Abandoned Farm Workers Living in Poverty as Union Leaders Flee the Country

BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE – When a lion attacks the shepherd, the sheep scatter.

When the government here attacked leaders of the local farm workers union, the workers too were forced to scatter.

On November 9 of last year, three armed men, suspected agents of Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organization, raided the home of Gertrude Hambira, the leader of the General Agricultural and Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe, GAPWUZ. Hambria was preparing to release a documentary entitled “House of Justice,” a documentary film focusing on the violence and injustice farm workers faced since the onset of Zimbabwe’s ill-implemented Land Reform Program in 2000.

The raid of Hambria’s home sent shockwaves across many towns and villages where union members lived and worked. Now, the once vibrant union remains in turmoil as union officials continue to flee the country and workers find themselves evicted and destitute.

The Rise and Fall of the Union

GAPWUZ was dedicated to negotiating for better wages that allowed Zimbabwe’s farm workers to educate their children, sustain themselves and attain affordable health care and services. GAPWUZ members were deeply affected by the land reform program, a forced government reallocation of farmland,  which prompted GAPWUZ and the Research Advocacy Unit to produce the documentary to expose the impact of the land reform program. The government initiative, announced in July of 2000, forced the take over and reallocation some 3,000 farms in Zimbabwe, mostly owned by white people. But shortly after the announcement, Zimbabwe fell into a deep recession. Many farms were taken over by squatters. Hambria’s documentary showed farm workers who were displaced, lost homes, property, income and access to vital services after the farms where they worked were invaded and new owners terminated all contracts of previous workers.

A report compiled by the Commission of Inquiry on Zimbabwe that was produced by the International Labor Organization, ILO, in December 2009 notes that GAPWUZ was the largest trade union in the agricultural sector. In 2000, GAPWUZ had a membership of approximately 150,000 workers. Today, the group’s membership is down to less than 25,000. The union remains in disarray as management continues to flee the country.

Hambira, who is also the vice chairperson of the lobbyist group Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, fled the country and is currently living in hiding. The Press Institute obtained contact with Hambira, but she would not participate in an interview for fear of further reprisal. Since her disappearance, other union members have also gone into hiding. No one is left to run day-to-day union operations and thousands of farm workers are now without jobs, leadership and guidance.

Former union members Gogo MaSithole, 62 and her 66 year-old husband lost their jobs and their home last year when new owners claimed the farm where they worked for more than three decades. MaSithole says her white employers were evicted from the farm by government officials, per the land reform program, without notice in December 2009.

According to Human Rights Watch, the stated need for land reform back in 2000 was based on colonial policies that gave white landowners disproportionate amounts of land. In the 1990s, 4,400 white people owned 32 percent of Zimbabwe’s agricultural land. Many white farm owners have been killed and displaced since the program began in 2000.

But MaSithole says she liked her employers who had always been fair to her and her husband. When they were forced out, she too was evicted. Today, she lives in abject poverty in a desolate place near Queens Park, a medium density suburb outside of Bulawayo. A narrow, dirt road leads to a ramshackle structure of rusty corrugated metal sheets measuring four meters by three meters and standing just two meters high. A polluted stream flows near the homestead, offering its contaminated water to the elderly couple. The structure has no windows, but is now their temporary home. The land belongs to local government authorities and MaSithole says she is constantly prepared to be evicted if the authorities discover their settlement.

MaSithole says she worked hard on the farm for more than 30 years in order to earn a peaceful retirement. But now, she is living in filthy conditions and she is sick. She is gaunt and has pain in her joints. Her jaundice has worsened in recent months.

MaSithole says when the new farm owners arrived, they brought in their own employees. She and a dozen other workers were forced to leave. She was told to look for their employer, who too had been forced out and fled, to seek compensation for loss of employment. But MaSithole does not know where to find the farm’s previous owner.  If the leadership of GAPWUZ was in tact, MaSithole says, they could have assisted in negotiating a severance package. But no such service is available now.

“I am living a pauper life yet I have been working all my life. I have nowhere to go and the government has not given me any space to build a home.  It is a nightmare to spend the rest of my life in this isolated and illegal place. I have no neighbors to chat with and I receive few visitors. It is as if I am under house arrest,” says MaSithole.

MaSithole and her husband met 39 years ago when they were both young farm workers. They got married soon after, but never had any children. The couple worked and lived together, preparing for retirement away from the farm and dreaming of the day when they would be allocated a piece of land to build a home where they could receive and entertain their friends and relatives.

“When the government started campaigning for land reform laws, we thought that we would be the first to benefit since we are dedicated to the farms. However, some unscrupulous politicians involved in the redistribution exercise started to bring people from urban areas with no knowledge or interest in farming. These people simply drove us away from the farms,” says MaSithole, while her husband nods in quiet agreement.

Program Backfires, as the Unintended Receive Land Allocations

Academics and advocates familiar with Zimbabwe’s land reform program agree with MaSithole’s analysis. While the government continues to stand by the program, observers note that people who were intended to benefit from the exercise did not. In a new report entitled “Current Politics in Zimbabwe: Confronting the Crisis,” Professor Brian Raftopoulos argues that the program ended up harming those it was trying to help.

“[The government] claimed the exercise was meant to address colonial imbalances by giving back land to the majority indigenous black farmers, yet as the program is drawing to an end, there are more landless people than before, ” says Raftopoulos.

The report reveals that at the height of the land invasions in 2002, 2,900 out of the 4,500 white farmers were ordered to stop farming activities and vacate their farms without any compensation. There were no laws for such actions and all of their farm workers were also forced to leave, creating an army of homeless black farm workers.

A former Zimbabwe National Army officer and a beneficiary of the land reform program, who refused to be named for security reasons, says that army personnel benefited the most from the program because they were the ones who were evicting white farmers.

“The civilians could not drive out the white farmers so we had to do it by force,” he says. Adding that many military officers received land as a way to quell an uprising among them. “This exercise was aimed at pacifying the army and other security agents because at that time our salaries were meager and inflation was eroding our earnings. For us to remain loyal, the government had to give us farms,” says the retired officer.

Frank Jabson, 36, program manager for Creative Centre for Communication and Development, a local nongovernment organization based in Bulawayo, says that the land reform program was hastily implemented and inequitably distributed.

“Those who benefited from the exercise have no heart in farming. They are taking farming as a pastime and as a result there is no production. The thousands of dedicated former farm workers are now scattered all over the country and living in a sorry state. Children are no longer going to school. Lives have been shattered by this and the damage is irreparable,” Jabson says.

Statistics from GAPWUZ in 2007 indicate that less than 1 percent of their union members were allocated land under the government program.

Communities mobilize to support displaced and homeless former farm workers

The unprecedented suffering of former farm workers has also motivated ordinary Zimbabweans. After several months, community members in the settlement where MaSithole and her husband sought refuge realized that there were new members in their midst. No one has reported them to the local authorities.

Some nearby families have offered the couple access to clean water in their homes. Others have offered iron sheets to construct a more stable house.

A local church, Noah’s Ark Ministries, also started to offer the financial assistance to the couple to enable MaSithole to go to the hospital for treatment for her jaundice.

“As a church we realized that it was our duty to support this couple. Offering prayers and counseling is not adequate because these people need physical assistance. We also make regular visits so that they do not feel lonely,” said Pastor Chuma, adding that the church had its doors open to welcome all displaced persons.