'I thought my boss was a devil. Not now'

Charles Mushambati had always regarded Thom Martin as being among those "devil" Zimbabwean white farmers who grossly underpaid their workers and kept them in squalor. With hindsight, he now believes he was wrong.

More than 60 white farmers had been arrested around Zimbabwe by yesterday as President Robert Mugabe cracked down on 1,800 farmers who were refusing to leave their land. His confiscation policy is supposedly aimed at helping people such as Mr Mushambati, but the 59-year-old labourer, like most of the 80,000 farm workers who have found themselves unemployed and homeless after their bosses went out of business, has lost his illusions.

Mr Mushambati had often quarrelled with Mr Martin over his wages, and was elated when he attended a rally before the 2000 parliamentary elections at which Mr Mugabe promised "land to my people".

The labourer applied for a piece of land, but officials asked him for a Zanu-PF card, demonstrating membership of Mr Mugabe's ruling party, to attach to the application. He didn't have one.

"They made it clear that no one would get land without a party card," he said.

Mr Mushambati returned to work for Mr Martin, who paid him 4,000 Zimbabwe dollars (£50) a month. His wife also worked for the white farmer and they received free produce from Mr Martin, and sent their children to a school he built for his employees.

"I used to think the boss was a devil, but with hindsight he was not. He was my saviour," said Mr Mushambati.

The Farm Community Trust, a welfare organisation, estimates that of more than 100,000 families given pieces of land on farms seized from whites, fewer than 2,000 are farm workers. The latest crackdown puts the livelihoods of 300,000 more agricultural labourers at risk.

As the collapse of agriculture threatens half of Zimbabwe's 13 million people with starvation, displaced farm workers and failed subsistence farmers are drifting to the towns and cities, where there is 65 per cent unemployment. Crime levels have rocketed. Carjackings and armed robberies, almost unheard of a few years ago, are becoming commonplace. Tim Neil, executive director of the Zimbabwe Community Development Trust, expects the number of children living on the streets to start increasing in the next six weeks.

This is the future now facing Mr Mushambati – a plight often forgotten in the international attention devoted to thewhite farmers. Mr Martin told his workers last week he had given up the fight for his land and was emigrating to New Zealand. Mr Mushambati asked his employer to take him too.

"Unfortunately, the boss said he will not own a farm any more. He is going to work in a hotel in New Zealand," said his employee of 20 years. He broke down. "I am finished. I have no future."

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