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Southern Africa Report Archive

Blair Rutherford says that farmworkers are stirring politically in Zimbabwe. (jbv)

vol 15 no 2

Zimbabwean farm workers: The struggle for Utopia
Blair Rutherford

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Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 15 No 2, February 2000
Page 21



Blair Rutherford teaches in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Regina, Canada.

"Care-care, I don't care! Care-care, I don't care!..." The refrain of the song associated with urban student activists was sung vigorously by more than 40 farm workers dancing in a field. They then named their managers and some of the local ZANU PF leaders in the Mashonaland East provincial party structure. A leader from the very same ZANU PF provincial structure was walking away from the farm workers to his new Mercedes Benz. The car was parked in front of a temporary camp, situated just off the Harare-Mutare highway next to the dirt road leading to Utopia farm, which had housed most of the singing workers.

The workers that live in the camp were among the more than 400 who were involved in a labour dispute with the owner of Utopia farm, Freshex. Freshex is a division of the publicly traded Interfresh, one of Zimbabwe's oldest and largest horticultural concerns.

Paradoxically, a local ZANU PF structure had just been established in that very field by the retreating provincial Party member, along with the ward councillor, in preparation for the Party Congress two months hence. The date was October 31, 1999.

It has become common to see leaders of the ruling Party openly challenged by those they seek to represent. Such challenges have been more common in urban areas, at resettlement schemes or on commercial farms that have been subjected to "land invasions." They are rare on commercial farms not involved in such invasions, partly because politicians seldom attend to the concerns of farm workers and partly because farm workers themselves have been too afraid to go against any politicians, particularly those with the "Party."

On the eve of the 2000 Parliamentary elections, however, there is a deepening economic crisis and growing challenges to the political machinery that has governed the country since independence. Many Zimbabweans, farm workers included, are in search of new answers. But despite the growing social unrest and anxiety it is not yet clear what the answers will be.

The struggle to be classified as a "worker," with its attendant set of legal rights and moral traits, has become as central to the Zimbabwean political economy today as the struggle to democratize "Zimbabwe" via a new constitution and the struggle to improve living standards. Whereas the latter two issues have been discussed and partly defined by the national and international media, however, the former has not been explicitly analyzed. Yet as Brian Raftopoulos, a social historian with the Institute of Development Studies, recently observed at a Harare workshop, "the worker" has become as important to the politics of 1990s Zimbabwe as it was to the 1950s Southern Rhodesia. The farm workers involved in the struggle at Utopia offer a good illustration of why this is so.

"Shinga vashandi, shinga!" ("Be brave workers, be brave!")

On October 29, 1998, the Freshex managers fired almost the entire Utopia work force, more than 800 workers, alleging that the workers had engaged in an illegal strike. More than a year later, fewer than half have removed themselves from the case by signing a form in exchange for some money and perhaps the chance to work on a 3-month contract. The rest are remaining with the executive of their workers' committee, who have appealed the decision in various fora and ultimately to the Labour Tribunal, where it currently sits.

On July 26, 1999, the messenger of court enforced an order to evict 138 workers involved in the dispute and those living with them from the Utopia farm compound. Their belongings were thrown in a truck and dumped in front of the District Administrator's Office in Goromonzi. A few days later, many of these workers, mainly women, with a few young men and some small children made a camp on the state land between the farm and the highway. Sympathetic farm workers who were also fighting this case but living elsewhere joined them. The farm workers enclosed about a tenth of a hectare with a grass fence and erected temporary pole and grass structures to provide some shelter from the elements. There they endure this phase of what they call their "war" with Interfresh.

The longevity and resilience of Utopia farm workers is quite remarkable. The strength of their conviction comes, in part, from the actions taken by their workers' committee, and in part, from the support they have received from various outside groups. This outside support, however, is far from unambiguous.

The ward councillor has been one of the most consistent supporters of the Utopia struggle. This is because in 1998, for the first time, farm workers were allowed to vote in the Rural District Council elections. Previously, only land- or lease-holders had voted in these wards. As a result, white commercial farmers almost always held these seats. In 1998, however, many of the candidates for the commercial farming wards had direct ties to the Party and sought the votes of farm workers to win the seats.

