Human Rights Abuses – assistance denied

The Plight of Zimbabwean Farm Workers

November 2011

Zimbabwean farm workers have suffered intolerably as a result of the farm invasions.  They have endured gross human rights abuses and been systematically displaced by the Mugabe government.  Access to humanitarian assistance has been deliberately denied. 

The Daily News:  1 September 2001

Eighteen months after the farm invasions began, journalist and cleric Pius Wakatama wrote about the plight of the farm workers in his regular column for the Daily News:

“….They have become part of the wretched of the earth… Their lives, though difficult and hard, were at least hopeful and dignified.  They had social structures, economic existence as well as dwellings which they could call home.  They could get medical assistance as well as send their children to school.  All that is now gone.

Their lives were thrust without warning into the horror of torture, rape, death, humiliation and hopelessness.  They suffer without comprehending the reason as hordes of bloodthirsty Zanu PF mobs from outside beat up and torture them, rape their wives and children, burn their homes, loot their goods and drive them from what they regarded as their only home…. 

(Those of Malawian descent) have become refugees in their land of adoption for most of their parents emigrated from Malawi years ago and are now second or third generation Zimbabweans.

With their homes and huts burnt down or taken over by so-called landless peasants and war veterans, a few are lucky to have escaped with a prized possession.  Others are losing everything and count themselves lucky to have escaped with their lives.  Escape to where?

Some are finding shelter with relatives in the already over-crowded cities.  The more fortunate are being taken in by relatives, through marriage, in the communal areas.   Some are to be found huddled with their meagre belongings around growth point townships where hunger and privation are constant companions.  Still others are new additions to the growing squatter camps around major cities with their children joining street kids as beggars and prostitutes….

They are being systematically displaced, together with their masters, so they will not be able to vote.  The resettled Zanu PF supporters, who are not farmers by any stretch of the imagination, would then assure Mugabe’s victory in the commercial farming areas….

The Zanu PF government has proved beyond any reasonable doubt that it does not care for people.  Otherwise it would have included farm workers in the resettlement programme, instead of treating them as disposable objects.  They should have been given priority because their homes are already on the farms….”

Refugees International:  13 August 2004

In a report published on 13 August 2004 and titled: “Analysis of the Situation of Displaced Farm Workers in Zimbabwe”, Refugees International expressed mounting concern regarding the internal displacement of thousands of former farm workers

Since 2000, the economic situation of Zimbabwe has been progressively deteriorating. The production of food has dropped and inflation has skyrocketed to about 400 % a year. Unemployment has spread rapidly. An estimated 78% of farm workers, who represented 25% of the national active working force, have lost their jobs….

Zimbabwe’s Fast Track Land Reform Program and politically-motivated intimidation and harassment have created an internally displaced population of more than 150,000 former farm workers and have also caused thousands of Zimbabweans to flee their country. The Government of Zimbabwe refuses to acknowledge that their implementation of the land redistribution program has caused forced displacement. To further compound the issue, governmental authorities have increasingly restricted access to farming areas for humanitarian agencies and independent analysts making it difficult for the displaced and other vulnerable groups to access humanitarian assistance.

During an assessment mission to Zimbabwe conducted in June 2004, Refugees International (RI) was able to document incidents of targeted violence against former workers, such as the destruction of homes and wells, the latter resulting in the deaths of children due to diarrheal diseases contracted from drinking unclean water. RI also found displaced populations effectively abandoned due to Government of Zimbabwe prevention of assistance efforts by international agencies and local non-governmental organizations.

Many of the commercial farms that were marked for acquisition under the Fast Track Land reform were seized violently. However, not all of the former farm workers have been displaced due to violent eviction. Displacement is also due to economic conditions on the former commercial farms.

Within the former farm workers, there are five groups:

• People internally “trapped,” who are unable to leave their farms;
• People displaced temporarily to forested or uncultivated areas;
• Returnees to communal areas;
• Peri-urban squatters;
• Refugees and economic migrants.

Within these groups, foreign workers are particularly at risk….

A considerable portion of the former farm worker population is in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. Many have little or no access to food, shelter, medical care, clean water, sanitation services, and education. While international and national humanitarian agencies are willing and able to provide assistance, national and local authorities are actively closing down any avenues of access to this vulnerable population….”    (Extracts from Executive Summary of Report)

Report produced for the General Agricultural & Plantation Workers’ Union of Zimbabwe [GAPWUZ] by the Research and Advocacy Unit [RAU] and the Justice For Agriculture [JAG] Trust

“If something is wrong . . . The invisible suffering of commercial farm workers and their families due to “Land Reform”

November 2009

Human Rights Violations experienced during “Land Reform”:
Violations against workers


While this report … represents the views of only a small section of the 1.8 million people that lived and worked on Zimbabwe’s commercial farms…. nevertheless, what emerges makes sobering reading. The prevalence of human rights violations recorded by the sample in this survey is disturbing. The data also shows that earlier estimates by farmers of the violations experienced by their workers appear to be largely consistent with estimates made by the workers themselves.

