Farm workers live in fear

In the ruthless hands of Zanu PF thugs

NewsDay - An Eyewitness account by Tapiwa Zivira

June 7, 2017

JUST after midday, we turned right off Bulawayo Road, into a dirt road that leads into Chigwell Farm.

A few metres off the road is the railway that runs parallel to the Harare-Bulawayo highway and is critical to Zimbabwe’s economy, as it links among other towns and cities, Harare, Chegutu, Kadoma, Redcliff, Kwekwe, Gweru and Bulawayo and leads to neighbouring Botswana and South Africa.

Our driver did not slow down before the railway tracks to check for trains, as is in the Highway Code and when we warned him, he chuckled: “With the extent of economic collapse, not many trains pass through here anymore,” he said, referring to President Robert Mugabe’s disastrous rule that has left the country’s once-vibrant economy in shambles.

As a result of the decline in agricultural and manufacturing activity, coupled with reported corruption and mismanagement of the National Railways of Zimbabwe, goods transported using the railway system countrywide shrunk to two million tonnes in 2010 from 18 million tonnes in 1998.

According to, as a result of the decline in agricultural and manufacturing activity, coupled with reported corruption and mismanagement of the National Railways of Zimbabwe, goods transported using the railway system countrywide shrunk to two million tonnes in 2010 from 18 million tonnes in 1998.

Anyway, we proceeded into the farm, ignoring the two cows and a calf that were chewing the cud while lying between the railway tracks a few metres from us; they, like our driver, did not feel endangered at all.

As we drove into the farm, just over a hundred metres from the highway, we noticed four giant tobacco barns that now stand abandoned and dilapidated, having been last used when the farm was taken over from the previous owner during the land reform exercise.

Our story today was not of the nature of the destruction that has taken place in the farms, but was about the Zimbabwean farm worker, 17 years after the land reform exercise.

So, we hastily proceeded to the compound, which is a set of nearly a hundred houses that lie hidden in the bushy part of the large estate, about 200 metres from the main highway.

Our mission, as the editor had briefed us, was clear and simple: We were meant to just record, in video and audio, narratives of former farm workers and how their lives had changed since the start of the land reform in 2000.

This is because, when the Zanu PF government started the land reform exercise in 2000, a lot of focus was on the new farmers and as the land was sub-divided into A1 and A2 farms, what happened to farm workers appeared to be none of the government’s business.

This resulted in many farm workers — many of whom are of Malawian descent and have not known any other home except their farm compounds — being either evicted to destitution, or being forced to work for the new farmers for little or nothing in exchange for accommodation.

The General Agriculture and Plantation Workers’ Union of Zimbabwe, in 2010, estimated that about 50 000 people were employed in the agriculture sector, compared to the 200 000 before the land reform started in 2000 and that less than 5% of farm workers got land under the government programme.

As such, many farm compounds now house former farm workers, who, in some cases, pay rent to the new farm owner and work elsewhere.

As we entered, we obviously knocked on the first house, and here we introduced ourselves and asked if we could do an interview with the middle-aged man, who had identified himself as a former Chigwell worker.

He was willing to talk, but he said he would only do so if we got permission to interview him from the Zanu PF “chairman” for the area, signalling the tight control the ruling party has over the farming community.

“I do not want to disappear,” he said, and closed his door.

We proceeded into the compound, obviously trying to shake off the eerie feeling of fear we had witnessed on our first interview attempt.

I silently comforted and reminded myself that we were constitutionally empowered to do our work without seeking permission from a “Zanu PF chairman”.

During our first interview, the man — a farm worker-turned-blacksmith — whose identity we will now protect for his own safety, told us how the last 17 years had been horrible, as he had to move from one farm to another, details of which will be published in another story in NewsDay.

Meanwhile, our photographer was going up and down the compound taking pictures.

As we moved to the next household for another interview, that is when our troubles began.

A group of about 15 young and middle-aged men — all looking drunk and scruffy — confronted us and identified themselves as Zanu PF youth sent by President Robert Mugabe to protect the area.

They identified themselves as Zanu PF youth sent by President Robert Mugabe (pictured) to protect the area.

One of them demanded to know what we were doing in “their compound”, but before we could offer an explanation, another approached our photographer, Shepherd Tozvireva and attempted to grab his camera.

As they surrounded us, a number of them were shouting obscenities and accusing us of getting into their territory and taking pictures without their consent.

“Give us the camera and we delete the pictures in order for us to let you go,” one, who appeared to be the leader, quipped, as he charged towards Tozvireva, punching him in the face and trying to wrestle the camera away.

As much as I have been in such situations as a journalist, where either the police or political party activists brutalise me, I have never been able to fully prepare myself for such things.

Operating in an environment where State security agents and the ruling party are all up against free expression is always a difficult thing.

This is because we have laws that allow us to operate freely, State security agents that are supposed to enforce the law and protect us, but instead — more often than not — appear to collude with the political structures to impede the work of the private media.

In other words, you never know who to trust, and in the quest to get the story — especially in rural and Zanu PF-dominated communities — it is like operating in a dark jungle, where predators lurk.

You never know who can be an aggressor, and at what point they turn into one.

So, unprepared, we found ourselves surrounded by more than a dozen visibly intoxicated men baying for our blood, and bragging that as members of the ruling party, they could even kill us and never see the inside of jail.

“We are dangerous, we do not mind killing you, you come here to take pictures of us and you take them to your white friends,” one of them shouted, sounding very much like a number of top Zanu PF leaders, who issue threats and accuse everyone they do not agree with of being agents of the West.

As they emptied our pockets of equipment, mobile phones, wallets, and even money, I felt angry.

Angry not because of what these thugs were doing to us, and also not at the fact that they would get away with it.

What made me angry was that when I looked at a number of them, they hardly looked a day older than 30 — they were men of my age.

These were young men, who should shape the country’s future and share the same challenges and aspirations as myself, but were here allowing themselves to be agents of violence and were drinking themselves to self-destruction for the benefit of selfish top politicians.

For more than 30 minutes, we were held in captivity, with one of them making some calls to some “chefs” and comrades on how to deal with us.

During the process, they were attempting to crack into our mobile devices and to delete photos from our camera, and despite threats, intimidation and physical assault, we refused to reveal our passwords, and insisted they call their party spokesperson, Simon Khaya Moyo, which they did not do.

We were finally let go after one of them finished a long phone call and said: “You are lucky boss, they told us to let you go.”

Relieved, we received our equipment intact, and headed for our car.

We did not know more trouble lay ahead.

During our time of captivity, some youths, about five, had gone towards the entrance to barricade the way to the main road, apparently to keep any intervention out, and in case we escaped from the compound.

As we drove towards them, two of them had catapults raised and ready to strike.

We stopped and got out of the car and told them their leader, who we had now learnt is called Musa, had let us go after making a call to some shefu somewhere.

The youth would have none of that.

“We need confirmation from him, so go get him.”

The thought of going back to the compound was a nightmare, but eventually we made a U-turn and collected Musa, who told the gang to let us go.