Although few of the newly elected commercial ward councillors are attentive to farm workers' concerns, the vice-chairman of the Utopia workers' committee, who had been active in the Party at that time, mobilized voters for the victorious ZANU PF councillor who had been competing against a Party rival. In exchange, the councillor has strongly supported the Utopia workers, arranging meetings with senior provincial politicians and national ministers and backing their demand to stay on the state land until the case is resolved. His actions have brought him into conflict with those in ZANU PF who have taken management's side and those who have wanted to remove the "squatters."

The Utopia farm workers also have sought assistance from other political organizations, partly because ZANU PF support has been divided but perhaps a result of their own growing positive appraisal of themselves as "workers." The International Socialists of Zimbabwe (ISO) and the newly formed political party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), closely connected with the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, have been contacted. Their own trade union, GAPWUZ (General Agricultural and Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe), has facilitated these contacts, soliciting Munyaradzi Gwisai of the Zimbabwe Labour Centre (also a leading member of ISO) to represent them at the Tribunal. GAPWUZ is, of course, a member of ZCTU.

ISO helped the Utopia workers to organize demonstrations in Harare, pressured GAPWUZ to increase the assistance they receive and lobbied NGOs on their behalf for humanitarian assistance. MDC, in contrast, has been much more reluctant to get involved in their struggle. Although it provided the Utopia workers and others in the area transportation to attend its September 11th launch in Harare, MDC has not actively campaigned on their behalf, much less sought membership among the farm workers despite requests from the workers' committee.

Part of the reason is the MDC's own growing pains. The party has to compete with ZCTU demands for many of its personnel and policy advisors and is concerned about ZANU PF infiltration and destabilisation. Some MDC activists also are dismissive of GAPWUZ, which many within the ZCTU have long viewed as a disorganized and weak union.

Nonetheless, MDC, and particularly the ZCTU, has been the main reason why "worker" has become such a politicized identity in Zimbabwe today. Tsvangirai and the ZCTU have led national stay-aways, protests, and strikes over the last several years. They have capitalized on the growing discontent over the steady erosion of living standards, the low wages paid to those few who still work in the formal sector, the deterioration in government social services, which are no longer free, and the mounting evidence of corruption and personal gain among the leaders of the government and the ruling Party.

Yet the dissatisfaction of the Utopia farm workers has yet to translate into clear support for the other political parties now gaining strength in the urban areas. Moreover, it is not clear that it will. The Utopia workers, like many other farm workers and other Zimbabweans, were clearly cynical and antagonistic towards ZANU PF. Yet they still fear going against "the Party" and many respected the ZANU PF councillor who had campaigned on their behalf. The Utopia workers' support for the MDC, therefore, is perhaps rhetorical. So far, the MDC has seldom been present at the camp or on commercial farms more generally. Moreover, conversations I have had with activists in different political parties operating in Mashonaland East revealed that it was only those with ZANU PF who had clear policy programs directed towards farm workers. And their organizational capacity, bolstered immensely by state funds, is vastly superior to that of the other parties. The establishment of a Party cell amongst the Utopia workers bears witness to this capacity.

Sympathy for the MDC may be widespread but there also seems to be a hesitancy to commit, given the experience of many with "politicians," whether from the ruling Party or from previous erstwhile opposition parties ("Care-care, I don't care ..."). Instead, the leaders of the fired Utopia workers define their role as "workers" involved in a wider social project of liberation, struggling for the recognition of their rights and working together to take the "war" to the courts to see what is decided.

The Utopia leadership defines "workers" as both a moral and a legal category. In their discussions with Utopia workers, they mention being oppressed by supervisors and ripped off by management. They highlight the importance for workers to be united; a unity that will come from their oppression. When I asked where their strength comes from, a woman said, "with the pain that I have been putting into the farm it makes me have the strength to be here." The vice-chairman used more internationally familiar language at an August rally: "let us raise each other as farm workers. We can easily be defeated, comrades. We do not have many things to lose apart from the irons that bind us!"

At the same time, the leadership of the workers' committee has defined "workers" very much as a legal category. They have collected documents, minutes of disciplinary committee hearings, memos from management, statutory instruments, and especially, the code of conduct for the agricultural industry. They easily refer to the exact dates when particular events happened. Their main argument is that they are "workers," people who have legally defined rights. It is mainly on this basis that they have mobilized workers.

