Last Updated 02 Mar 2020

What happened to comercial farm workers after the famous land reform (grab) programme in zimbabwe?

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This review of literature seeks to ascertain the impact of the Zimbabwe land reform and redistribution programme on commercial farm workers employed in the targeted white-owned farms. To achieve this goal, it seeks to explore the different ways through which the land distribution programme affected these farm workers, examining the assumption that farm workers were better off prior to the commencement of the redistribution programme, and analyzing whether its effects were positive or negative.

This section provides the necessary background information enabling the development of a better understanding of the situation surrounding the land reform programme. It combines a variety of input from different sources. Material that has been published by other authors on the subject augments its findings and inferences. The first part delves into the political history of land distribution in Zimbabwe and how the farmlands ended up in the hands of the white minority. The following parts explore the impact of the land acquisition programmes on farm workers hitherto employed on the commercial farms.

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History of land distribution and control

Zimbabwe inherited the highly unequal land ownership from apartheid Rhodesia. Its roots lie in the colonial era when colonialists and businessmen of European origin settled in the country and began cultivating its fertile lands (Alexander, 2006; Chan, 2003). The black indigenous population was pushed out of these rich farmlands onto arid areas which had limited productive potential. These white farmers continued their settlement and cultivation of these lands long after Zimbabwe gained its independence from Britain in 1979 (Mutangi, 2010).

By 2002, a huge portion (up to 70%) of rich farmland was still held by about 4500 white farmers, with their commercial enterprises producing crops for export. In stark contrast, a million indigenous families were crowded in communal areas barely eking out a living in arid regions which were not quite suitable for agriculture (Scoones I., et al, 2010).

This scenario reveals that land distribution in Zimbabwe was unequal and unfair and outlines the context of this exploration (Buckle, 2001). The land redistribution programme through reforms on land ownership was therefore designed to render justice to the black population that had suffered this inequality for years (UNDP, 2002). It was initiated in an effort to distribute land equitably between the historically disenfranchised blacks and the white minority who ruled the country from 1890 to 1979 and who by this latter year only comprised about 3% of the country’s population but owned and controlled over 60% of its arable land (Government of Zimbabwe, 1998). Land reform is among the tools employed in the fight against poverty in most developing countries. Its proponents claim that it is an instrument that enables the pursuit of social equity (Sachikonye, 2003).

Process of land redistribution and acquisition

This land redistribution process was initially slow and orderly between 1980 and 1999 but it turned into forceful acquisition and eviction between 2000 and 2002 with the implementation of the fast-track land resettlement programme (FTLRP) (Mutangi, 2010). In this latter phase, marked by violence and coercion, 11 million hectares of commercial farmlands controlled by white farmers were acquired for redistribution. It is estimated that through this programme, 300, 000 small farmers were resettled while about 30, 000 black commercial farmers had, by 2002, received land to establish their venture (Mutangi, 2010). The compelling case for such land reforms and distribution was one of historical redress and was desirable as an outlet for small scale farmers congested in communal areas and an increasing number of landless citizens (Scoones, et al., 2010).

Criticisms of the programme

The land redistribution programme became a sensitive issue that received widespread local and international interest and criticism, though this significantly focused on the plight of the farmers and their ventures, with the plight of farm workers receiving little attention, if any. It was widely criticized with many politicians believing that the problem could have been tackled differently (Chambati and Magaramombe, 2008). The Zimbabwean economy in general suffered disastrous consequences as a result of this programme and its effects, as it is dependent on agriculture as one of its major sources of foreign revenue and employment. Its effects were not just on the agricultural sector, but were felt in the entire economy considering that agriculture is a major sector of the country’s economy (UNDP, 2002). It resulted in a shortage of food, inflation and a surge in unemployment figures, particularly of the commercial farm workers (FCTZ, 2002b).

Many of the farms could not achieve the same output as in the past under ownership of the white settlers and farmers. By its completion in 2002, the land distribution programme and the reforms had resulted in the loss of jobs of more than fifty percent (50%) of commercial farm workers (Mutangi, 2010). Much of the claimed land was corruptly acquired by high ranking officers of the police and army, officials of the ZANU PF party, among other elite (Moyo, 2003). Despite claims of success in settlement of indigenes, several million of the black workers in the white-owned commercial farms suffered exclusion from the redistribution of land, with many losing their jobs, homes and lives (FCTZ 2002b).

However faulty its execution, it cannot be denied that the process brought about a more equitably distributed land better than what prevailed in the past. Land reform in Zimbabwe has resulted in substantial resource distributions since independence in 1980, achieving its primary objective (Chitiyo, 2002; Moyo, S., 2003). Although the disadvantaged black community obtained resettlement, the capacity of the new arrangements to offer significant employment is however questionable. Evidence from Mazowe indicates that the majority of the ‘new’ farmers have little capacity to produce food for export and mainly only grow food crops. This situation requires that the government and the private sector come up with initiatives to revamp export (Masanganise and Kambanje, 2008).

