Zimbabwean farm workers convicted of "trespassing" on their farm - SADC Tribunal Rights Watch

Ben Freeth says the workers have been given 45 days to vacate their homes on Wakefield Farm


Farm workers in Zimbabwe continue to be under siege more than 14 years after the violent farm invasions began which resulted in the virtual collapse of the agricultural sector and plunged their lives into mayhem.

On Thursday August 14, after a lengthy trial in the Chegutu magistrate's court, farm workers on Wakefield Farm in the Selous district 80km south west of Harare were found guilty by the magistrate, Mr Zhou, of "trespassing". 

Zhou sentenced the farm workers to six months' imprisonment each, suspended on condition that they vacate their homes on the farm within 45 days. Their lawyer, Kenny Masiye from Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, gave notice to appeal.

Wakefield farm was taken over from Kenneth Bartholomew by Felix and Florence Pambukani three years ago. Bartholomew had received written ministerial approval to stay on his farm but was criminally prosecuted in the magistrate's court all the same. 

It was one of the few attempts by the state through the land reform programme to follow a "legalised" process of eviction. In defiance of a pending High Court appeal hearing however, Bartholomew was evicted on August 26, 2011.

This involved a fully armed police support unit which arrived with the messenger of the court - a total of approximately 50 people to evict a single family. In the process, many of their household effects were damaged when they were forcibly thrown out of their home.

The Pambukanis are connected to Webster Shamu, ZANU PF's Minister of Publicity and Information, and are reputedly involved in the diamond business.

They initially took over Scotsdale farm in 2008, leaving the owner, Kobus Joubert, a former president of the Zimbabwe Tobacco Association, to camp by the roadside with a few meagre possessions. Later Joubert got back to his farm but was shot dead in his bed during October 2010.

By then the Pambukanis had already taken over the next door farm, Wakefield, owned by Bartholomew, one of the most productive tobacco farmers in the country. 

Here the Pambukanis caused mayhem in defiance of a pending High Court appeal hearing and written ministerial approval for Bartholomew to remain, and moved onto the farm.   

Guilty of "trespass"

The names of Wakefield farm workers found guilty last week of trespass while living in their homes on what is now considered to be "state land" appeared on the court roll as George Malunga, Mike Arumando, Rosemary Manjoro, Innocent Jeremia, Violet Paizon, Shiella Bhiri, Urayayi Urayayi and Clemence Masango.

Some were sentenced as individuals, but in other instances both the husband and wife received a summons. 

Together with family members, a total of 35 people - the eldest a man of 86 and the youngest a baby of six months - are being forced off "state land" for the crime of "trespassing".

The seven family groups include farm workers of Mozambican and Malawian extraction who no longer have connections to their country of origin and who have no rural home in Zimbabwe's former communal lands.

"The callous, legalized, ongoing eviction of destitute farm workers from taken-over land makes a lie of the claimed rationale behind the land reform programme," said Ben Freeth, spokesperson of SADC Tribunal Rights Watch.

"The fast-track land reform programme has nothing to do with creating jobs, increasing productivity, alleviating poverty or staving off hunger. The main beneficiaries are the ‘chefs', typically government ministers or ZANU PF supporters who have been given the land as a reward for party loyalty," he continued. 

"The suffering of farm worker families who have lived on the seized farms for years or even generations is of no consequence to the chefs or to the ZANU PF government - they are an inconvenience and are expendable," said Freeth. 

Fast-track land reform statistics refuted

Claims by the state media that as many as 300,000 families have benefitted from the government's controversial ‘fast-track' land reform programme, launched in 1999, have been widely refuted. 

According to the Zimbabwean Ministry of Lands and Rural Resettlement, only 169,000 families have benefitted from the post 1999 reforms wrote Grace Mutandwa and Sintha Chiumia in a report published in Africa Check on May 15, 2014.

At the start of the fast-track land reform programme, it was estimated that the large-scale commercial farms employed between 300,000 and 350,000 permanent workers and a further 250,000 to 270,000 seasonal workers. 

Farm workers, seasonal workers and farm workers' families together numbered an estimated two million people, the vast majority living on the commercial farms.

In 2008, the United Nations Development Program estimated that one million people (200,000 farm workers and their families) had lost their livelihoods since the start of the programme.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) noted in a report dated December 20, 2011 that fewer than one in ten of these workers were still employed on the commercial farms, whether by the few remaining commercial farmers or by the new owners.

Others were still living on the farms where they used to be employed before the owner was evicted, but were no longer employed there, wrote the IDMC. As a consequence, they had no legal right to remain on the farms and were at risk of being evicted from their homes by the new farm owners, the IDMC warned.

The remaining farm workers had either been forcibly evicted from their homes or had been forced to leave because they could no longer survive in the absence of employment. 

"They are among Zimbabwe's most vulnerable people, and very few of them have managed to put their lives back on a sustainable basis," noted the IDMC. "Many who went to work in the mining areas have also fallen victim to evictions and home demolitions by the government."

In the case of Wakefield farm, 672 workers were employed by Ken Bartholomew at the time of his eviction.

"The ongoing plight of displaced and destitute farm workers and their families continues to be of grave concern," said Freeth. 

"In many case, these evictions of farm worker families have led to fewer people living on the former commercial farms than there were before the inception of the fast-track land reform programme. Most of the tragic stories have yet to be told but when they are, the extent of this human tragedy and travesty of justice will be incomprehensible," Freeth concluded.

Statement issued by Ben Freeth, Spokesman for SADC Tribunal Rights Watch, Zimbabwe, August 20 2014

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