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Review of Working on the Margins: Black Workers, White Farmers in Postcolonial Zimbabwe


By Lionel Cliffe

Working on the Margins: Black Workers, White Farmers in Postcolonial Zimbabwe by Blair Rutherford. Zed Books, London, 2001. xx+268pp. ISBN 1 84277 000 4, £45.00/$69.95 (hb). ISBN 1 84277 001 2, £15.95/$25 (pb).

In all the obsessive outpourings in western media about the crisis in Zimbabwe and the take-over of land, the largest group of those who have suffered, and often suffered the most, is scarcely mentioned. Many farm-workers and their families who dwelt on the white-owned farms and who make up almost 20% of the total population, have lost their jobs, been forced from their homes and also been disenfranchised. Large numbers have also lost their citizenship, their origins two or three generations ago being held against them. Only a small proportion have benefited by gaining access to the land being distributed.

They were presumably targeted by the thugs of ZANU-PF and the veterans groups, as they were seen as prone to vote for the opposition on the grounds that they were under the influence of their white employees. I can remember that same concern being expressed during the ‘independence elections’ in 1980. Farmers did indeed provide transport for their workers to the polling station; but their actual voting pattern indicated that they had a degree of independence from the heavy-handed patronage of their bosses.

This book explores these often neglected farm dwellers, and their relationship with their employers (and landlords). Unfortunately, the most recent events are only covered in a brief ‘Afterwards’ as most of the book was based on intensive field work in the early 1990s, much of it a detailed case-study of one large farm in the Urungwe district on the northern border. Nevertheless Rutherford’s historical treatment of the subject provides a valuable background to understanding how these workers have been affected by the farm take-overs and events that are likely to follow.

Rutherford brings out how farm workers’ relationship with the white farms, although changing after Independence and again with recent developments, was always marked by ambiguity. They were very lowly paid and exploited and harshly treated, but also dependent - on the continuation of the employment, on a place to stay, and the provision of supplies and, hopefully, easy credit and sometimes services. They had some security but were semi-servile. Their marginalisation politically is also not new. One legacy of maintaining different local government structures after Independence for the different land units – ‘farms’ and ‘communal areas’ – was that the farm workers still did not have the vote in local elections in the 1990s.

Rutherford predicts that the result of the farm invasions from 2000 onwards will be to reinforce farm workers’ fear of ‘politics’ (which they have always associated with a time of ‘hondo’ (war), and their marginalisation (certainly as regards resettlement). More generally he correctly argues that a lack of understanding of their history, complex relationship with farmers and the outlook which has shaped their view of the world they inhabit, is likely to render the efforts of the government, and those who now seek to aid them, counterproductive and in particular to reinforce the complex power relationships between owners and the state from which farm workers have suffered.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 65 (2003), pp. 73-74]

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