Resolving Zimbabwe's Farm Crisis is Not Black & White

February 2, 2010

Gertrude Hambira, Secretary General, General Agriculture and Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe
Gertrude Hambira, Secretary General, General Agriculture and Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe

Thousands of news articles, scholarly articles and panel discussions debate Zimbabwe’s land reform program. Almost without fail, stark lines are drawn between black and white: colonial authority and indigenous population, owner and occupier, right and wrong. The problem with such a stark conclusion is it ignores all shades of gray.

The Commercial Farmers Union and elite political power players in Zimbabwe both play the martyr. President Mugabe’s former ruling political party, ZANU-PF, contends Zimbabwe suffered because the white minority owned the most fertile farmland and excluded the indigenous population from ownership. The Commercial Farmers Union argues ownership by valid land title and the violent land dispossessions contravene Zimbabwe and international law. Journalists, international governments, political observors and non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) blame Mugabe’s policy of violent land reclamation for ruining the Zimbabwe economy and contend it is based on racism. The Commercial Farmers Union presses for restoration of property first and compensation in the alternative. There are elements of truth in all the above but it tells only part of the story.

At the end of colonial rule, only 50% of indigenous Africans claimed land ownership. Colonial relocation of this population to Tribal Trust Areas ensured black Africans were farming land characterized by poor soil, poor rainfall, poor roads and overcrowding. The systematic marginalization of black Africans under colonial authority is indisuptable and necessary to redress. However, the policies promulgated under the ZANU-PF regime to correct this imbalance were poorly managed and occurred primarily for political reasons (other liberation leaders such as Joshua Nkomo and Ndabaningi Sithole were some of the first to face dispossession to ensure Mugabe’s political survival). Violent land expulsions of both black and white farmers without respect for rule of law became the norm. Further, some of the white farmers displaced validly purchased their land post-liberation from the Zimbabwe government for a fair price.

These are the typical discussions surrounding the land issue in Zimbabwe: validity of ownership, violence, political machination and rule of law. But there is a group rarely acknowledged-the farm workers. Their voices are largely silenced in this debate and none of the solutions proposed provide much benefit to this population. Zimbabwean farm workers live essentially in a state of indentured servitude with poor wages, poor social services and poor access to methods of self-improvement such as union organizing and education.

They are used as tools in the political battle that wage by either forcing their vote through intimidation or persuading their vote through unfulfilled promises of land. They are treated to violent repurcusions when they don’t vote, or are even perceived to have not voted, in the desired manner. When commerical farms are taken over, farm workers face brutality and expulsion from their homes. They lack resources to relocate and job skills applicable in other industries. There is a reason why Zimbabwe’s unemployment rate has hovered at 90% or higher for so many years.

The marginalization of this population and active attempts on the part of the government to prevent farm workers from effectively organizing means their concerns gain neither the ear of the domestic government nor attention in the international arena. Gertrude Hambira has done an amazing job as Secretary General of the General Agriculture and Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe in the fightto keep the focus on farm workers and empower them through organizing and education outreach. But she struggles in an environment not terribly friendly to women human rights defenders and on a politically and emotionally volatile issue. Her efforts to keep the focus on farm workers, particularly women and children affected by displacements and violence, is laudable and for her efforts she has personally been targeted for violence.

The Global Political Agreement, by which the current transitional government operates, requires the completion of a land audit. International donors offered to fund the completion of this audit but efforts have thus far been blocked by ZANU-PF. In all this, the MDC does not lack culpability. Despite its origins in the trade movement, the MDC contributes to the marginalization of farm workers by doing no better in proposing solutions that encompass the needs of farm workers nor call attention to their plight. Any solution to Zimbabwe’s land inequity must include compensation for displaced farm workers, land redistribution to farm workers, and adequate training, fertilizer, seed, and infrastructure to support these farms as viable sources of food sustenance and economic export. Sometimes looking into the gray area yields an answer that is clearly black and white.