For many years, commercial farm workers were the largest segment of the workforce in Zimbabwe’s formal sector. In the 1980s and 1990s, their numbers fluctuated between 300,000 and 350,000, or between 20 and 25 per cent of the national workforce. The farm workforce supported an even larger population of about 2 million. The employment opportunities in commercial agriculture testified to the pivotal role that the sector played, and continues to play, in the national economy. Historically, the sector was not only a major employer, but also a leading contributor to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as well as to foreign exchange earnings.
Until 2000, the average annual contribution of agriculture to GDP was between 16 and 18 per cent. Its contribution to foreign exchange earnings was boosted in particular by tobacco and horticulture exports. About 40 per cent of foreign exchange earnings came from the sector. Because of its large contribution to employment, GDP and foreign exchange, agriculture was termed the ’engine’ or ’backbone’ of the economy. Moreover, the manufacturing sector derived about 60 per cent of its inputs from agriculture. The deepening linkages between agriculture and manufacturing were a major factor behind the growth, sophistication and diversification of the Zimbabwean economy from the 1950s to the 1990s.
However, the prosperity of commercial agriculture was based on a shaky foundation. It rested on skewed land distribution. Through historical dispossession, the majority African population was assigned inferior, overcrowded land while the white settler minority amassed most of the prime arable land. At independence, this minority owned 15.5 million hectares.
There was an attempt at land reform soon after independence but the new constitution arising from the Lancaster House negotiations did not allow a comprehensive reform programme. The impetus for such a comprehensive programme was generated in 2000. The ‘fast-track’ land reform was the result.
The most far-reaching effect of the fast-track programme or jambanja (direct action), as politicians called it, was the acquisition of about 90 per cent of commercial farms. The government claimed to have completed this by August 2002, although new acquisitions were still continuing in March 2003. In a land reform marked by considerable coercion, violence and disorder, the government acquired for distribution about 11 million hectares owned by white commercial farmers. The immediate consequence was an exodus of white farmers from their properties, and the loss of jobs and livelihoods for thousands of farm workers. Many lost regular incomes and access to basic social services such as health and education. They became particularly vulnerable to a widespread food shortage that affected between 6 and 7 million Zimbabweans in 2002.