Over twenty years since Robert Mugabe’s infamous land reform programme in Zimbabwe, farm workers who used to work on large commercial farms have been forced to find their own ways to keep working the land Malvern Kudakwashe Marewo writes.
In 2000, Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF government implemented Sub Sahara Africa’s most radical land reform programme to date; the fast-track land reform programme (FTLRP). Land was taken away from the large-scale white-owned farms with the stated aim of redistributing the land to black people from urban and rural areas of Zimbabwe.
However, the fate of the black former farmworkers on the white-owned commercial farmers two decades after the fast-track land reforms remains an open question in Zimbabwe. Only a limited number of former farm workers received land during FTLRP. The expulsion, segregation, and displacement of both white landowners and black farmworkers has received a lot of media and scholarly attention. However, relatively little attention has been paid to those who neither lost nor received land but continued to stay and work the land in pursuit of a livelihood.
Since independence in 1980, a series of land reforms in Zimbabwe aimed at addressing the uneven colonial distribution of land have largely excluded farm workers. Before fast track, most farm workers in Zimbabwe worked and lived on white-owned commercial farms, with part-time and seasonal farm workers hired from nearby rural areas. Those residing on farms were restricted to working for the white commercial farmers who owned the land they lived on.
When white farmers were evicted from the farms following FTLRP, some farm workers were evicted with them, while others remained. Former farm workers that remained on resettlement farms are no longer tied to any employer and could choose who to work for as pursue other incomes from petty trade and artisanal gold mining. Even though former farm workers are now able to pursue new livelihood options, their income is still precarious and exposed to different risks made worse by Zimbabwe’s economic outlook. There is still a great deal of political discrimination against farm workers and little voice or power for them.
While agricultural labour has been reconfigured away from an exploitative dependence on large-scale white-owned commercial farms, exploitation and patronage remain in most post-fast-track farms. Class, gender, and age also have nuanced effects on who gains what and how in the new farmer-worker relationships. Farm workers in Zimbabwe who have not benefited from FTLRP have found alternative ways to access the land.
New networks of patronage
My research in Zimbabwe demonstrates that after the FTLRP farm workers are accessing land and livelihoods through social relations with the small-scale beneficiaries. These formal and informal networks, such as clubs and friendships have enabled them to access land, and other socioeconomic benefits such as agricultural inputs, firewood and animal-drawn ploughs.
In addition to facilitating formal paid work ‘maricho‘, friendships have allowed the small-scale beneficiaries of land reform to exchange land for labour and sometimes for non-financial payments such as food, clothing and livestock. In this way, former workers on large-scale farms have gained access to land, agricultural inputs, and other livelihood opportunities. This points out that social relations between former farm workers and land beneficiaries provide a cushion to access land, agricultural inputs and other socioeconomic benefits for people who were not land recipients of the state land reform programme.
As in other parts of Southern Africa, my research reveals that farm workers who are excluded from formal land reform processes rely on social relations with those who were beneficiaries to access land and other social benefits. Despite few direct benefits for farm workers from official land reform policies, they have, through a combination of, agriculture, and wage work been able to work with the beneficiaries of land reform to capitalise on the new agrarian setting. Whether in rural or resettlement areas, land access is rooted in an interwoven web of social, political, and economic relationships.
Land reform provides a key role in addressing historical colonial injustices and the inequalities of the present and future. There is a need to place at the centre of such programmes, marginalised groups such as farm workers. At the centre of efforts to redistribute land should be the need to improve access to this land without discrimination based on ancestral claims or citizenship as a prerequisite for land claims, as was the case the instance of former farm workers in Zimbabwe.
Land redistribution generally accelerates land ownership patterns, use practices and labour forms dramatically and Zimbabwe’s lessons are essential for understanding how agricultural farm workers can adapt to changes brought about by programs such as land reform. While land reform in Sub Sahara Africa has emphasised the issues of uneven access to land and land rights, addressing unequal power relations is vital for land reform programmes to provide holistic and equity-driven interventions.
Photo credit: David Brazier/IWMI CC BY-NC-ND 2.0