Child labour sours Lowveld’s sugarcane industry.
Soot from burnt-out cane ready for harvesting camouflages even his white, threadbare clothes. Without taking a closer look, you would mistake him for an alien. The human being that emerges from the cane fields is all black except eyes and teeth.
Save for the all-black complexion, nothing seems amiss, but the cane cutter at the Lowveld sugar plantation looks older than his age. The youthful cutter — furiously hacking and whacking ripe cane and bundling it — is of school-going age.
He has traded his ballpoint-pen for the machetes used to slash cane ready for milling into sugar, braving snakes and wild pigs that forage in the cane fields and risking diseases and injuries. His identity has been concealed for ethical reasons.
While his age mates are busy in school, for him and several others from the nearby Chingwizi settlement — consisting of hapless and impoverished 18 000 flood survivors displaced from the country’s biggest inland dam, Tugwi Mukosi — they are at work.
This has been their daily routine for almost three years and the practice did not start with the flood survivors, a four-month investigation by The Standard in conjunction with the Information Development Trust (IDT) revealed.
They are providing cheap and ready labour without protective clothing for sugarcane outgrowers in the sweeping, swashbuckling cane plantations — the majority of them ruling Zanu PF party bigwigs who invaded plots from sole sugar producer, Tongaat Hullet — over the past decade.
The teens, who are doing this work previously done by migrant workers, also risk falling into the deadly canals that draw water from Lake Mutirikwi, which have become easy suicide methods for people in the Lowveld who just throw themselves into the ferocious waters.
Last year, a Form One pupil at Hippo Valley High School was burnt to death in a raging inferno in a sugarcane field in Chiredzi after she was allegedly chased away from home by her parents, the police confirmed.
“Our parents could not afford to send us to school after the flooding disaster in the dam basin four years ago,” says the young cane cutter, insisting he took the cane-cutting job when his parents could not afford school fees at Nyuni Secondary School that comprises of makeshift pole-and- dagga structures.
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