In 1981, before I was even born, she was a factory girl, a machinist in rural Zimbabwe. By 1987 she was an active trade unionist affiliated with the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. In 2000 she was elected the first ever female Secretary General of the General Agricultural and Plantation Workers’ Union of Zimbabwe (GAPWUZ), a trade union that advocates the rights of farm-workers. A mother of four and an activist, Gertrude Hambira is one of Zimbabwe’s most courageous women. Her courage can not be fully understood without explaining the context of her work.
In 2000, Zimbabwe began a land reform process in which government claimed to be addressing and correcting historical imbalances in which the 5% white minority in Zimbabwe owned more than 80 % of the arable land. However, evidence on the ground illustrates that instead of giving the land to the majority black population, the process simply created a black elite to replace the white elite. The land reform process failed to sustain the economy of the country, as it was the backbone of the economy. With an underperforming agricultural sector, Zimbabwe’s currency devalued to the extent that it was discontinued from use. The land reform process is therefore one of the most contentious and politically sensitive issues to talk about in Zimbabwe. Most non governmental organisations skirt around this issue and even then when they do talk about the issue, it is almost always in light of the economic implications rather than a direct scrutiny into human rights abuses that resulted from it.
Gertrude Hambira is one of a kind. She talks incessantly, openly and firmly about the human rights abuses that arose and are still occurring as a result of the land reform process. These abuses were not just perpetrated against white commercial farmers as most of the mainstream media likes people to believe but against black farm-workers as well. As the Sec-Gen Gertrude is the lips and the voice of the Union, reporting the thousands of farm-workers who suffered violent attacks, eviction and forced displacement from farms. Some of them were wrongly perceived as loyalists or at the very least sympathetic to the previous commercial white farmers who owned the land.
Gertrude has stood firm for the farm-workers, who have become one of the most marginalised groups in Zimbabwe. In particular she fought for the women and children who bore and continue to bear the physical brunt of homelessness, inaccessibility of schools and medical facilities and general lack of food because of their terrible situation.
In 2006 she condemned the increased use of child labour on Zimbabwean farms. She estimated that close to 10 000 children were trapped in child labour. She lamented the meagre wages that farm-workers earned then; Z$600 000 equivalent to US$6 per month. This was beyond the poverty datum line pegged at Z$28 million equivalent to US$282. She blamed the new black farmers for the child labour saying that it was a direct consequence of the underpayment of farm-workers. Parents were forced to bring their children to work on farms to raise as much money as possible to sustain their livelihood.
Gertrude also fearlessly allocated responsibility to the land reform process for increased unemployment. She gave numerical evidence of the decrease of farm-workers in employment from 500 000 in 2000 to 200 000 in 2008. This resulted in a direct decrease in GAPWUZ’s membership from 150 000 to 25 000.
In 2009 Gertrude and GAPWUZ released a documentary accompanied by a detailed report, exposing the violations that were being perpetrated against farm-workers. The documentary; “House of Justice” and the report “If something (is ) wrong” were well received by other civic groups, diplomats, the press, regional and international human rights bodies as evidence that the plight of farm-workers in Zimbabwe needed greater attention than it had previously been given.
These truths that GAPWUZ, through their mouthpiece, Gertrude revealed damned the land reform process. Not only did they show that process did not address historical imbalances and were about a black elite’s self aggrandisement but also that the process came at the detriment of black farm-workers who used to benefit from employment, access to education and medical facilities on these farms.
Gertrude endured physical and verbal abuse as a result of her determination to highlight the plight of farm workers. When she was eight months pregnant she was abducted by ‘war veterans’, a group of former liberation war fighters who commit many atrocities with impunity claiming to be defending the ‘gains’ of the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe.
In December 2008, while taking part in a demonstration against shortages of hard currency inc circulation under the banner of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions in which GAPWUZ is a member, Gertrude was severely beaten by the police in the street. She was arrested and held in detention for a couple of hours.
On 6 November 2009, armed men forced their way into her home in her absence. They fired a shot towards her husband while her 5 year old son and her 70 year old mother were in the house. Although no one was physically harmed, the incident left Gertrude and her family traumatised.
On 19 February 2010 Gertrude was summoned by the Joint Operations Command comprising 17 high ranking security officials from the Zimbabwe Republic Police, the army, the airforce and the Central Intelligence Organisation for interrogation. The interrogation was focused on the report and documentary that GAPWUZ had released regarding the plight of farm workers.
In September 2010, Gertrude fled the country after 5 men and a woman who identified themselves as officers from the Criminal Investigations Department raided GAPWUZ’s offices looking for her. She gathered that from the statements of the police that she was wanted for contravening Section 31 of the Criminal Law Act, which makes it an offence to publish or communicate false statements prejudicial to the state, she was supposed to be arrested and subjected to detention without due legal process as had previously happened to some activists in Zimbabwe.
She has been living in exile since then, first in South Africa and now in Canada where she continues to denounce the mal-treatment of farm-workers.
Gertrude is the symbol of the struggles of women in decision-making positions especially if their views are divergent from those of those in power.