The facts commonly rehearsed about farm workers are that they formed the largest but lowest-paid stratum of the working-class. Historically, they were poorly organised because of the spatial dispersion of farms. They lived in appalling housing conditions, and had little access to health services and schools. Farm workers were also largely seen as illiterate and bound to farm owners in a quasi-feudal relationship. These images represent the broad picture of conditions before independence. It is necessary, however, to review briefly the academic literature on farm workers in Zimbabwe.
The most wide-ranging study of farm workers did not appear until the 1970s (Clarke, 1977). It noted an apparent paradox. Although farm workers appeared to be ‘a forgotten people’, they and their families constituted about 20 per cent of the country’s population in the mid-1970s. The study further observed that:
they are seldom interviewed in the media or by other branches of the media. Their high rate of illiteracy imposes a severe disability upon them in a word … These workers have no collective voice at a national level … It is not surprising then that the debate and decisions on farm labour policy proceed in a way which excludes the subjects of the discussion, as if by some stroke of magic the very people most concerned were not even there, except as objects of manipulation in varying degrees of benevolence. (ibid)
These conditions of marginal existence, ‘voicelessness’ and ‘invisibility’ were integral to the growth of the agricultural working class since the advent of colonialism. The poor working conditions initially deterred indigenous Africans from farm work. Until the 1960s, most farm workers were imported from Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia. The reluctance of local Africans to engage in farm labour was due to difficult working conditions. As one contemporary analyst observed, on tobacco farms foreign labour constituted about 70 per cent of the workforce in the 1940s and 1950s (Wadsworth, 1950). An explanation for this state of affairs was that:
the local peasants who did become workers discovered that housing, rations and other services, termed ‘payments in kind’ were inadequate even for a single migrant. Employers expected these low wages to be subsidised by peasant earnings … Many women were forced to seek an income in beer brewing, prostitution and to work on farms at even lower wages than men. This availability of cheap labour buffered employers from the effects of international economic slump … (Loewenson, 1992)
Although the proportion of indigenous farm workers rose in the 1970s, conditions did not improve a great deal. Government intervention in setting a minimum wage in the sector after independence alleviated the situation, but not to a significant extent.
The literature on farm workers post-independence picked up the themes explored during the colonial era. Much of it focused on low wages, poor housing and amenities, and surviving vestiges of quasi-feudal and paternalistic relationships between landowners and farm workers. There was a strong element of advocacy in this literature (Amanor-Wilks, 1995; Balleis and Mugwetsi,1994; FCTZ, 2001; Tandon, 2001). It urged an improvement of the social and wage conditions of this ‘forgotten’ and ‘invisible’ stratum of the working class. Farm workers were seen as lagging behind other social sectors, and as being denied participation in full political and economic life. There was, however, an acknowledgement that there had been some changes in their living conditions, although these were, on the whole, inadequate (Amanor-Wilks, 1995). There was strong advocacy for the empowerment of farm workers through better working conditions, income and food security, and access to health, education and security of tenure (Gavi and Banda, 2001). Recommendations were made for more positive government policy on housing and sanitation, and land rights for farm workers (Magaramombe, 2001). This literature reflected the growing role of NGOs in programmes to assist and empower the farm worker community in the 1990s.
It was also in the 1990s that a segment of commercial farmers became more receptive to calls for systematic improvements in the material conditions of their workforce. In 1996, the Commercial Farmers’ Union (CFU) launched a 10-year plan to improve farm workers’ housing. The centrepiece of the plan was the construction of suitable housing for all permanent workers: a three-roomed structure with a durable roof, adequate ventilation and a separate kitchen (CFU, 1996). Commercial farmers pressed for tax incentives as a reward for improving housing conditions. A series of workshops in the late 1990s pursued these issues to strengthen advocacy for ‘a better deal’ for farm workers (FES, 1998). Continuous consultations were urged between commercial farmers, farm workers and government on housing and tenure security (Sachikonye and Zishiri, 1999). There was, at least for a while during this period, an atmosphere that appeared to nurture dialogue on the rights and welfare of farm workers.
However, from the beginning of 2000, the discourse on farm workers took a sharply different tone. The discourse became polarised between those who approved the fast-track jambanja reform, and those who argued for a more orderly and transparent approach. Nevertheless, some thoughtful analysis of farm workers’ conditions and their responses continued to be presented (Tandon, 2001; Rutherford, 2001). Farm invasions sought to discourage political participation by farm workers. They were subjected to intimidation and violence, and were deliberately marginalised as a group in land resettlement (Rutherford, 2001). The powerlessness and underdog role of farm workers which had been a feature of their existence historically was re-played as the Zimbabwe government launched its jambanja in early 2000.