‘Forgotten citizens’: South Africa’s farm workers threatened with eviction

Farm workers and dwellers with historical links to the land have worked for generations but have seen nothing in return.

A farm worker in South Africa
A worker farms a plot of land in KwaNdengezi, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa [File: Rogan Ward/Reuters]

New Hanover, South Africa – Three generations of Mini Myeza’s family have lived on Oakville pine tree farm in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. Now the 58-year-old widow may be evicted from the land where she was born.

“My family has lived here on this farm for generations, long before the farm was built,” Myeza told Al Jazeera on the plantation in New Hanover, about 40km from the city of Pietermaritzburg.

She relayed the story her late father told her: under apartheid rule, the ancestral lands belonging to their family and a neighbouring Black family were seized by white farmers and combined to create the 269-hectare (665-acre) pine plantation farm.

Those living on the land remained, but all the Black men were forced to work on the farm for poverty wages and often no pay at all. No one was compensated for the land that was seized.

“Those of us who live on the farms don’t know the meaning of freedom and human rights because our rights are violated on a regular basis,” Myeza lamented.

“That is why we are known as South Africa’s forgotten citizens.”

The graves of her family members – including her great-grandfather, grandfather, father, husband and two of her four children – are not far from her homestead.

Most of them, including Myeza’s husband James, lived their whole lives not seeing any gains from their years of hard labour. James died in December 2018 at age 60 – after working for more than 30 years on the farm.

A farm worker in South Africa
A farm worker sits on a water tank in a town in KwaZulu-Natal [File: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters]

“After he died, I didn’t get even a penny from the farm,” Myeza said, about how her predicament worsened. The farm owners who had bought the plot from other farmers told her they “didn’t have the records that [James] had worked here for so long”, and refused to compensate her for her husband’s decades of service.

“I was still mourning, wearing my black clothes when I was told by the farm manager that I should move out with my kids and find elsewhere to live because there is no one from this home who works on the farm,” she said.

“I flatly refused to move and told him I don’t have anywhere else to go because I was born here, grew up here and would die here.”

The plight of farm workers

Myeza’s is a plight familiar to many labourers and low-income farming families across South Africa.

The country’s total land area is about 122.3 million hectares (302 million acres), of which 100.6 million hectares is farmland. Of this, 83 percent is grazing land with 16.7 million hectares considered potential arable land, according to the Development Bank of Southern Africa.

Decades since apartheid rule ended, white South Africans who make up about 7.3 percent of the population still own most of the country’s farmland.

The African National Congress (ANC), which has governed the country for the last 30 years and could lose its majority in parliament for the first time ever as votes to Wednesday’s election are counted, promised to redistribute 30 percent of agricultural land to Black South Africans. Analysts say it is on track, having reallocated 25 percent.

Opposition parties have vastly different takes on the issue. The official opposition Democratic Alliance agrees with reallocating state-owned land; the far left Economic Freedom Fighters champions expropriating land without compensation; and the right-wing Freedom Front Plus says expropriation will damage the economy.

Meanwhile, even the percentage of farmland that the government has redistributed to Black South Africans has not helped the majority of workers who continue to face many of the same challenges they always have.

Human rights organisations assisting poor farm dwellers and labourers say the shabby treatment and harassment they face remains part of the ugly underbelly of the agricultural industry – the fifth largest contributor to the country’s economy, after mining, transport, energy, manufacturing and tourism.

Aid organisations have stepped in to help farm workers fight for their right to remain on farms, ward off abuse from farmers, and even arrange payment for lawyers to bring their plight to the attention of the courts or relevant authorities.

In Pietermaritzburg, the Association for Rural Advancement (AFRA) is one such organisation that is helping farm dwellers like Myeza.

AFRA was formed in 1979, during the height of apartheid when the expulsion of Black farm dwellers and labourers was sanctioned and encouraged by the government, and police forcibly removed people at the behest of the farm owners, Siyabonga Sithole, the organisation’s strategy manager, told Al Jazeera.

Farm workers in South Africa
Farm workers load beetroot onto a tractor at a farm near Johannesburg [File: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters]

Though politics and freedoms for Black people have changed since apartheid, living and working conditions for farm labourers and dwellers have not changed much, he said, adding that many issues remain so the organisation continues to help promote the rights of marginalised communities throughout KZN.

“Our role has evolved over the years to the current land rights advocacy organisation in current times. But one thing [that] remains constant is that the slow pace of the government’s land reform programme has perpetuated an unequal society,” Sithole said.

“Farm dwellers and farm labourers remain the most impacted as they remain occupiers on land owned by somebody else.

“The resultant skewed power relations and subservient relationships between farm owners and farm dwellers translates to the persisting proverbial breeding ground for rights violations.”

He added that this is despite the enactment of laws such as the 1996 Labour Tenants Act and the 1997 Extension of Security of Tenure Act (ESTA) – which regulate the relationship between landowners and landless occupiers and provide rights protecting people from unfair eviction.

“What we have observed is that the abuse and diminishing of rights of farm dwellers continues at the hands of some landowners,” said Sithole. He added that AFRA has in turn helped farm dweller communities to form or work with structures that represent their interests and help protect their rights.

The hardships

Working and living conditions on farms came into sharp focus during the August 2012 to January 2013 Farm Workers’ Strike – a wave of protests by agricultural workers in the Western Cape spurred by high unemployment and low worker pay – in which three workers died and millions of rand in property damage was sustained.

