Migrant Mothers in High-Value Horticulture; Learning from One Zimbabwean Mother’s Story in South Africa

 By Lincoln Addison

The expansion of high value horticulture in Africa over the last two decades has given rise to intense debate over its consequences for women employed in the sector. High value horticulture represents crops non-traditionally grown and exported in African contexts, including fresh fruits, cut flowers and packaged vegetables. Between 1992 and 2014, Sub-Saharan Africa’s share of global horticultural exports have more than doubled (Fukase and Martin 2017), and the land devoted to growing these crops has expanded dramatically (Feyaerts et al. 2020). Debate has centred on the implications for women, since they are increasingly recognized as crucial stakeholders in rural development, and often make up the majority of seasonal and non-permanent workers in horticulture (De Blasis 2019). Proponents of high value horticulture argue that it represents a crucial source of employment and poverty alleviation for women and their households (Krumbeigel et al. 2020, Said-Allsop and Tallontire, 2014 Van Den Broek et al 2017). In contrast, literature critical of expanding high value horticulture argues that the integration of women as wage workers within horticultural value chains reflects a global “feminization of agriculture” in which the labor burden of women intensifies with agricultural restructuring and commercialization (Razavi 2002; Sachs and Alston 2010). This work emphasizes how women in horticulture are integrated only in subordinate ways, such as through the allocation of lower-paid work thought to require feminine patience and dexterity (Barrientos et al. 2003) and positions with the most insecurity and lowest pay (Baglioni 2018). Women experience sexual harassment, lack paid maternity leave, and experience obstacles breastfeeding at work (Dolan 2004; Addison 2014; Odoul et al 2017).  

This paper contributes to the critical literature on high value horticulture by highlighting the challenges migrant mothers face while working in the sector, as well as how they cope with precarious employment through creative livelihood strategies. I focus specifically on the case of Zimbabwean migrants working on farms in Limpopo Province, South Africa. Limpopo is an epicentre of high value horticulture in South Africa, with the province producing the most tomatoes, oranges and avocados in the country (Hall et al 2013). Limpopo is characterized by large-scale farms that employ migrant labor from Zimbabwe, with at least 20,000 Zimbabweans working on farms in the province (Rutherford and Addison, 2007). In 2009-2010, I carried out a year of ethnographic fieldwork on one large-scale tomato farm in Limpopo I call “Mopane Estates,” located near the border with Zimbabwe. This farm employed over 600 Zimbabwean workers during the picking season, around half of whom were women. During my fieldwork I lived with Zimbabweans in the workers’ compound, participated widely in social and occupational life, and carried out hundreds of informal and semi structured interviews with male and female workers.  

In this paper, I focus on the story of one Zimbabwean migrant worker, whom I call Mai Rutendo and I met her during my fieldwork. Mai Rutendo is a name that in English translates as “Mother of Rutendo.” In Zimbabwe, women are often called “Mother of” whomever their first born child is – a practice that highlights how central motherhood is to social identity. Compared with other mothers at Mopane Estates, Mai Rutendo represents an extreme but unexceptional example. Like most women on the farm, she was single and divorced. And like others she had been compelled to seek employment in South Africa due to a lack of opportunities in Zimbabwe. However, unlike most other mothers at the farm, she had her eight-year old daughter, Rutendo, with her at the farm. Most mothers preferred to leave their children with extended family in Zimbabwe, but Mai Rutendo did not have this option. That Mai Rutendo had her daughter with her makes visible the challenges mothers confront as they try to juggle parenting responsibilities with employment as migrant farm workers. Her story illustrates the complex and individualized circumstances that motivate mothers to migrate for employment in agriculture, their vulnerability to gender-based violence, as well as the survival strategies mothers use to cope with insecure access to employment and care for their children.  

I have structured this paper around four testimonial-style statements that Mai Rutendo made in three separate meetings with me. These statements are valuable in three ways. First, they give prominence to Mai Rutendo’s voice and account of her life. This helps offset the ways migrant women’s voices have often been marginalized in the literature dealing with high value horticulture in Africa. Second, the statements give context about Mai Rutendo’s early life, and thereby help illustrate how previous life experiences inform migration decisions and practices. Third, the statements span a period of time covering Mai Rutendo’s early integration at Mopane Estates, to her eventual departure from the farm after approximately four months later. The statements thereby reveal key factors that shaped Mai Rutendo’s entry and exit from the high value horticultural labour market. 

