Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Farm Workers Disenfranchised

Victims of Mugabe's land seizures lacked the official documents necessary to vote in ballot.
By IWPR Srdan

Tens of thousands of former workers on white-owned farms were deprived of their votes in the March 31 parliamentary election.


Some 350,000 black workers and their families were rendered homeless from 2000 onwards when President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU PF government embarked on a chaotic programme of forcible expulsion of white owners from some 4500 commercial farms.


The workers, who were expelled from their homes on farms along with their employers, have been living in dire poverty in makeshift camps across the country. Because of the way they were summarily uprooted, they did not have the necessary wad of official documents required to register as voters. In addition, many could not afford to travel to their original farm constituencies to verify their details on voters’ rolls.


The government demands that potential voters provide proof of residence before they can register. Rural Zimbabweans either produce letters from their headman or chief or from their farm employer as proof of residence.


Of the 350,000 farm workers and their families, only about 10,000 were given land in the post-expulsion redistribution programme. MPs, civil servants, party officials, army and police officers and judges were the main recipients of confiscated farms.


The former labourers who received nothing are scattered in squatter camps or low-paid town jobs. Some are living on paltry wages paid by the new elite black farmers who took over from commercial farmers.


Moses Chembe, 45, was displaced from a farm at Beatrice, 80 kilometres south of Harare, where he was a tractor driver. “My wife and I will not vote because we were unable to register,” he told IWPR. “The officers from the registrar’s office told us to go back to our original constituency. But how could we go back when we were chased from the farm? The war veterans [Mugabe’s main occupation force] told us vacate the farm.”


The Chembes now live in a squatter camp near Arcturus Mine, a mining town 35 km east of Harare.


“When I protested to the registrar that we had been displaced, his officers told me to bring my proof of new residence or a letter from the chief,” said Chembe.


Documents regarded as proof of residence include water, electricity or phone bills. Unfortunately, Chembe has not been able to produce any such documents because he lives at a squatter camp where there are no municipal amenities.


Chembe now works for a new black farmer on a contract basis.


He is paid 15, 000 Zimbabwe dollars (about two US dollars) for an 8 hour shift, with no perks or accommodation. In Zimbabwe, his salary can only buy three loafs of bread. During the off-season, when there is no contract word, Chembe sells wild fruits at the roadside to try to keep his family.


Countless thousands of other farm workers have been similarly disenfranchised and impoverished.


Ganizani Phiri, 68, told IWPR he lost his job when a senior army officer expelled his white employer from his farm at Macheke, 160 km southeast of Harare. “I have voted in every election since Independence in 1980,” he said angrily. “This is the first time I will not be able vote. And it’s all because I was forcibly moved from my constituency.”


Phiri is now also a contract worker with “new farmers". “I would have liked to go back to Macheke to try to register, but I just can’t afford it. The new farmers are paying me only 15,000 Zimbabwe dollars a shift. That can’t get me anywhere. I can’t even feed my wife and six children and grandchildren properly,” he added.


The General and Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe,GAPWUZ, said it is difficult to place an exact figure on the number of displaced farm workers who have been disenfranchised. GAPWUZ deputy secretary general Gift Muti told IWPR that the number was likely to be just under 400, 000.


He said the union’s biggest immediate challenge was to make sure that the few workers who were lucky enough to be allocated land get title deeds so that they can at least vote in the next election.


The ZANU PF government has repeatedly accused the farm workers of siding with commercial farmers during the land reform invasion process.


In 2000, the government lost its bid to change the constitution in a referendum. The new constitution sought to legalise the takeover of land from the white commercial farmers. Zimbabweans rejected the new proposal with an ovewhelming "No" vote that shocked Mugabe.


He blamed the commercial farmers and their workers for the defeat. Instead, he launched the farm invasions which robbed the white farmers of their land and their workers of their homes.


“The government believes that the farm employees voted against the proposed constitution in 2000,” said Paul Themba-Nyathi, spokesman for the opposition MDC. “Mugabe also believes the workers voted for the MDC in the last two elections. That is why they were determined not to allow them to vote this time around.”


Chipo Sithole is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.