Impact of the land reforms on commercial farm workers

In assessing the situation of the farm workers and the effect of the land reform, we ask, how did these farm workers fare in the aftermath of the reforms and what was their fateWhat was the broad impact on them and their livelihoods, given the drastic decline in crop output from the commercial farms?

This land reform programme and especially the fast-track land resettlement programme (FTLRP) resulted in massive unemployment of the commercial farm workers. Many lost their jobs in the commercial farms (FCTZ, 2002b). Prior to this land reform and redistribution, an estimated 350,000 workers were employed on commercial farmlands owned by white farmers but by 2003, a third of the original workforce was still employed in the plantations and farms. Some of the new owners who took over these farms lacked adequate finances and/or expertise to manage commercial farms and enterprises (Chambati and Magaramombe, 2008). With the turmoil, there was widespread displacement of markets and disruption of the normal processes of business resulting therefore in a reduction both in demand and production (Scoones, et al., 2010).

Some farm workers, however, got land through the programme, including some who got small pieces in the farms on which they previously worked, but they constitute a minority and a small percentage of the total number of beneficiaries (Moyo, 2003). This is in spite of the government’s 1998 land policy that stated clearly that farm workers were also entitled to land under the programme (Government of Zimbabwe, 1998). A constitutional amendment passed and signed into law in 2005 was, however, a setback to the new farmers and to the success of the redistribution. It sought to nationalize farmlands acquired through the fast-track resettlement program, depriving land owners the right to challenge the expropriation by government (Chan, S., 2003). Such incidences generate anxiety and uncertainty and have challenged the confidence of most of the new farmers in their new ventures with fears of interference by the state and other actors in their endeavours.

Historically, there were migrations of people from other countries as well as local areas to work in the commercial farms. A study in 1999 by the General Agriculture and Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe (GAPWUZ) estimates alien farm workers at about a third of the total population of farm workers. Due to illiteracy and lack of insight, these migrant workers despite their residence in the country for lengths of time adequate for naturalization (5 years), did not apply for citizenship (GAPWUZ–FOS–Belgium, 1998). They therefore, under such circumstances as the FTLRP and the subsequent upheaval and violence, suffered greater marginalization with their alien status. This group often lacks political representation as some politicians are not interested in them because they are not citizens and cannot vote.

Drawing from field material gathered from FCTZ’s study in October and November 2002 in eight provinces, about 90 percent of 160 farms surveyed experienced drastic declines in their production or complete halts. Consequently, most of their workers lost their employment, worsened by eviction orders from government following forced acquisitions FCTZ, 2002b). In the sampled survey, only a quarter of the workers received severance packages after the loss of employment, an essential cushion.

Based on this survey conducted in the sampled 160 farms in eight provinces and households of 977 farm workers, as well as interviews with various stakeholders in the commercial farming sector, a report of the Farm Community Trust of Zimbabwe (FCTZ), indicates that most of the farm workers face many difficulties with up to two-thirds of them jobless and landless (FCTZ, 2002b). They lost entitlements to social services such as health and education, to subsidized food and to housing – entitlements that were granted on the commercial farms (FCTZ, 2002b). The Farm Community Trust of Zimbabwe (FCTZ) is a non-governmental organization that has committed itself to the empowerment of farm workers.

With the eviction of farm owners, the maintenance and running of on-farm schools, early childhood educational centres and farm clinics suffered and most closed down. Change in ownership led to the restriction of access to housing, safe water, schools and clinics that still ran (Buckle, C., 2001). Under the take-over, their access to housing became most insecure with evictions from farm houses by new settlers and farmers occurring often. Those evicted had to seek shelter and livelihood in mushrooming informal settlements (referred to as squatter camps) around the farms such as those in Concession, Chihwiti and Gambuli (Sachikonye, 2003; FCTZ, 2002).

Some of them in desperation resorted to illegal settlement on private property and other prohibited areas. This kind of desperation was often a result of the large number of farm workers that have severed their ties and relations to communal communities and lands who, therefore, did not have areas and lands to go back to with their loss of status (Chambati and Magaramombe, 2008). Some continued their stay on the farms with an uncertain future due to the fact that they were often at the mercy of the new owners or on insecure tenure provided by people who delegated themselves the role and status of village heads. Most have had to work to earn their stay in these compounds or risk eviction (Kibble and Vanlerberghe, 2000). This is despite the fact that remuneration in such instances is usually meagre and is not paid at agreed rates and times.