Meeting Mai Rutendo 

I first met Mai Rutendo in October 2009 when she was visiting with Mai Tariro, a woman who lived near me in the compound. I learned that Mai Rutendo had been previously employed at Mopane Estates, but had been laid off in August when the tomato picking season had wound down. She had been able to find work at a neighboring farm, but was also subsequently laid off from this farm after six weeks. When I met her, she had just returned to Mopane Estates and was trying to figure out her next move. I was happy to meet her because she seemed especially willing to be interviewed and spoke English well.  Although I was unaware of it at the time, I had met Mai Rutendo’s daughter a month earlier. I first noticed Rutendo playing around the compound. She was a tall girl who seemed to be out of place – there were not many children on the farm, and those that were there were much younger than her. I also came to know Rutendo because she sometimes visited and ate food with my neighbor Mai Tariro. On a few occasions, I helped her by practicing English and doing basic math lessons with her during “down time” during my research. It’s likely that Mai Rutendo had heard that I was occasionally tutoring her daughter, and that perhaps explains why she was so willing to be interviewed that first day I met her.  

When I asked her, “how did you get employed at Mopane Estates?”, she eagerly shared her life history. The following excerpt details how her childhood and early adulthood experiences influence her later migration to South Africa: 

“I was born in 1972. I grew up in a family of 8 people. My father was a businessman, buying and selling cars in the city of Bulawayo. We were staying in rural areas. He would come home on the weekends. My brothers had education in Bulawayo, the girls had education up to the secondary level in rural areas. As I grew up, turning 5, my father divorced my mother, and he married a young women who was 16. My mother refused to stay, he used to beat her. So she refused and went to stay with her brother. We then stayed with my step mother. She was not educated, and was stingy and selfish. My father used to buy groceries and clothing, but we were only given food on Friday, when my father came. He beat my stepmother as well. When stepmother was beaten, she returned to her place, to collect muti, to blind my father’s brains, but that didn’t work for a long time. She couldn’t succeed. I went up to grade 1 to form 4, with my step mother. I was clever in school, I passed O level. My father started planning for me to go to college, but the selfish lady refused, saying it is too much money. She said ‘a girl should remain at home, working in the field. If she is tired she gets married.’ But my father was always trying to send money for me to go, until I became fed up, I went to town to stay with my brother in Bulawayo who was in the army. There I did a typing course in 1991. Thereafter I fell in love with a guy, who married me. We were fiancés for 6 months then married in 1992 customarily. In 1993 I gave birth to my son Kenneth. From 93, I bought a house in town, through buying and selling in Botswana. We would buy radios, umbrellas, suitcases, wristwatches, plates, torches, we buy in Botswana, sell in Zimbabwe. We made money and bought a home in one year. My husband was working at my father’s garage as a cleaner. He was not educated. He was not able to communicate with the business people. The husband’s mother was jealous of me and did not like me… I could not discuss with my husband, because mother is your destiny.  If you complain against her you will have bad luck. So I stayed with my brother from 1995 to 1997, until he died. The same year my father died, then my other brother died the year afterwards. Rutendo was born in 2003. I worked with white people in Bulawayo, from 2003 up to 2006, working on contracts as a domestic worker. Then when I was working, my mother got ill. Rutendo had been staying with my mother. Where else can I leave Rutendo, I was thinking, that’s when I had a stroke! I was having stress about where to leave that girl…  All my brothers are ill or dead, mother is ill, my husband divorced me. He married another woman and said it is not his problem. At the end of 2006 I had a stroke. By 2007, I was now better. I got better by going to exercises in clinics, going to hospitals. The time I was going up and down to exercises, I was able to cook and bathe for myself. Then around May, I can walk was feeling a bit better, my mother got ill for a week and died. It was May 2007. I had to sell her cows to pay for the funeral expenses. 

In this excerpt, we hear about key constraints Mai Rutendo had faced in the early part of her life. As a young girl growing up in a highly patriarchal society, she did not receive the same educational opportunities as her brothers. She became estranged from her husband after a few years of marriage. Even though they had two children together, they led largely separate lives. She lost most of her support networks from extended kin as relatives died and became ill. Yet, her narrative also conveys her resilience and resourcefulness through her leaving her homestead as a young woman to seek opportunities in town, working as a cross border trader, and in overcoming illness. Her entrepreneurial ability and resilience would prove to be vital resources in her later employment on farms in South Africa.

Unstable Employment 

In that same first meeting with me, Mai Rutendo explained how she gained and lost employment at Mopane Estates. In the aftermath of her mother’s death and her own recovery from illness, she had to find new sources of support for herself and her daughter. She was able to find work as a shop keeper’s assistant in Masvingo town, near where she grew up. The shop owner in Masvingo managed several businesses around southern Zimbabwe, including one in Diti – a small village on Zimbabwean side of the Limpopo River, approximately 5 kilometres from Mopane Estates in South Africa. The owner offered Mai Rutendo the position of managing the shop in Diti. Mai Rutendo accepted, as this job would provide her with slightly more income than working in Masvingo, even though it also meant she would relocate to an area she had never been to before. The move was also difficult because Mai Rutendo had to find someone to look after her daughter Rutendo. She was able to send Rutendo to live with her uncle, but as Mai Rutendo explains below this arrangement proved problematic: 

