Zimbabwe’s forgotten farm workers

2013-09-25 00:00

ZIMBABWE makes a good story for Western writers and readers — the staggering racism of the Rhodesian whites, the heroic liberation uprising and Robert Mugabe: a freedom fighter not unlike Nelson Mandela, who having spent more than a decade in prison, won the first democratic election and immediately called for racial reconciliation.

Then, from the late nineties, the story turned to economic catastrophe, with inflation so extreme that it was difficult to comprehend. Mugabe’s transformation from liberation leader to mad dictator is satisfying in its starkness, while the struggles of Morgan Tsvangirai’s opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, and the victimisation of hard-working white farmers, driven from their land by vengeful war veterans, easily evoke horrified sympathy.

Since 2000, land reform has been central to how the world understands the state of contemporary Zimbabwe, and recently, a new, more nuanced narrative about the effects of Mugabe’s land reforms has emerged. What is bitterly disappointing about this new analysis is that it seems to have inherited the disregard that its predecessors showed for the sector of Zimbabwe’s society whose lives are most affected by the programme.

The black farm worker communities who, under white employment, provided the sweat and toil which has driven the nation’s agriculture (and, hence, its economy) since the 1900s, make up nearly 20% of Zimbabwe’s population. Despite this, the farm workers have accounted for less than seven percent of the beneficiaries of land redistribution. Moreover, these workers suffered by far the worst of the violence and abuses committed during the farm invasions — a suffering that was woefully underreported given the severity of abuses and size of the group affected.

The fact that even recent writings about the land reform programme fail to give the black commercial farm workers the attention they deserve is inexplicable. A little-seen statement from the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions on September 15, which reported the continuing harassment of Gapwuz officials (the union representing black farm workers) should serve as a reminder that this group continues to suffer abuses and that its exclusion from the conversation about land reform is unacceptable.

The suffering of Zimbabwe’s white farmers under land reform was well-recognised by the international media, especially after the release of the film Mugabe and the White African, and those who are now promoting a more positive view of land reform have not ignored the abuses that the white farmers suffered.

Authors tend to highlight the large number of black Zimbabweans who have gained land, compared to the relatively small number of whites who lost it (245 000 compared to 6 000, according to one recent publication). Unfortunately, the workers whose livelihoods were lost alongside their white employers were both largely ignored by the media at the time of the invasions, and even now rarely get the attention they deserve. In fact, an estimated 300 000 workers, with a staggering 1,5 million dependents, lost their livelihoods by 2012, far outnumbering the new beneficiaries. Moreover, of the over 82 000 human-rights violations recorded by Gapwuz in an eight-year period, 97,2% were suffered by the black employees, who were all but ignored by the press. The impact of international media attention had a significance beyond simply raising awareness. The attention and associated threat of external intervention made Zanu-PF nervous of adding to the image of victim that white farmers held. As a result, although they experienced theft, beatings and intimidation, actual murders of white farmers were relatively small in number. By contrast, their black farm workers had no equivalent protection and so bore the brunt of the abuse. In the international media, those workers who were murdered tended, at most, to appear as part of a statistic within stories of their employers’ suffering. No doubt, the international links that many white farmers hold helped them to gain the attention and sympathies of the international press. But the West, especially Britain, should recognise a responsibility towards the farm-worker population, whose original formation and persisting vulnerability were a direct result of the colonial regime.

The distinct population of commercial farm workers was created in the 1900s in response to the needs for cheap labour on the new white settlers’ plantations. The regime chose to recruit workers from neighbouring countries rather than within Zimbabwe, which meant that the new workforce was distinctively foreign. Isolated on the farms, away from the rest of Zimbabwean society, the worker communities developed as separate from the rest of the country. The workers’ unequal treatment under Rhodesian employment law in the fifties entrenched their dependence on their employers, meaning that they were seen as inextricably linked to the loathed white land owners.

The workers’ enforced dependence on their white employers persisted after independence, and explains why, in contemporary Zimbabwean discourse, they are represented as undeserving and unpatriotic. In the dualistic paradigm of native verses settler, which dominated Zimbabwe from the start of land reform, farm workers were in a precarious position; dependent on the loathed remnants of colonialism, they were targets by association, but they lacked the same international sympathy or safety net of wealth that their employers have.

The abuses which Gapwuz reported, and called “the very definition of crimes against humanity”, included 782 cases of torture, as well as 54% of respondents claiming to have received death threats, and 10% knowing a fellow worker who was murdered. The psychological torture also included 43% reporting having been forced to watch beatings, and 29% whose children were forced to watch as well. While the lack of outcry in Zimbabwe over these abuses can be explained (although not excused) by the unfavourable position farm workers hold in the national discourse, the lack of international attention is more difficult to understand.

The vulnerable position of the farm-worker population, lacking ancestral homes or any alternative stake in the country other than as commercial farm workers, left them with few options. The majority have either remained as squatters on the abandoned farms, or joined informal settlements where conditions are desperate. The Farm Community Trust of Zimbabwe (FCTZ) reported deaths from starvation in many provinces and an inability to manage HIV. Many now work for the new settlers, for little or no wages, and in conditions widely claimed to be considerably worse than in the past. Gapwuz reports that salaries aren’t enough for most workers to sustain their families. The lack of interest in this group means that up-to-date information on their situation is difficult to find. But to exclude these farm workers from the debates over their livelihoods is to allow the continuation of the colonial attitudes which first entrenched the group’s division from wider Zimbabwe. Without giving proper attention to this crucial population — Zimbabwe’s forgotten 20% — commentators cannot hope to truly understand the impact of land reform.

 — Mary Goodhart is an international history and politics graduate from Sheffield, U.K.

•This article first appeared on Africa is a Country. The blog Africa is a Country is not about famine, Bono or Barack Obama. It was founded by South African Sean Jacobs, http://africasacountry.com

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