What are former farm workers doing 16 years after land reform?

There has been much debate about the fate of ‘farm workers’ following land reform, with discussion focused on displacement and dispossession (and many dodgy numbers touted around),  but relatively …

Source: What are former farm workers doing 16 years after land reform? | zimbabweland November 7, 2016

here has been much debate about the fate of ‘farm workers’ following land reform, with discussion focused on displacement and dispossession (and many dodgy numbers touted around),  but relatively little about what has happened to this group since (although this blog has tried). Today we must ask,  is the term ‘farm worker’ now irrelevant, and do we need a more nuanced characterisation? Our research in Mvurwi area in Mazowe district suggests the answer is yes.

Those who were once workers on white commercial farms are now carving out new livelihoods on the margins of the resettlement programme, often under very harsh conditions. Their challenges are barely represented in wider debates on future rural policy, with the focus being on the new settlers. How they are surviving, and how they are integrating within new farming communities following land reform, remains poorly understood, and under-researched.

Fortunately there is new research emerging which paints a complex picture across the Highveld farming communities. In a couple of weeks I will review Andrew Hartnack’s excellent new book, Ordered Estates, for example. Our own research shows some similar patterns. On the three former large scale commercial farms where we are working near Mvurwi, now each subdivided into multiple A1 resettlement farms (a total of 220), there are three farm worker compounds, housing 370 families. Before land reform these families worked on farms across the district and beyond. Around half formerly worked on one of the three farms where we are working, the others came from 23 other farms, displaced by the land reform as compounds were closed and new farmers, particularly A2 farmers taking over larger farms, dismissed workers, and replaced or downsized their workforce.

In the last 15 years, these families – and now their descendants – have had to carve out a living on the margins. The old system of employment, under the paternalistic ‘domestic government’, so well described by Blair Rutherford, has gone. In its place is a much more precarious existence, based on a range of unstable sources of income. Many work for the new settlers, others farm their own land, others do a range of off-farm activities, from brickmaking to mining to fishing. We interviewed 100 household heads, sampled randomly across the compounds, and asked whether they thought their life had improved, stayed the same or got worse since land reform. Contrary to the standard narrative about former farmer workers, we were surprised to find 56% of informants saying that things had improved. IM commented: “Life in the past was very hard. It’s definitely an improvement today. I didn’t even have bicycle then, no cattle. Now I farm a bit, and have both”.

Three farms near Mvurwi

How are people improving their livelihoods, and what is happening to those who see a deterioration in their livelihoods? Our studies have aimed to find out. What is clear is that a single designation of former farm worker is insufficient. Today, this is a much more differentiated group. In the past there were grades of different jobs, with drivers, cooks, foremen and others with managerial posts getting better conditions and pay than field workers. But today, the differentiation is not based on jobs, but on a range of livelihood options being followed. Access to land in particular is crucial. In many ways, the people living in the compounds are not so much workers in the classic sense, but more represent the ‘fractured classes of labour’ that Henry Bernstein has described, mixed in with aspiring peasants and petty commodity producers.

Across our three farms there is a clear difference between those with plots of land, and those without – or with only small gardens. Some former farm workers gained land during the land reform. Across our sample 19 A1 households are headed by former farm workers or their sons, representing 8.6 per cent of plots. For those who remained in the compounds in two of the farms, access to 1 ha plots was negotiated following land reform, with the approval of local politicians, the District Administrator and the Department of Lands. This arose out of major disputes, particularly around the 2008 election, between the A1 settler farmers and those living in the compounds. For others small garden plots are available, and these can be vital for household survival. In addition, there is a growing rental market in land, as A1 farmers unable to use their full allocation of land, rent out small plots (usually 0.1-0.2 hectares) to compound residents. This helps hook them into labour relations, and means that often highly skilled workers are on hand.

Before land reform farming was not possible for those living in the compounds. The white farmers on these 3 farms sometimes offered ‘lines’ within their fields as an alternative to rations, but farm workers were not allowed independent incomes. This was a highly controlled setting, with paternalistic, sometimes violent and brutal, control creating a system of dependence and fear. Of course former farm owners were very different, and some were better than others, as the testimonies of farm workers clearly show (see next week’s blog for some extended case studies), but the expectation was that those living in the compounds were under the control of the farmer, and expected to work in return for pay, housing and some amenities. Today the housing has to be maintained by the residents, there is no regular pay (except for a few who have been employed permanently by the new settlers) and school or clinic fees must be paid for.

Differentiated livelihoods

The table below offers some basic data, contrasting four different groups: those who got land under land reform and are now A1 settlers but were formerly farm workers (or their sons); those living in the compounds with plots of more than 1 ha; those with plots/gardens of up to 1 ha; and those without land (or just small gardens by their houses).