The loss of regular income, however, undoubtedly undermined the livelihoods of these households, making life in the farms more desirable and worthwhile. Withdrawal of regular wage and other essential services such as accommodation and sanitation challenged the capacity of households to provide food and basic care to the sick, especially those suffering from HIV/AIDS (Honye and Tavugara-Mpofu, 2010). The provision of Home-Based Care for these people living with HIV and AIDS is among the services that have been challenged, and which were better offered on the farms (Buckle, 2001). Their social situation has led to the unfortunate shortage of food amongst these farm workers following their job losses. Their descent into these challenges though due to a number of factors has primarily been due to the FTLRP (Sachikonye, 2003). Alexander (2006) notes that the farm workers have become a poor, unstable class constantly drifting and almost suffering destitution.

The farm workers fell victim to the youth militia, members of the ZANU PF party, war veterans, uniformed police and traditional leaders among other implementers of the fast-track programme who viewed them as belonging to the same constituency as the farmers targeted. They suffered beatings, were held hostage, were intimidated and forced to intimidate others and were also forced to join ZANU PF and to attend political meetings (Chan, 2003). The farm workers have continued to suffer violence during such occupations linked to the support offered by farmers to the opposition, a stand which the workers were perceived to also hold. The workers were also targeted in an endeavour to deprive the white farm owners of allies and support for their commercial activities (Sachikonye, 2003)

There is a widespread loss of permanent worker status on farms with those that have managed to remain in employment having to engage under contract or piece-work arrangements. This arrangement is necessitated by the inability of the small farmers resettled and the new commercial farmers to garner adequate financial resources and production capacity. Although farm workers were most affected and displaced, those in plantations (often excluded from acquisition) continue to work though under very poor conditions (Mutangi, 2010).

A number of the piece jobs that these farm workers take up are however seasonal with little or no work during the dry seasons of the year. This is due to the reliance of the new black farmers on natural rains as there is hardly a continuation of the irrigation initiatives that the white commercial farmers had on their farms (Magaramombe G., 2001). These farm workers are, under these circumstances, short of income through a significant part of the year.

Their situation compared to their past life

Contrasted to their current situation, it can be noted that it was however not all rosy in the farms as the workers often did not have adequate safety nets covering security of tenure and retirement and were a marginalized and vulnerable. Their social and political rights were restricted for many years (Sachikonye, 2003; Scoones, et al., 2010). Since colonization, the commercial agriculture sector in Zimbabwe provided the lowest job security, wage and living conditions. Even before the FTLRP, farm workers constituted the extremely poor of Zimbabwe, exacerbated by their marginalization. Their bargaining power has often been weak and insufficient to result in any beneficial changes in their conditions (Sachikonye, 2003). Though forming the largest proportion of the proletariat, farm workers form one of the poor segments lacking access and rights to land and housing (Magaramombe, 2001).

Coping strategies of the ex-farm workers

Magaramombe (2001) notes that these jobless farm workers have had to adopt various strategies to cope including informal trade, fishing and hunting for survival, gold-panning, and piece-work. Other coping activities include the vending of agricultural products such as fruits and vegetables, as well as second-hand clothing in the farms and neighbouring towns and mines.

Despite the large job losses, evidence suggests that up to 50% of the farm workers, a considerable proportion, remain living on farms (Moyo, 2003; Sachikonye, 2003b). Some have resorted to borrowing of land or leasing small sections in order to grow food crops to sustain their families and to earn a living. In this endeavour, they are constrained often by lack of inputs such as fertilizer and the increase in workload as they attend both to their casual work and their farms.

The piece-jobs that they take up are not any better as they are neither secure nor well remunerated (not even to the level of the permanent jobs) and have no basic benefits such as leave and medical care and backing (Sachikonye, 2003). The capacity of these farm workers to secure other forms of employment other than in the farmlands is limited by their low education levels. Several of the farm workers have resorted to working for food, running away from the constraints of the minimum wage, with the minimum wage provision in law evidently inadequate. The authorities announced a new minimum wage to please the new settlers who lacked the capacity to pay the workers (FCTZ, 2002b).

Social protection services and support initiatives

Several social protection services are run by the government of Zimbabwe and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) including Public Assistance, Assisted Medical Treatment Order, Cash transfers and Basic Assistance Modules. Several NGOs also run programmes that seek to strengthen rural livelihoods through small grain production, livestock rearing and support of several other income generating projects (UNDP, 2002). Despite the availability of these services there is widespread lack of awareness on the part of the potential beneficiaries including the ex-farm workers. In a study analyzing the situation of former commercial farm workers in Zimbabwe a decade after the FTLRP with focus in Mazowe district (Honye and Tavugara-Mpofu, 2010), 23% of respondents indicated that they were unaware of these programs and only 2% of them were beneficiaries.