“By 2008 I went to Masvingo town, I got a job working in a shop. The owners of that shop in Masvingo had another shop in Diti, where I got transferred. Rutendo stayed with my uncle. Rutendo used to tell me on the phone “I wake up at 3 AM to sweep the yard, cook and wash, look for goats and cattle, prepare the bath for father…” I was suffering to hear her say this. She was going to school, but coming back and forced to look after goats. Those who were staying with me, they said Rutendo should come to Diti.  So she came to Diti.  Then Rutendo did two terms in Diti… After About 6 months, then I came here, to this farm Mopane Estates. I no longer wanted to work at the shop. I was getting R150 per month in Diti. When I heard of 850 per month, compared to 150, I came looking for the job at the farm. I came on Friday morning. Then I went to parade on Monday. The manager said, ‘is anyone looking for a job?’  Then we started working in June. I stayed with another lady in the compound I knew from Diti. I got a job cultivating, picking, sometimes packing. The boss complained that I was too slow (in the packshed). So I was moved to the field. But I just worked up to August, I was retrenched because I couldn’t hold onto the crates.   But I was lucky, as I had a permit. Then I went to Manotcha. I worked there for 1 and half months, until I was retrenched there…Now my plan is to start the business for just 1 month, to raise money, to buy groceries, for Christmas time.” 

In the passage quoted above, we hear about how Mai Rutendo learned of opportunities at Mopane Estates after she had moved to Diti, and elected to try her luck at the farm when she heard about its higher wages. While she would have crossed the border illegally to enter South Africa, she was fortunate in that she was hired in a period when workers were being registered with work permits. Nevertheless, Mai Rutendo was laid off at Mopane Estates after two months of employment – the picking season was winding down, and because she “couldn’t hold onto the crates” – a phrase that suggests managers perceived her to be a slow worker. She subsequently managed to get employment at a neighboring farm (“Manotcha”), but this meant she had to leave Rutendo alone at Mopane Estates. She visited Rutendo every weekend, but in the meantime the child had to stay under the care of her friend, Mai Tariro and another woman she had met in Diti – even though she only knew these women for a few months. She had little choice in this matter. It was impossible to bring Rutendo to Manotcha because, unlike at Mopane Estates, the employer did not allow workers to bring children. This exposed Rutendo to certain risks. Rutendo had no work permit and could have been deported. She also could have been assaulted or raped – a fear other that few other farm workers had mentioned to me. When the new employer laid her off, Mai Rutendo decided to come back to Mopane Estates, to start up a business. She used what little money she had earned to buy small packets of meat, boxes of matches, chewing gum, candies in town, which she then sold in the compound at Mopane Estates throughout the month of November. The income she earned from this small-scale business enabled her and Rutendo to subsist at the farm through December. 

Gender Based Violence

In addition to the small business Mai Rutendo operated in the compound, another way she sought to support herself was through a transactional relationship with Garikai, a male migrant worker at Mopane. In this relationship, Mai Rutendo cooked and provided sex in exchange for Garikai buying her groceries. Such transactional relationships between men and women on the farm were common. Since men typically paid for all the groceries in such relationships, women were able to accrue significant savings (Addison 2014). However, participating in such relationships also exposed women to diseases like HIV/AIDS, unwanted pregnancies and gender based violence. In Mai Rutendo’s case, she benefitted from the relationship with Garikai because she didn’t have to spend money on food; but it also resulted in her becoming pregnant. When she confronted Garikai after she found out she was pregnant, he did not support her. Instead he beat her and claimed the child was not his.  

I leaned all of this on my last night at the farm, when I was preparing to travel to Zimbabwe with my roommates who were returning to their homesteads for the holiday period – when the farm closes. I saw Mai Rutendo sitting by the main gate of the farm, where she was waiting for an ambulance to pick her up and take her to the hospital.  

“Ahh…I was beaten this morning. It was Garikai. I need to go to the hospital. There has to be a record kept. Because if you go to hospital, they will say ‘what happened?’ and he will be arrested. I am now waiting for an ambulance to come…but it has been 6 hours since I told the security. The problem is Garikai is best friends with them. Last July I fell in love with him. At first he was buying me groceries. But in September, his wife came here. She was wearing torn things. Then he came to my room and took my blankets, some clothes. I had little money. I thought I won’t bear children, but I was ill and the clinic told me I am pregnant. So on payday I asked him for money, I told the farm security, then Garikai said ‘I will give you.’  But he didn’t give me, so yesterday I went to him, and said I want my money. He said “The whole money is taken by my wife”. He used to take things from me, like matchboxes, 5 rand, 10 rand, and each time he ate with me – I didn’t even sum it [i.e. keep a tally]. He said ‘I won’t do it, I will fight you.’ Then I hit him with a stone, because he wasted my things, I was suffering. I won’t ever give the child to that stupid behaved man, I don’t have time to waste…I am not all that happy. On the other side I am increasing my number of children, but my New Year’s resolution won’t come out because I won’t be fit to work.”

