FIFTY-EIGHT-year-old Ruth Charedzera has known no other home other than the 450-hectare Robbstale Farm in Mhangura, Mashonaland West province, since her birth in 1957.
Charedzera was born to farm labourers and raised at the farm. Her father was born in Mhangura in 1919, and was for long employed at Robbstale Farm.
Charedzera went to school at the farm, worked at the farm and even met her future husband there. She has raised her five children at the farm, and is currently looking after 11 grandchildren at the same farm.
Although at the time of her birth the farm was wholly-owned by the Nienaber family, it is now co-owned by four families.
Understandably, Charedzera is deeply attached to the farm which for obvious reasons she calls home.
But with the chaotic and yet-to-be-concluded land reform programme which started in 2000, Charedzera and fellow farm labourers are at risk of becoming homeless, joining thousands others who lost their jobs and homes as a result of the land grab.
Robbstable Farm was sub-divided into four plots by Ministry of Lands officials in 2012, with one plot remaining with the Nienaber family while three others were allocated to indigenous persons. The farm compound where Charedzera was born and raised was allocated to a retired military officer, Leonard Matizanadzo, who is fighting tooth and nail to remove the farm labourers from his new property.
Matizanadzo has gone to court to have the labourers evicted, and was granted an eviction order in March.
On November 18, the Karoi deputy sheriff descended on the farm accompanied by 14 police officers from Mhangura Police Station, in full riot gear, to evict 200 people — among them 75 children living at the compound.
“They came to the farm on a Wednesday at around 10am. They were quite menacing and very intimidating. Most of the men and some women were in the fields, but I was at home with the children. They banged doors and forcibly opened them before haphazardly loading our belongings into a truck,” said an emotional Charedzera in an interview at the farm last Tuesday.
Charedzera is now being treated for high blood pressure after the traumatic episode, and struggled to control her emotions.
“They barred us from getting near the houses. Attempts by people to grab their property resulted in tear gas canisters being thrown at them. The police officers were so menacing that most women fled with their children to the farmhouse which is across the road,” she said.
“We watched hopelessly from across the main road as they ransacked our houses and loaded the modest property we have worked for so many years. Then as if to add insult to injury, they dumped our property at the main road.”
Farm workers said the police officers burnt 49 houses, destroying property which had not been loaded onto the police truck. The property included beds, wardrobes, solar panels and clothes.
Some farm labourers said their national identification documents were also burnt.
The police officers left 18 brick houses standing, but made sure they were inhabitable by destroying doors, windows and pulling down sections of the walls.
The smell of burnt wood was still strong at the farm when the Zimbabwe Independent visited. The atmosphere was sombre, resembling that of a funeral, as the farm labourers pondered their future.
The farm labourers said Matizanadzo has fought hard since 2012 to evict them.
In December 2014, he allegedly sent summons to the workers asking them to move from his plot, once a thriving tobacco and maize farm, but is largely now unproductive save for the portion still owned by the Nienaber family.
One of the farm workers, Tapfumanei Chimbodza — who has lived at the farm for 34 years — said efforts to fight the evictions in court were fruitless as they had no money for the legal fight.
Chimbodza said: “The lawyers wanted US$3 050 per every court session, but because we didn’t have the money we ended up going to court in Karoi without representation.”
The farm labourers sought refuge in tobacco barns on the Nienaber family plot after police destroyed their homes. The Nienabers have also given them a portion of land to build alternative accommodation as they want to use the barns to store their tobacco being harvested.
Despite the fact that the dusty barns are unsuitable for human habitation as they have no windows or decent sources of ventilation, they are grateful to the Nienabers for the temporary accommodation.
For Charedzera and thousands of farm workers who have been evicted from farms alongside their former employers since 2000, the land reform programme has been traumatic.
Although government prides itself in empowering close to the 300 000 families through the land reform programme, very few farm workers have benefitted from the programme which government recently admitted has been a dismal failure owing to non-productivity.
People like Charedzera actually view themselves as victims of land reform as they have been robbed of their livelihoods and accommodation.
“The way our houses and property were destroyed shows that the government does not care about us. To them we do not exist. They have completely forgotten about us and our interests don’t matter,” she said.
The farm workers have approached Makonde district administrator Plaxediah Chirongoma for assistance, but have been told to negotiate with Matizanadzo.
Chirongoma refused to talk to the Independent when asked what her office was doing to assist the affected workers.
Assessments of the land reform programme, including one done by the Office of the President and Cabinet, reveal that farm labourers hardly benefitted from the land reform programme.
A report by the Presidential Land Review Committee chaired by former secretary in the Office of the President and Cabinet Charles Utete, released in August 2003, found that less than 1% of former farm workers had been resettled as part of the land reform programme.
The majority, according to the report, migrated to urban settlements or their rural areas, turned to gold panning or remained in the area, offering their labour to new farmers for a pittance.
According to the General Agriculture and Plantation Workers’ Union of Zimbabwe (Gapwuz), less than 50 000 people are currently employed in the agriculture sector, compared to 200 000 before the land reform programme started in 2000.
About 150 000 have been left with no source of livelihood.
A Gapwuz 2009 report titled If Something is Wrong, says the majority of Zimbabwe’s farm workers migrated from Malawi and Zambia in the 1950s. Most of them had children who, when they became adults, continued to work on the farms, and have been assimilated as Zimbabweans.
The Gapwuz research revealed that 71% of respondents claimed they had been forcefully evicted from farm compounds, with 92% of those evicted not given notice to move out.