Operation Maguta – state-sanctioned slavery

INSIZA - It's the end of another long and hungry Friday. Insiza villager Lydia Sibanda was woken by a piercing siren just before dawn and force-marched by a team of soldiers to plough a winter maize field under sub-zero temperatures in an official programme termed Operation Maguta.

She has no idea what price she will be paid for her efforts and the compulsory acquisition of the crop when it is ready for harvesting.
In the late afternoon shade, conversations among the farm workers are punctuated by bitter complaints about the state-sanctioned slavery on Silalatshani Irrigation Scheme, a farm expropriated from a white farmer and now under the administration of the Zimbabwe National Army. Anger simmers but is kept in check by fear of roving soldiers supervising the impoverished farm workers.
A talkative bone-thin mother of three in a threadbare green dress refuses to give her name saying she is afraid of the soldiers. In an adjacent hut her three-year-old daughter is crying. She has malaria, but she says she cannot get the time to send her to the hospital because she has to work the whole day in the fields.
“We are tired of being treated like slaves; we are tired of being forced to work on an empty stomach. They caused the food shortage and now they are making us work like slaves,” said maMkiza, a famished mother of four. She rails against the government’s excuses.
“You cannot blame the drought and sanctions. It is because the government chased away the white commercial farmers and gave away the land to people ill-equipped to farm.”
Some of her neighbours, wary of beatings and harassment by soldiers for such blunt talk, send disapproving glances, but she continues boldly:” It’s not a secret that the soldiers here are abusing us. Everyone is talking about it.”
Having thrown white farmers off their land, the military has taken over the running of many of the farms in a desperate effort to boost production and avert massive food shortages. Military men have set up camps on the land where black farmers were resettled across Matabeleland and are ordering them to grow mainly maize, the country’s staple food. Teams of soldiers are forcing other farmers to plough up other crops such as onions, tomatoes and potatoes in other areas.
I saw villagers at Silalatshani Irrigation Scheme in Insiza being coerced by soldiers to weed a winter maize crop using very short hoes. Gun-toting soldiers would literally herd the farm workers, clad in tattered garb, with some of the armed forces poking fun at their subjects.
The famished villagers, who were forced to start tilling the land at 6am, were denied water, and only got a break at 12pm for “lunch,” which constituted a plate of boiled vegetables and stale sadza. Reports that the soldiers were flogging “defiant and lazy” farm workers using sjamboks could not be independently verified. But the forced labour gave a graphic illustration of the true horror of the army-led Operation Maguta, which is deliberately fostering a situation where notions of human decency are debased, and where this debasement is celebrated.
“They even took away our entertainment. We can’t even gather for a party anymore,” said the frail-looking Lydia, speaking in a hushed tone. “It is not because of the economic hardships… but the soldiers stationed here do not want any noise.”
Villagers recalled how military lorries arrived in the area early this year, off-loaded farming implements which included disc harrows and planters at the Irrigation Scheme.
Some of the equipment was taken to nearby farms where the Chinese have been clearing vast stretches of virgin land.
The operation, conceived and spearheaded by the Joint Operations Command (JOC) comprising the army, police, prisons and the intelligence service, started in November last year with the seizure of equipment from individual farms across the country.
Agriculture minister Joseph Made, widely blamed for misleading the country on food stocks in the past, heads the initiative while Defence minister Sydney Sekeramayi is his deputy.
Made refused comment on the matter. But in tacit admission of failure of his chaotic agrarian reform programme, President Robert Mugabe told Parliament recently that the military initiative was an attempt to meet the nation’s food requirements.
“To enhance agricultural production and meet national requirements of 1,8 million tonnes of cereals, targeted production has been introduced through Operation Security/Maguta/Inala by government,” Mugabe said. “The major objectives of the programme are to boost the country’s food security and consolidate national strategic reserves.”
Mugabe says government’s target was to ensure food security and surplus for export by putting at least 300 000 hectares of maize under irrigation. He has confessed that his government’s seizure of white-owned farms has benefited fewer than 10% of landless blacks as the programme was hijacked by ruling party officials and their relatives. Fields now lie fallow and support only subsistence crops.

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