The plight of farm worker communities in Zimbabwe


Mafata Mogodi* observes that farm workers have been among the biggest victims of Mugabe’s human rights abuses and argues that the global justice movement has neglected these experiences.

As the crisis in Zimbabwe deepens, there are increasing calls for Robert Mugabe to be offered permanent immunity if he agrees to voluntarily step down. Remarkably the global justice movement has largely shied away from these debates. Perhaps we have got used to chanting: Mugabe Must Go, to the point of losing sight of the many atrocities he committed against his people. Think of the more than one million black farm workers and their dependents that were displaced from white commercial farms between 2000 and 2005. The global social justice movement has paid little attention to the atrocities they endured during farm invasions and their plight. Why is that?

Historically farm worker communities have been amongst the most exploited and marginalized section of the Zimbabwean population. Under British colonial rule farm workers were governed by the Masters and Servants Act [see educational section]. In post-colonial Zimbabwe it took farm worker communities until 1997 to be granted the political franchise to vote in local government elections, because they were not property owners or rent payers. Except for the extension of certain labour rights to farm workers, ZANU-PF policies have exacerbated their suffering. The IMF and World Bank sponsored Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP) of the 1990s led to massive retrenchments and evictions from farms, increasing casualisation of farm employment, a fall in real wages, drastic cuts in social services and increasing poverty in farm worker communities. Worse was the continued marginalisation of farm worker communities from the land redistribution processes. One ZANU-PF official was quoted justifying the decision as follows: “Why should we feel we must give land only to illiterate workers who were formerly working on farms?”

In March 2000 when civil society organisations were questioning the extreme violence inflicted on black farm workers during farm invasions, Prof Jonathan Moyo, the then Minister of Information and Publicity responded: “Like in the old Rhodesian days, farm workers have been trained and armed to confront and disrupt the peaceful demonstrations of the War Veterans with the consequence of provoking violence.” It was the war veterans that inflicted a reign of terror on black farm worker communities. But, perhaps it is this contempt with which black farm worker communities have been treated with under colonial rule and in post-colonial Zimbabwe that makes the global social justice movement rather blind to their plight.

Zimbabwe’s farm invasions were launched in February 2000 immediately after ZANU-PF suffered a humiliating defeat in a Constitution Referendum. The invasions were led by the government backed Zimbabwe National War Veterans Association, an important ally of ZANU-PF during the period. The proposed constitutional amendments included a clause granting government powers to seize white owned farms without compensation. Thus, there was little surprise that the primary targets of the invasions were white commercial farmers and their black farm workers who had voted overwhelmingly against the proposed new ZANU-PF championed constitution. But in reality black farm worker communities have suffered the most.

Prior to farm invasions there were more than 2 million people – almost a fifth of the population – working and living on white commercial farms. Between 2000 and 2005 more than one million were displaced from these farms by the ZANU-PF backed war veterans. Questions have been raised about the magnitude of human rights violations they endured during the invasions. Little attention has been given to the question whether the atrocities they suffered could be classified as crimes against humanity. A 2003 report by Zimbabwe Community Development Trust noted: “The reality on the ground is that the violence and lawlessness associated with the programme (land invasions) drove many displaced workers into the jungle.

(By ‘jungle’ we mean remote areas of the country where there is no infrastructure – no schools, clinics, electricity, running water and the like). They are languishing in poverty and facing famine whilst the absence of formal employment means that they are struggling to make ends meet.” These findings were supported by a similar study prepared for the Farm Community Trust of Zimbabwe, also released in 2003. The study noted that prior to land invasions there were an estimated 320 000 to 350 00 black farm workers on white commercial farms. By the beginning of 2003 the number of workers on farms and plantations had gone down to an estimated 100 000. The report asked: “What was the fate of the other 200 000 or so who together with their families amount to a population of more than 1 million?” It noted that massive job losses that accompanied farm invasions affected about 70% of the original labour force. The impact on female farm workers was even more catastrophic.

The study found that more than 50% of permanent female workers and nearly 60% percent seasonal female workers had lost their jobs. Another observation was that up to 50% of farm workers had stayed on farms even though they no longer held jobs. The report noted: “In sum, the loss of job-based income has undermined the livelihoods of most farm worker households. An unfortunate development is farm workers’ diminishing access to crucial resources and services. Change in ownership has restricted access to housing, schools, clinics and safe water.” The General Agriculture and Plantations Workers’ Union of Zimbabwe (GAPWUZ), a union that has been organising farm workers since the 1980s says its membership has dropped from between 200 000 and 250 000 prior to farm invasions to between 20 000 and 40 000. The union says it was also alarmed by the extreme violence that accompanied farm invasions.

Operating in an extremely repressive situation, coupled with a more vulnerable and dwindling membership, GAPWUZ has largely been too weakened to offer farm worker communities a political voice. In 1997 the union led one of the strongest labour struggles in the country when thousands of farm workers downed tools, blocked highways and destroyed farm property as they agitated for improvement in wages. Today the union is a caricature of its former self. The majority of the trade union’s former members are now unemployed and rely on food aid for survival.

Those who have been lucky to move in with the new black farm owners are struggling to make ends meet. Gift Muti, the deputy general-secretary of GAPWUZ in an article published on IRIN website explained the situation as follows: “The main problem is that farm workers have, for a long time, been treated with contempt by their employers. They are viewed as belonging to rural areas whose people do not need much money to subsist, but the bottom line is that they are workers just like those working in offices, and deserve the respect due to employees,” In the same article a farm worker is quoted as saying: “Sometimes I think God has condemned us to a life of poverty. My parents were virtual slaves on white men’s farms before the blacks took over. Now it seems worse for me, and I don’t have any hope for my children or their own offspring getting out of the trap.”

A new report by Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum and the Justice for Agriculture Trust released in June this year provides a much clearer picture of the magnitude of gross human rights abuses inflicted on black farm workers and their dependents between 2000 and 2005. The report titled, ‘Adding insult to injury. A Preliminary Report on Human Rights Violations on Commercial Farms, 2000 to 2005’, notes amongst the most gruesome human rights violations – assaults, torture, abductions, unlawful detention, death threats and killings. It reveals that in addition to human rights abuses, farm workers and their dependents suffered catastrophic losses of income, habitation, health services and access to clean water and sanitation. According to the report almost 1% of displaced farm workers and their dependents have died since losing their jobs. It concludes that the consequences of farm invasions on black farm worker communities have been ‘at least as catastrophic as the effects of Operation Murambatsvina’.

The time has come for the global justice movement to take a stand and oppose any attempt to offer Mugabe immunity against prosecution for crimes committed while head of state. Fortunately there is a developing international legal position that there shall never be immunity against crimes against humanity and that there shall be a universal jurisdiction for such crimes. The prosecution of other despotic leaders like the Liberian Charles Taylor should give us more courage to campaign for Mugabe’s prosecution.

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