This excerpt conveys the vulnerability of mothers like Mai Rutendo to gender based violence on the farm. Mai Rutendo tried to report Garikai to the police, but faced difficulty doing so because Garikai was close friends with the senior security guard on the farm. I also later learned that the ambulance never came – the chief security apparently never called in order to protect Garikai. Even if the security guards at the farm could in theory help a woman in Mai Rutendo’s position, such as when she appeals to them to help collecting money from Garikia (“I told security”, as he puts it), this situation conveys how men often protect each other when women make allegations of abuse. 

Exiting High Value Horticulture

I didn’t see Mai Rutendo again until two months later, in the town of Musina – the closest urban center to the Mopane Estates. I met her in the street, and we ended up going for lunch. She told me that she spent much of the holiday period living in the compound of Mopane Estates with Rutendo. She continued appealing to Garikai for money, but he never gave her anything. She then made the decision to leave the farm permanently. Initially, she returned to Zimbabwe with Rutendo to meet with her uncle. She once again asked the uncle to take care of Rutendo (despite how he mistreated Rutendo in the past), but he refused to cooperate, claiming that Mai Rutendo had not contributed anything to his homestead and criticized her for becoming pregnant.  Desperate for support, she contacted her former husband (Rutendo’s father), even though they had not spoken in several years, to ask for assistance. Her former husband was paying for their first-born son, Kenneth, to attend boarding school. He claimed that because of the support he was giving Kenneth, he had no money to help with Rutendo. Mai Rutendo was thus on her own. 

With nowhere else to turn, Mai Rutendo returned to the town of Musina in South with Rutendo to try her luck with small-scale business. While her work permit that she received from Mopane Estates was no longer valid, she was able to qualify for an asylum permit that that the South African government was issuing to most Zimbabweans in January 2010, which allowed her to seek employment/and or study in South Africa for a twelve month period.

“When I came back to South Africa, I stayed by the shelter by the Catholic Church in Musina. They give bed, blankets, supper in evening. Rutendo was staying at the shelter with me. I tried selling bananas and cigarettes with women by the road side. It’s only a pity, last time, the traffic police were littering around, collecting people’s bananas. They didn’t want us sitting near businesses in town. I lost 150 bananas. It was a pity, they didn’t even inform us they just came and took things, saying ‘you mustn’t sit here, it’s not allowed,’ and we didn’t know it. It’s only that they hate Zimbabweans. You are all over the place. I asked for help at the social development office. I had an interview with a social worker. An old lady at the shelter told me to go there, she said she once saw Zimbabweans being helped there. I just went there and got a medical certificate and asylum permit for Rutendo, so she can go to a school. Then she got tested by a doctor. Social welfare people came and tested her. Then they collected [i.e. transported] her on a certain day. She was very happy and excited. Rutendo is now living in Polokwane. She is studying there. She gets food, clothing, medication. She is in Standard 2. She will be there to the end of term in May.

This excerpt foregrounds Mai Rutendo’s perseverance in the aftermath of leaving Mopane Estates. In response to rejection from her uncle, she resorts to living in a shelter with her daughter in Musina, and working as a street vendor to make ends meet. After a hostile encounter with police, in which she loses much of her business, she finds her way to a social worker, and successfully advocates for Rutendo to get sponsorship for a boarding school in another city in Limpopo. Mai Rutendo was proud of this outcome, and when I left her, she was determined to carry on with her business activities. This meeting ended up being the last time I spoke with Mai Rutendo. The last news I heard from her was that she gave birth to a baby boy in Musina and had travelled back to Zimbabwe with him.   


Many policy makers and researchers support the growth of high value horticulture on large-scale farms in Africa due to its potential to support livelihoods and reduce unemployment – particularly among women, who often make up the majority of job recipients for seasonal work in horticulture. Yet, the experience of Mai Rutendo in the sector challenges this optimism. The wages she earned on Mopane Estates and a neighboring farm never really helped her get beyond a bare level of subsistence. The positive things she achieved, such as being able to send Rutendo to a boarding school, were accomplished largely through her own ingenuity and resourcefulness. The most important support she received was probably from aspects of the South African government, through the asylum permit and the assistance from the social worker. Unfortunately, the provision of the asylum permit was discontinued after 2011, in a context of growing xenophobia and hostility towards Zimbabwean migrants in South Africa. Most Zimbabwean mothers working in Limpopo agriculture today are undocumented and thus face even more barriers to accessing government support, even as their contribution as farm laborers remains essential to the province and South Africa more broadly.


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