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Union Says Zimbabwe Farm Workers Worst Abused Sector in Past 10 Years

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe (file photo)

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe (file photo)

Report says more than 60 percent of farm workers reported they were tortured and forced to leave farms that were their homes during Mugabe land-reform seizures since 2000

A new report from a Zimbabwe union says workers on the country's white-run farms were subjected to even greater violence than their employers during violent farms seizures under President Robert Mugabe's chaotic land-reform program.

The report from the General Agricultural and Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe says more 60 percent of farm workers said they were tortured and forced to leave the farms that were their homes during seizures since 2000. The report says farm workers reporting such abuse outnumber their former white-farmer employers by 100 to one.

The report was produced for Zimbabwe's largest farm workers' union by the Research and Advocacy Unit and the agricultural advocacy group, Justice for Agriculture.

Researchers found many workers forced to leave the farms went to towns, a few went to neighboring countries to seek work and a minority remained on the farms working for the beneficiaries of the land, usually senior members of ZANU-PF. Some found shelter in nearby communal lands.

The report says some white farmers who have kept in contact with their workers after they were all evicted estimate about 40 percent of their employees have died since they were evicted.

The union's long-serving general secretary, Gertrude Hambira, says membership in the union has declined dramatically. She says the aim of the study was to bring the plight of farm workers to the leaders of the Southern Africa Development Community. "Prior to the land-reform program, we used to have a membership of 150,000 members. But today we have 25,000 members left. This is an appeal to SADC leaders to end violence on Zimbabwe's farms," she said.

About three quarters of those interviewed for the study said they believed those who had invaded the farms and harmed them should be prosecuted.

The same number said they would like to turn the clock back to before 2000 and reclaim lives lost when the farm invasions began. The report says this is despite the fact that in the 1990's there was an urgent need for better living and working conditions for farm workers.

Their losses of possessions averaged out at less than $200, but included clothes, pots, pans, and beds that they say they can never replace. They also lost land on the farms where they grew crops for themselves and chickens and other livestock and most importantly the homes in which they lived.

Families Divided

Many farm workers told researchers their families were divided as their children were living with relatives or friends.

A majority of those interviewed said they sought relief from the Zimbabwe Republic Police during invasions, but were not helped because they were told the workers' traumas on the farms were "political."

Workers told researchers that traditional leaders, ZANU-PF members, and people who claimed to be veterans of the liberation war were mostly responsible for their abuse.

Before land invasions the report said about 1.8 million people lived and worked on white farms and many of them, like their employers, became supporters of the Movement for Democratic Change, which nearly defeated ZANU-PF in elections in 2000. It was after these elections that the majority of violent land seizures took place.

Some workers from farms still occupied by whites say they are continuously being threatened.

The man whose identity was protected for fear of retribution said he did not understand why. He said the workers are unable to live peacefully in their own homes because they fear abduction, that they would be forced to disappear or even killed.

Workers Seek Relief

Workers employed by white farmers who last year sought and won relief from the regional court of last resort, the SADC Tribunal, feel particularly vulnerable the report says, because their farms are targeted in extremely violent takeover attempts. The report says this is because tribunal ordered the then ZANU-PF government of President Robert Mugabe to leave the farmers and their workers in peace.

Another older worker in charge of a valuable engine on a farm complained he was forced to turn it on for invaders.

The worker says the invaders arrive at any time they choose and force him to operate the engine. He asks why would they hold a gun on him and why is he being forced to do something against his will?

An old man, who despite his advanced years still needs to work to put food on the table, laments his situation.

He said his heart is broken and bleeding because the goal of those involved in land seizures is not to build the country, but to destroy it.

Commercial Farmers Union President Deon Theron, who has been evicted, recalls with evident emotion a moment in the early days of land invasions when his employee, Paradzai, disappeared in the tumult of the eviction. "The next day, the police contacted me and said to me, you can come and fetch Paradzai. I said can you just give him money and tell him to come to the farm. And they said no, they said to me, come and fetch his body. He had been with me for many, many years. He had seven children," Theron said.

Gertrude Hambira is hoping to take her report to SADC leaders and diplomats in the region.