6 Αυγούστου 2012

The fate of Zimbabwean farm workers: A reply to RW Johnson

Andrew Hartnack says critique of NYT article was based on hearsay, guesswork and speculation

Simplistic Portrayals of Recent Zimbabwean History do not Move us Forward

RW Johnson's well-meaning but highly problematic article (Finding the "golden lining" in the Zimbabwean genocide - 29 July 2012) cannot go unchallenged.

It is undoubtedly valuable to critique and put into context the claims of those who have painted an unrealistically positive picture of the outcomes of Robert Mugabe's "land reform" programme since 2000, as Johnson has attempted to do. But to do so by providing a simplistic argument, based on a very skewed and shallow understanding of Zimbabwean history, as well as hearsay, guesswork and speculation, is foolish to say the least. It plays into the hands of the very people Johnson is seeking to critique.

Most disturbing of all is that Johnson has not paid attention to any of the contemporary academic literature on the complex economic and socio-political dynamics behind the events of the last two decades. There is much very rich material on farm workers, white farmers, land invasions, farm displacements, new labour dynamics on farms, Operation Murambatsvina etc. that Johnson has apparently ignored in favour of his own very superficial journalistic investigations.

Johnson's statement that "in the 1990s the Commercial Farmers Union (CFU) had repeatedly tried to interest Mugabe in land reform but he had ignored all such initiatives" is a hugely simplistic half-truth which has been critiqued and analysed in detail in a recent book by Rory Pilossof, which Johnson would do well to read.[i]

But the greatest source of discomfort for me is with Johnson's portrayals of life for farm workers before and after the land invasions. His assertion that farm workers enjoyed a "cosy arrangement", under a "protective umbrella" where both workers and their extended families were provided "not only with food security but farm schools, Aids orphan clinics and so forth" masks a much more complicated and often problematic reality.

In truth, living and working conditions on commercial farms differed widely from farm to farm, there being no standard set of development laws that farmers were obliged to follow. The government largely left the welfare and conditions of farm workers up to individual farmers, which nurtured a paternalistic relationship whose characteristics very much depended on the rules set on each farm. Blair Rutherford describes this situation, which he calls "domestic government", in great detail in many of his publications.[ii]

So while some farmers were progressive and, especially by the 1990s, greater numbers were responding to efforts by NGOs and unions to encourage them to build more schools, clinics and better housing, this was certainly not the case on all farms. Indeed, even in wealthy districts, there was only an average of one primary school to every eight farms, while there was commonly only one secondary school in any one district.

This meant that most farm-workers' children typically walked many kilometres to school every day, while many simply dropped out after junior level. In poorer or marginal districts, the state of farm housing and social amenities was especially bad. If farm workers were as happy with the "comfortable arrangement" as Johnson would have us believe, why were there countrywide wildcat strikes by farm workers in 1997?

Far from being an idyllic life, farm communities were notoriously fluid, access to housing was very insecure (especially for women) and farm work was badly underpaid. The fact that most permanent jobs went to male workers created a highly unhealthy situation in which women circulated seasonally from farm to farm or formed impermanent relationships with male workers to get access to work and housing.

Many women resorted to transactional and commercial sex for survival. Farms often only had a "beerhall" as the centre of recreation, which compounded the social problems on farms, leading to one of the worst HIV infection rates in the country. There is a reason that the "Aids orphan clinics" became a feature on the farms: the fluid living environment experienced by farm workers, and the nature of farm labour, created ideal conditions for the spread of the disease. It is to the credit of many farmers that they responded to the crisis, but this should in no way cause us to forget the structural problems that caused the crisis in the first place.

The period of land invasions undoubtedly led to much suffering by farm workers, who Johnson correctly states were targets of state violence. Many were displaced, many were beaten, raped and tortured and as many as 500 000 were displaced, losing access to their housing, property, paid employment and other amenities.

Nobody should ever deny that farm workers suffered some of the worst human rights abuses and of all Zimbabweans were probably left the worst off through the events of the last 12 years. However, to surmise, as Johnson has, that most farm workers have been wiped out is highly irresponsible and does not do justice to the resilience, agency and ingenuity of many of those who were affected by the land invasions.

Johnson argues that farm workers "had no idea of how to fend for themselves in this hostile new environment", yet my own in-depth study of displaced farm workers in 2004/05 showed that while farm workers were impacted negatively, in many instances they used their experience of negotiating lousy working and living conditions to their good in their attempts to recover from displacement.

Far from being the passive victims that Johnson portrays, farm workers used their skills and ingenuity to incorporate themselves into new relationships of patronage with urban and rural elites.[iii] Yes, there were those who could not cope - the elderly and sick in particular - but recent follow-up research confirmed that most of those in the large community involved with my study are still alive seven years later, despite displacement, Operation Murambatsvina and the very harsh economic situation.

What Johnson fails to appreciate is that many farm workers - aware of their vulnerable political position - adopted a "blending in" strategy in both rural and urban areas as a way to ensure survival. The reason journalists and others not prepared to dig beneath the surface think farm workers have all died is because their protection strategy has been remarkably successful.

By all informed accounts, more than half of farm workers remain on the farms, living side-by-side with the new farm occupants. They are living a highly marginalised and insecure life (often more so than in the past); when they are offered work they are paid very poorly; in many cases their tenure is dependent on the whims of the new power-holders; they rely on dangerous livelihood choices such as gold-panning; only a few have any significant access to their own land.

Schools and clinics have, as Johnson points out, been very badly affected. I have been told recently that in many areas, the freedom of movement of farm workers still living on the farms is being severely restricted ahead of the next round of elections. Yet, as before, the situation differs from district to district, from farm to farm.

Two young men I recently interviewed told me how they had managed to secure their own plots and were very happy that their families were now able to "stand on their own feet". Meanwhile, farm workers I interviewed on a commercial farm that is still running grumbled, with good reason, that they were paid less than R20 per day. The situation is obviously still very complex and multi-faceted.

I thus do not believe that what happened to farm workers, as bad as it was, can or should be called a "genocide" or a "holocaust", not least of all because there is very little real evidence to support such claims. The violence and abuse experienced by farm workers was nowhere near as organised, focussed or vicious as that experienced by MDC supporters and organisers in Operation Mavoterapapi after the March 2008 elections.

Generalising about the experiences of farm workers and homogenising them into one group of passive and helpless victims takes away their individual histories, multi-faceted experiences and resilient responses. It is not only historically inaccurate but insulting to the people who went through these hard times and still survive with dignity today.          

What Zimbabwe needs is more attention to the complexity and nuance of what has happened over the last two decades, not highly simplistic and misleading accounts that rely on false binaries and half-truths.

Andrew Hartnack is a social anthropologist and a Director of the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation. He is currently conducting his PhD research on farm welfare programmes in Zimbabwe.


[i] Pilossof, R. 2012. The Unbearable Whiteness of Being: Farmers' Voices From Zimbabwe. Harare: Weaver Press.

[ii] See especially Rutherford, B. 2001. Working on the Margins: Black Workers, White Farmers in Postcolonial Zimbabwe. Harare: Weaver Press.

[iii] See Hartnack, A.M.C. 2009. "Transcending Global and National (Mis)representations through local responses to Displacement: The Case of Zimbabwean (ex-) Farm Workers". In: Journal of Refugee Studies, Vol. 22, No. 3. pp. 351-377.

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