The strikes resulted in a sharp increase in the daily minimum wage for agricultural workers from 69 rand (roughly US$8.54 in 2012) to 105 rand (US$13 in 2012). Today, the national minimum wage, including for farmworkers, is 27.58 rand per hour.

Although there have been some small improvements, in November 2020, the Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG), a watchdog, issued a report that decried conditions for farm dwellers in post-apartheid South Africa. In its preamble, the report stated, among other things, that “despite plethora of legislative and policy formulations and interventions, farm dwellers as part of the vulnerable people in South Africa, continue to encounter a number of challenges including tenure insecurity, threatened livelihoods, and violation of their human and labour rights”.

Zabalaza Mshengu
Zabalaza Mshengu was one of the farm tenants and land claimants AFRA supported in a 2019 case at the KwaZulu-Natal High Court demanding that municipalities be obligated to provide water and services for farm dwellers. Mshengu passed away in 2020, less than a year after the judgement, at age 106 [Courtesy of AFRA]

A year earlier, in a 2019 court victory scored by AFRA, applicants took to the KwaZulu-Natal High Court demanding that resident municipalities be obligated by law to provide water and other basic services for farm dwellers. Before this, government departments contended they often did not have the consent of the land owners or farmers to provide services to those living on farms.

Delivering its judgement in July 2019, the high court ordered the municipalities and relevant government departments to provide a plan on how they would provide water and other services to the farm dwellers and labour tenants living within their municipal boundaries. It also forced farm owners to give unconditional consent to the provision of water and other services to those living within their farms. This is one of the reasons why Myeza and other dwellers in Oakville farm now have water.

Nike Mkhize is a farm dweller herself and chairperson of Qina Mbokodo, a network organisation of women living and working on the farms in KZN, one of the associate organisations working with AFRA. This organisation was at the forefront of the litigation.

Mkhize said the high court decision was decisive in the struggle of women living on farms.

“It is very tough to live on the farms, especially for elderly women and young girls. Before this court decision, women and even young girls walked long, dangerous distances to fetch in rivers, often becoming vulnerable to becoming victim of rampant gender-based violence or even being raped and killed. Providing them water near their homes improves the life of these women,” she said, but added that despite the court victory, there are many who still don’t have this basic service.

Mkhize lives on a livestock and plantation farm called Cosmo Farm, in Ngomankulu, in the KZN midlands. She said the women decided to form Qina Mbokodo after seeing the hardships faced by women living on farms and in other rural areas.

Nike Mkhize
Nike Mkhize with members of Qina Mbokodo, an organisation whose name means ‘Women Are Strong Like a Rock’ [Courtesy of Nike Mkhize]

“There are fewer and fewer job opportunities in farms, even scarcer for women so there is a lot of competition for fewer jobs. Some women who work on farms are sexually abused by supervisors who seek to sleep with them before employing them. Many women who live and work on farms had complained about this practice and many contracted HIV and other sexual transmission because of it. Our organisation is lifting a lid on these and other abusive practices,” she said.

Mkhize said she hopes the situation will improve, but also added that, “There is very little that our government is doing to alleviate the plight of farm dwellers.

“We are regarded as third-class citizens, it seems like everyone has forgotten that we exist. The few rights we enjoy today are rights for which we had to sweat, going on protest and joining court action.”

Harassment, intimidation, threats

On Oakville pine tree farm, Myeza is determined to stand strong and stay on her family’s land.

After her husband died in 2018 and the farm owners told her to leave and she refused, she said she faced intimidation.

At one point, the farm owner seized the three herds of cattle that her family owned and also restricted her home garden, she said.

“They even tried to dig up our family grave to extend the pine plantation.”

At that point, she approached the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development.

“[I went] to report the harassment, intimidation and threats,” she said. “When I approached the department they also found that my late father, Mandlenkosi Gwamanda, is one of the people who lodged a land claim that is still pending.

“From then onwards, the farmer has stayed away from me because he was told of the Extension of Security of Tenure Act (ESTA)” that secures the tenure of millions of mainly indigent families who reside on farms, ensuring they are not forcibly removed, she said.

A farm worker in South Africa
A farm worker with his herd of cattle in South Africa [File: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters]

For now, Myeza remains on the farm in her home made of mud, wood and zinc. But things are not easy. She had no electricity, they only recently got water tanks and the roof of her house is falling apart due to inclement weather – and she has no means of rebuilding it.

Her sole means of survival is her small family garden where she plants vegetables to sell at the market to buy food for her family. Still, she is barely able to make enough to feed them.

“Life is hard here,” she said.

Phillip Shabalala, a land rights activist who is also part of the umbrella organisation Farm-Dwellers and Labour Tenants of South Africa (FLASA), said the abuse against farm dwellers and labourers is prevalent throughout South Africa but more so in KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga – provinces where AFRA says it has also seen the majority of land claims lodged.

“We are handling about 46 cases where farm workers, labourers and widows are harassed and intimidated by farmers,” Shabalala said, adding that serious threats are made over small matters, such as one case where a farmer wanted to evict a tenant for simply building himself a small brick house in which to live.

He said there have also been several cases where cattle and other livestock belonging to farm dwellers have died under mysterious circumstances, believed to have been poisoned by the farmers or those working for them.

And despite the change in racial and social dynamics in the country since apartheid ended, many poor farm workers are still ill-treated, as they were before.

“Even in cases where farms have been bought by Black farmers, the abuse continues,” Shabalala said.

Source: Al Jazeera