A1 farmers, who were former farm workers Compound dwellers with more 1 ha or more of land Compound dwellers with land areas less than 1 ha Compound dwellers with only small home gardens
Land owned (ha) 3.5 1.5, plus 0.3 rental 0.4, plus 0.3 rental A few sq metres, plus 0.2 ha rental
Cattle (nos) 2.1 0.7 0.5 0.1
Maize (kg in 2014) 1569 735 418 66
Tobacco (kg in 2014) 1045 470 232 27
Cattle purchased in last 5 years 0.9 0.3 0.2 0.0


The contrasts are stark. Those who managed to get land during the land reform are doing relatively well (21 households of the 220 settlers across the farms). Their skills learned on the commercial farms are paying off. Even though they have much lower land areas than others in the A1 settlements, they have reasonable production and on average cultivated 2.5 ha in 2014. This resulted in a surplus of maize being sold, and tobacco being marketed. As a result, they are accumulating cattle and other goods, building homes and employing people themselves from the compounds.

But those living in the compounds are not all the same. There are some (26 per cent of our compound sample) who are more akin to the poorer settlers, or those in the communal areas, who have on average 1.5 ha, renting in a further 0.3 ha. They produce about three-quarters of annual family food requirements from maize, while also selling tobacco and engaging in other work. Their reliance on selling labour is limited, although at the peak of the farming, curing or grading season they may be hired. Many had higher grade jobs before, and may be sought out for advice. They have started accumulating and are investing in cattle in particular (but also a whole range of other goods, including solar panels, water pumps, bicycles, and a few have bought cars).

Then there are those with some land but under a hectare, although also renting in land (52 per cent). This group is more reliant on labouring and other off-farm activities. Many are engaged in trades, including building, carpentry and so on, servicing the A1 areas, but on their own terms.

And finally there are those who have only home gardens, although some are renting in land (average 0.2 ha, hence some maize/tobacco production), and are highly reliant on selling labour to land reform farmers (22 per cent). Labour organisation may involve farmers turning up with a pick-up and recruiting on the day, or may be mediated by a local broker (often a compound member) who is in mobile phone connection with a number of farmers, both A1 and A2, and directs people to work openings, again by mobile phone.

The proportions in these categories of compound dwellers is not fixed, however. Proportions change season by season and over time. What we see is an emerging class differentiation among former farmer workers, driven in particular by access to land. In discussions around whether lives have improved or deteriorated, everyone mentions land, as well as employment conditions. Land access is however limited, and political gatekeeping means that not everyone can benefit. Allocations of land since the land reform within the three farms we have studied have depended on complex negotiations between those in the compounds and local political leaders. New settlers are suspicious of those in the compounds. Cheats, thieves, foreigners, MDC supporters and worse are the descriptors often used.

This antagonism is not universal however, as settlers are well aware they need the labour and skills of those living there for their tobacco production. Good relations in the end are necessary, and accommodations have to be found. Brokering by local politicians and traditional leaders resulted in the concessions of the 1 ha plots; and land deals with nearby A2 farms to avoid antagonism have also occurred. Compound leaders, usually with connections in ZANU PF, have been able to create opportunities, but only for some. Usually it is the older, male, better educated, previously higher grade employees have benefitted, while the youth, single women and others with fewer connections have not, as profiles in next week’s blog will show.

New questions for research and policy

While the policy discourse continues to focus on displacement and farm worker rights amongst the NGOs and human rights community, those who used to be farm workers themselves have had by necessity to get on with life. They know the situation has changed and have to negotiate the new reality. As discussed, some have benefited, others not. But right now, there is an urgent need for a more informed policy discussion about what next, and move the policy debate on. Tobacco production, now the mainstay of Zimbabwe’s fragile agricultural economy, is being grown by a large number of new land reform settlers (amongst others). This production is reliant on labour, yet its organisation is very different to what went before. This suggests new challenges and priorities for policy and advocacy.

Some important new questions arise. What labour rights do those living in the compounds have? What land is required as part of a national redistribution to sustain their livelihoods? What is the future of the compounds, sitting as an anomaly in the new resettlements, a reminder of a now long-gone past? These questions are barely being discussed, and much more research and informed debate is urgently needed. The next couple of blogs will offer some more on this theme, with the aim of raising the debate.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland


  • comment-avatar
    harper 6 years ago

    Only Scones would praise Hartnack.

    • comment-avatar
      Nduru 6 years ago

      @Harper. You can’t be familiar with Hartnack’s work. If you were you would know that he can hardly be called ‘pro’ fast-track land reform. He is one of the few scholars who has highlighted the impacts of fast track on farmworkers.