Most of the workers involved in the dispute also identify themselves as workers. They are less conversant with the labour laws than their leaders but speak often about the importance of standing up for their chikonzero, their "rights." One woman explained that "it is like when a wife who has been chased away by her husband for having an affair with another man. She knows that she is wrong and will pack her things and return to her family. But if a wife is chased away because her husband wants another woman, she instead goes to her tete (aunt) who will go and talk to her husband. The court (labour tribunal) is like a tete and it will tell us whether to pack our things or to remain here (at Utopia)."

It is neither self-evident, however, nor easy to sustain that the Utopia farm workers are "workers." The social and institutional arrangements on many farms militate against farm workers assuming, and especially acting, on such an identity. Many farms do not have operative and autonomous workers' committees and most farm workers have difficulty getting sustained support from an over-stretched and under-resourced GAPWUZ.

In the last five years, development and human rights NGOs have shown a greater interest in farm workers' issues, particularly in improving living conditions. Their interest contrasts with the almost total neglect by the state and civil society groups up to that point (see

Rutherford, "The Forgotten Fifth: Farm Workers in Zimbabwe," Southern Africa Report, Vol. 9 No. 4, March 1994). At the same time, many commercial farmers and their organizations have expanded their interest in providing more social welfare initiatives to workers. All these initiatives have helped to concretize for many farm workers discourses on rights and workers.

Sometimes, however, both farmers and workers have interpreted these rights as a desire to increase the authority and prestige of management by augmenting the welfare initiatives (such as subsidized or free maize-meal, no-interest loans, improved housing and sanitation facilities) taken by many commercial farmers to mitigate the economic crisis (and low wages). Such views see farm workers to aspiring to an even greater reliance on commercial farmers "looking after" them: looking "forward," in effect, to a "return" to colonial days when rations were given and the token wages that some older farm workers nostalgically remember bought much more than their wages do today. The aim of "development," in other words, is sometimes understood as trying to resuscitate colonial arrangements rather than leading to more autonomous farm worker activities and organizations.

Indeed, many workers on the farms surrounding Utopia have told those involved in the struggle that they are crazy for not taking management's offer. Some have even claimed that if they see the Utopia vice-chairman on their farm they will beat him up, though no one has actually carried out that threat. The actions of the Utopia workers involved in the dispute are so out-of-the-ordinary that they threaten the identities and security of many other farm workers. And yet, others living and working in the surrounding farms are showing solidarity with their struggle, providing food and clean water and finding odd jobs to perform here and there.

Forward to . . .?

The farm workers involved in the Utopia dispute exhibit the political ambiguities of the times. For many of those involved in the Utopia case, "politics" does not refer to electoral politics. Rather, the intent is to use "politics" to forward their interests as workers, to clear their name as individuals and to be compensated for what they see as a wrong committed by the company. A member of the workers' committee explained at an August rally: "we are not land hungry. We are here for our rights as workers only. Politicians came here. We tend to say yes to what they want us to do (for if you say `no' it's a problem). But we know who we are. If the Tribunal says `no' to us on October 27th, we will accept that. We actually want that decision around sometime yesterday. The rains are coming. But we have no political interest. We don't need to be heard by everyone. We are just asking for small democracy. It's being denied to us. The right to represent and talk about our working conditions. This is being denied to us."

On October 27th, the lawyer representing Interfresh acknowledged to the Labour Tribunal that management did not follow the law when dismissing the workers. He and Munyaradzi Gwisai then tried to negotiate an out-of-court settlement, but that failed. The case was re-submitted to the Tribunal in December.

The rains have come and the workers living in the camp are coping. All want the case to be solved quickly. Their struggle shows that farm workers are more and more involved in wider circuits of politics and development, but sometimes with different aims. Some are trying to return to Utopia as legally recognized workers. Others want to re-invigorate the colonial lineaments of the farmers' personal responsibilities. Whatever proves to be the case, the majority of farm workers, like other Zimbabweans, wish to reach there around "sometime yesterday."

Postscript: On December 26th, the camp of the Utopia workers burnt down from unknown causes. Although the loss of many of their clothes and their property dismayed many of them, it appears that they are determined to wait until their case is heard at the tribunal. The tribunal has been re-scheduled for February 22nd.

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