It has been more than 10 years since President Robert Mugabe’s government began seizing white-owned commercial farms for redistribution to poor blacks.
The beneficiaries were his supporters, however, with many of the elite, including the presidential couple, acquiring multiple farms. The seizures in Zimbabwe left thousands of farm hands, who used to work for the white farmers, jobless, destitute and facing eviction.
Workers at the Mgutu Farm in Mazowe, about 40 kilometers north of Harare, are deliberating their looming eviction. It follows a complaint by new owner Kingstone Dutiro to the authorities that they are illegally occupying his land. Dutiro acquired the land after Archie Black, the original owner, was evicted in 2000.
The state is now prosecuting the 85 workers who, with their families, face eviction. The farm workers, mostly of Malawian origin, have worked on the farm for many years, some for more than four decades. They say they have nowhere to go.
Seventy-two-year-old Binias Yolamu, who came to Zimbabwe in 1964 from Mozambique when he was 24, no longer has any links with his birth place.
“I worked here for 48 years. I grew up here. I will die here. When the white farmer [Archie Black] left, he said the compound, the engine to pump water and electricity was all ours," Yolamu said. "I will go nowhere. All my relatives in Mozambique perished during the civil war of the 1970-80s. I have forgotten everything about Mozambique. I will die in Zimbabwe and here at this farm.”
Tarisayi Papaya, a 42-year-old widow with five children, is one of the farm workers facing eviction. She thinks Mugabe’s land reform has taken a wrong turn.
“It is painful that we are now being evicted from this farm. When the land reform started we were all excited. We were told that all black people would live together peacefully," said Papaya. "Now the government has turned against us. We hope there will be divine intervention to ensure that we are not evicted.”
Neria Ndalama of Malawian origins shares the same sentiments.
“My parents, who are both deceased, came from Malawi. So I cannot find my way back. There is no point in chasing us away. It really pains me that the land reform program wants to displace us. We have not developed tails for us to be treated like animals,” said Ndalama.
At the compound, there is a woman named Angela.
“We used to have water taps at this farm. War veterans disconnected them. We do not know why and where they took them. We have cases of so many children having a problem with waterborne diseases because we now drink untreated water from the river,” she said.
Legal representation to help
The workers are being represented by Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights who had come to Mgutu to discuss the case with their clients.
While there, they were confronted by so-called war veterans - supporters of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF who have led the farm invasions since the chaotic and often violent land reform program began in 2000. Most are too young to be veterans of the country’s liberation war.
They told the lawyers they had no right to be on Mgutu farm.
“We do not know what is going on here? This is our place. You did not seek our authority to be here. I do not care about what the court papers say. They were written by a human being who can make mistakes," said one such "war veteran."
The lawyers did not give in and continued to interview their clients until eventually the war veterans dispersed.
The lawyers are challenging the evictions as unconstitutional. Lawyer Jeremiah Bamu said the law used in the acquisition of land was crafted with a narrow approach that will only create internal refugees.
“No government should ever be allowed to promulgate a law that leads its own citizens into destitution. The government has a primary duty to protect the rights of its citizens and not to take away those rights by forcing them into destitution,” said Bamu.
Farm owner Dutiro scoffs at suggestions the workers are being ill-treated. Instead he accuses them of sabotage and working for the Chinese.
“These people are working for the Chinese. Those Chinese offer them accommodation. They are making allegations that they do not have anywhere to go. That is not true. They are refusing for other reasons. They are engaged in sabotage and stealing produce,” Dutiro said.
Questioning Chinese intervention
Many Zimbabweans believe they are disadvantaged by the influx of Chinese businesses and workers in recent years.
Gift Muti, spokesperson for the General Agricultural Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe, said farm workers have suffered a great deal since Mugabe’s government started seizing white-owned land more than a decade ago.
“We have lost 75% of our members. There was a lot of movement. They lost employment, lost their accommodation and wages. Their children cannot attend formal education. Those who benefited are less than 0.5 percent. It was a little figure of those who benefited. The rest did not. It is unfortunate most of them do not have rural homes,” said Muti.
Some 4,000 white farmers have been evicted from their farms since 2000 and about 250 remain. They employed about 40,000 workers. Together the farmers and their workers were responsible for the overwhelming volume of commercial agriculture in Zimbabwe, the country’s primary source of foreign currency.