  • comment-avatar
    Chiwaridza 6 years ago

    These people referred to in this article simply exist to feed themselves, they contribute very little or zero to the economy, they will never have access to proper education or health care. The environment will deteriorate and the future droughts and other forces of nature will render them reliant on the state for hand outs. Tobacco alone, year after year with no sustainable rotations, less and less timber to cure with, will result in an environmental disaster and disillusioned small scale farmers. The author must surely realize that a country like Zimbabwe that is reliant on agriculture as its major contributor to growth requires a mix of large scale commercial small scale agriculture in order to develop and grow. If the author does not understand this then he has no business writing to the subject. Disorganized small holder agriculture alone, with no land tenure and no main stream gender participation will never succeed, there are very few success stories in the world today that can be used as a sustainable example for this method. Countries that do not have an organized land use policy which includes land ownership have largely failed to develop, land ownership is the key to agricultural development…get used to it. These figures and indicators that the author cites are of absolutely no significance to anyone or anything. Zimbabwe is a failed state, it is 98% due to the fact that ZanuPF destroyed large scale commercial agriculture so that Mugabe could remain in power, he then then seriously disrupted any organized small scale agricultural development that was in existence by becoming the custodian of failed fiscal and economic policies therefore draining any available funding for extension, research and development to the small scale sector. Rural development and extension can only exist with the assistance of the private sector, Government and Donors all contributing, it will fail if one of these partners falls away. In Zimbabwe all three of these partners have just about walked away from agriculture, the biggest culprit being the Government. Therefore regardless of the author’s figures and notes on the ex farm worker plight, nothing that takes place in Zimbabwe with regard to agriculture is sustainable or will under the present system… it will continue to fail and the small holder farmer’s/ex farm worker will continue to live in abject poverty. Mr. Scoones it only takes one drought every three years ( the norm today) to destroy your theory.

  • comment-avatar

    Scoones is a complete idiot, albeit a ZanuPF a…e licking one at that. Why anybody reads his clap-trap is beyond comprehension. He should come and live in either Lupane, Zaka, Bukwa or Binga, so that he can get the ‘feel’ of what it is like to live off the land in Zimbabwe today. God forbid that you have some more non-sensical ‘articles’ lined up.

  • comment-avatar

    So 56% of ex farm workers claim things are better than in the past in this said ‘article’. I trust that now owning a bicycle is the key measurement of success, whilst there is no food on the table, clothes on children’s backs, a roof over one’s head, no education, or medical facilities and we could go on.
    If things are so good, can the writer explain in simple terms why this country cannot feed itself, considering there are some 2 mln less, who have gone out of the country and please no baloney about drought, so called sanctions and other feeble excuses. accept that the destruction of the backbone of the economy was destroyed and hence a total collapse across the board. It is known as the domino effect!

  • comment-avatar
    Vengesai Chifamba 6 years ago

    the life of a farm worker is really a pity,I was working at Kondozi Fresh Export in Odzi.We were living pretty there. We were working in offices as if we were in offices in Harare,come the land reform we were thrown out like criminals we lost all of our property and we were left with nothing after the army pounded on us. I was thinking that we were going to get assistance in any form but this never worked out we were not given any terminal benefits,I am really surprised to here the government talking about compensating white farmers but they are not concerned about us ex farm workers.If there is ang organisation that is willing to help We will be very greatful

  • comment-avatar
    Kevin 6 years ago

    It is quite apparent that the author did not do a country wide survey therefore his article is propaganda for the status quo. It is not what he is presenting it as, which is a scientific research paper. Mvurwi is a part of the country that is well watered by comparison with vast tracts of the country outside of Mashonaland and so not at all representative of the country. The author is an intellectual prostitute.

  • comment-avatar

    what the author does not mention is the immense destruction decentralised tobacco production has caused – particularly in the Mvurwi area. Small scale tobacco growers most often cure their crop using wood instead of coal – wood that is chopped wherever the small scale growers find it. People with carts full of slow growing Masasa and other indigenous timber are a common sight in the area. Please, mr Scoones, compare satellite images. The effect of this “new” tobacco production is utterly devastating, even if you are ideologically disinclined to accept that simple truth. The real cost of this will be suffered not just by the small scale farmers, but by the rural population as a whole. Erosion, deforestation, and all the secondary effects, such as flooding, soil depletion etc.
    In the run up to the current rainy season, the entire district was ablaze with fires, with none to put them out – another result of the so-clled land reform. Wildlife has been depreciated to unprecedented lows. The removal of old organisational and administrative structures without the creation of effective new ones has resulted in a textbook case of commons dilemma: only the shortest-term gain is considered, never mind the long term impact. And this makes perfect sense, because those who set the land ablaze for minimal gain (hunting the last remaining wildlife, for example) do so in the knowledge that they have no security of tenure and no perspective of building something of lasting value for their families. They are where they are by the grace of one local party big shot or another. Mr Scoones, your “research” is putting plenty of lipstick on a pig’s snout.