Farm Labor Struggles in Zimbabwe: The Ground of Politics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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Although 'Chiefs of the Plantation' provides an intriguing look into the lives of plantation owners, I found some of the character development lacking depth. Nevertheless, the novel sheds light on an important period in American history.

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