Though land reform is a prominent tool used in poverty alleviation in any country, addressing imbalances in land ownership and control, it can be seen from this review of literature regarding the chaotic land reform and redistribution programme in Zimbabwe that it created a number of challenges to the overall economy, the owners of commercial farms and of particular interest to this study, the farm workers.

Farm workers were affected adversely through loss of employment and therefore their livelihoods, interruption of education and the interruption of various essential services, as well as, loss of accommodation, among other basic human rights. Primarily implicated are events resulting from the start of the FTLRP. Most of them live in appalling conditions in informal settlements around the farms they previously worked, or illegally in private property and prohibited areas, lacking food, security and sanitation. Very few still retain their permanent employee status especially in the plantations but their working conditions are dire with meagre pay. For some, their job status has dropped to casual worker, which is characterized by seasonal engagements with the new farmer’s reliance on natural rains forgoing irrigation.

With their low education levels hindering their capacity to find other work, they have resorted to piece-work on farms to survive, as well as other ventures such as hunting, gold panning, vending of products, hunting and fishing. Some have resorted to working for food avoiding the constraints of the newly set minimum wage which is inadequate while some borrow or lease land from the new farmers for subsistence agriculture which they alternate with casual labour.

Their lives on the commercial farms before the FTLRP was, however, not entirely rosy, though the provision of basic essentials and a regular income made the conditions then far better for them than what they presently have.


Alexander. J., 2006. The unsettled land: State making and the politics of land in Zimbabwe 1893-2003. John Currey, Oxford.

Buckle, C., 2001. African Tears: Zimbabwe Land Invasions, Johannesburg: Covos Day

Chan, S., 2003. Robert Mugabe: A Life of Power and Violence, London: IB Taurus

Chambati, W., and G., Magaramombe, 2008. “The abandoned question: Farm workers.” In S. Moyo, K. Helliker, and T. Murisa, (eds.). Contested Terrain: Land Reform and Civil Society in Contemporary Zimbabwe. Harare: AIAS.

Chitiyo, K., 2002. Harvest of Tongues: Zimbabwe’s ‘Third Chimurenga’ and the Making of an Agrarian Revolution, Mimeo.

Farm Community Trust of Zimbabwe (FCTZ), 2002. Concession Informal Settlement: Mazowe District, Mashonaland Central, Harare

Farm Community Trust of Zimbabwe (FCTZ), 2002b. The Situation of Commercial Farm Workers after Land Reform in Zimbabwe 91

Farm Community Trust of Zimbabwe (FCTZ), 2005. Report of the Workshop on Housing and Tenure Security for Farm Workers in Newly Resettled Areas For the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Lands and Agriculture. 16 October 2005

GAPWUZ–FOS–Belgium, 1998. Summary of Survey Particulars: Jan-April 1998 survey of farm workers in Zimbabwe, Harare.

Government of Zimbabwe, 1998. Land Reform and Resettlement Programme Phase 2: A Policy Framework and Project Document. Harare: Government Printers.

Honye, C., and Tavugara-Mpofu, 2010. Understanding Livelihoods of Former Farm Workers in Zimbabwe. An Insight from Ivador Farm, Mazowe PRP LIME Baseline

Kibble, S., and P., Vanlerberghe, 2000. Land, Power and Poverty: Farm Workers and the Crisis in Zimbabwe, London: CIIR

Masanganise, P., and Kambanje, 2008. Agricultural production and land reform in Zimbabwe: A case of Mazowe District

Magaramombe G., 2001. Rural poverty: Commercial farm workers and Land Reform in Zimbabwe. Paper presented at the SARPN conference on Land Reform and Poverty Alleviation in Southern Africa Pretoria 4th and 5th June 2001.

Moyo, S., 2003. Land redistribution, allocation and beneficiaries. Mimeo

Mutangi, G., 2010. “The changing patterns of farm labour after the Fast Track Land Reform Programme: The case of Guruve District.” Livelihoods after Land Reform in Zimbabwe. Working Paper 13. Livelihoods after Land Reform Project. South Africa: PLAAS.

Sachikonye, L. M., 2003. Land reform for poverty reductionSocial exclusion and farm workers in Zimbabwe. Paper prepared for a conference on “Staying poor: chronic poverty and development policy” organized by the IDMP, Manchester University, April 2003.

Sachikonye, L. M., 2003b. The Situation of Commercial Farm Workers after Land Reform in Zimbabwe .A report prepared for the Farm Community Trust of Zimbabwe.

Scoones I., et al, 2010. Zimbabwe’s Land Reform – Myths and Realities. Weaver Press

UNDP (2002) Zimbabwe Land Reform and Resettlement: Assessment and Suggested Framework for the Future, Interim Mission Report, Harare

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What happened to comercial farm workers after the famous land reform (grab) programme in zimbabwe?. (2018, Dec 18). Retrieved from

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