BBC Crossing Continents: Farm labour and land reform

As the BBC Crossing Continents programme ( highlighted, former farm workers have been big losers from land reform. Particularly in the Highveld areas where highly capitalised farms employed large workforces, many have been displaced, and those that remain often have poor tenure and dismal working conditions.

Martin Plaut in his report suggested there has been a swap – with new farmers gaining livelihoods and farm workers losing them in equal numbers since 2000. In the BBC website report, he suggests that 500,000 workers lost their jobs ( The source of the figure is not given, but it’s definitely not true.

At most there were 350,000 workers in farm employment before 2000. This is the accepted figure by both CFU and the labour union. Of these around were temporary workers, who usually had homes and farms elsewhere. A number of studies of land reform across the country show that between 7 and 10% of new beneficiaries were former farm workers (perhaps 15,000), and about 25,000 others were allocated small plots on former farms, where they eke out a living under very difficult conditions. Around 70,000 retained their jobs, especially on the large estates, while others have been employed especially on the new A2 farms.  In sum best estimates suggest that 45,000 formerly permanently employed farmworker households were completely displaced,  25,000 have ended up with plots on farms, some with employment but often with insecure livelihoods, while others who had seasonal work on farms had to seek new sources of employment, while continuing their own farming in communal areas, or as part of the new resettlement programme (see details in Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realities, pages 127-8).

Certainly, in the Masvingo study, as we show in Chapter 6 of our book, on-farm employment increased substantially following land reform, as both A1 and A2 farmers hired labour. But of course this was in areas where there was limited farm employment on extensive beef ranches before. In other areas there has certainly been a loss of jobs, although new ones have been created. Farm workers who were employed by the former owners are often not trusted, and new workers are hired, resulting in a turnover. Certainly, the conditions of the new farmworkers is poor. While it was not good before, in many situations it probably has deteriorated, as wages decline, employment rights are not upheld and security of tenure on farms for workers is fragile. But overall, the situation is highly complex and in flux.

The African Institute for Agrarian Studies, and particularly Walter Chambati, have been doing some excellent work on this across the country. It’s an area that needs much more detailed study. This will avoid the dangers of false figures being bandied around, and simplistic narratives of equivalent winners and losers being portrayed.

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One response to “BBC Crossing Continents: Farm labour and land reform

  1. Barry J Lennox

    It is quite wrong to say that white settlers chased the Africans off their land. In 1890 when the first whites arrived in the land between the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers there were only a couple of hundred thousand Africans and that number was decreasing due to inter tribal fighting and disease. They could not therefore have occupied all the land they say they did.

    The Africans were still living in the Stone Age. They had not even invented the wheel. They had no written language, no currency, no education and no medical facilities. They were actually settlers too. The Shona having come down from the north over the Zambezi and the Matabele were an offshoot of the Zulus in Natal, South Africa. After their arrival the whites put a stop to intertribal fighting and introduced modern medical practices which led to the ever increasing rise in the African population reaching about 7 million in 1980 at the birth of Zimbabwe.
    The Africans had never been more than itinerant subsistence farmers and were causing massive erosion of the topsoil.
    It was only due to the expertise of the white farmers that sufficient food was grown to support the massive increase in the population.
    Because of the reduction in white farmers Zimbabwe is having to import maize, having been an exporter in the past when the farms were productive.


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