This lends further credibility to extremely high figures of violation prevalence. The fact, for example, that 1 in 10 of the present respondents report at least one murder amongst fellow farm workers, and that 38% of respondents report that children on the farms were forced to watch public beatings or torture, shows the extent to which Robert Mugabe’s regime is responsible for an extensive series of crimes that were both widespread and systematic: the very definition of crimes against humanity.

Whilst this claim has been made, and rightfully, many times about the disregard by Mugabe and his Zanu PF supporters for human life, it is nowhere more apparent than in relation to the situation on Zimbabwe’s farms. The evidence indicates clearly that the Zimbabwean “Land Reform” was not, as Zanu PF would have people believe: a socially responsible exercise where an unfortunate few white farmers became regrettable but necessary ‘collateral damage’ as precious State resources were munificently redistributed to the poor and needy. It was, rather, a violent, State-sponsored and systematic attack on 1.8 million people in order to wipe out any illusions of political freedom they might have cherished, to force them into the ranks of strict Zanu PF orthodoxy and to prevent them from lending support to the fledgling Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) opposition party….

The percentage of respondents reporting that they had received death threats (54%) is important, and should be read in conjunction with the number of respondents citing experience of murder within their family (2%), of murder of an employer (1%), and of murder of a fellow employee (10%). Murder was a very real possibility for those living on farms during “Land Reform”, and death threats were thus severely traumatising for the individuals concerned. This alone is a form of psychological torture.

Other forms of psychological torture include being forced to watch beatings (43%) and having one’s children forced to watch beatings (29%). This form of psychological warfare was a standard technique practised by guerrillas during the liberation war and was revived during “Land Reform” to instill obedience and terror in the population. Typically, a compulsory late night meeting (“pungwe”) would be called by the farm’s resident war veterans and Zanu PF youth militia. Failure to attend would result in severe punishment.

At the meeting, farm workers would be forced to sing songs in support of Zanu PF, dance, chant slogans and affirm their loyalty to the party. Scapegoats, often branded as MDC supporters, would be chosen to receive public beatings. Sometimes fellow workers were forced to beat each other to demonstrate their loyalty to the Zanu PF cause; the sample reports that 29% of respondents were forced to intimidate others. Often sleep deprivation would occur as pungwes would continue throughout the night.

The enormous damage done to the sensitive mental state of children through personal experience of these late-night pungwes and the associated beatings is one of the many tragedies of recent Zimbabwean history.

It is disturbing that 44% of those surveyed reported that they themselves had been assaulted…. Of the sample, 11% of respondents report sustaining permanent injuries from assaults…. 20% of respondents report being arrested without having a charge laid against them, and 13% report being detained illegally, i.e. for a period longer than 48 hours. These violations were committed by the State police force, the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP).

….. According to this data, one was more likely to be assaulted if one was a worker (44%) than if one was a farmer (33%). This pattern is replicated for every single violation bar one: respondents reported that their employers were very slightly more likely to have experienced “Arrest without a Charge” (22%) than they were (20%). In all other cases respondents reported that they had experienced violations to higher, or much higher, degrees than their employers in every single category.

…  for every one white farmer there were over a hundred workers, each of whom, if our survey data is replicated across the population, suffered more violations of a worse nature than the employer did. Farm workers and their families represent some 12 – 16% of the total population of Zimbabwe. They should have been amongst the first in line for consideration in any genuinely well-intentioned land reform programme. Instead, they were subjected to a sustained and systematic psychological and physical assault, indicating a motive other than land reform.

Quantitatively, farm workers as a victim group outnumber farmers by a factor of 100 to 1.
Qualitatively, farm workers often suffered much worse assaults, and were indeed subjected to worse human rights violations, than their employers…..

Preliminary results of research findings:

Recommendations (of farm workers)




Continue as is




Granting amnesty to perpetrators




Forming co-operatives




Training in other jobs




Start land redistribution afresh




Legal proceedings against perpetrators




Returning to the status quo ante 2000




The least popular option in the set choices given to farm workers is to “continue as is”, with only 2 of the 20 respondents believing this represented a viable way forward. Also very unpopular, according to farm workers, is the grant of official amnesty to perpetrators of violations. This has significant implications for the setting up of any Truth and Justice Commission, where it would appear that only a minority of victims wish their attackers to be granted immunity. In fact, 75% of this (small) sample wish for the perpetrators of violations to be prosecuted.