by Yves Vanderhaeghen
A ruling by the Land Claims Court on Thursday is likely to ensure that labour tenants are no longer forgotten in the dispensing of rights.
For 15 years, 19 000 labour tenant claims have been gathering dust in filing cabinets at the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform. That’s the optimistic scenario, because it’s likely that at least some of the claims have not only been forgotten, but lost. Labour tenants have not always been so low a priority. In 1964, in his “I am prepared to die” speech from the dock, Nelson Mandela included them among the groups most oppressed by Apartheid, and appealed for justice for the “labourers, labour tenants, and squatters on white farms [who] work and live under conditions similar to those of the serfs of the Middle Ages”. Decades later, after jail, after democracy, he had not forgotten these people: “We remember the farm workers and labour tenants uprooted from the land,” he said at a meeting in Howick in 1996.
In the honeymoon years of Mandela’s presidency, the future looked promising for labour tenants. The Constitution, given force by the 1996 Labour Tenants Act, sought to give security of tenure to these families scattered across the country on land owned by others, and whose fortunes were therefore precarious.
The case before Judge Mokotedi Mpshe of the Land Claims Court is a class action case technically called the Mwelase case, after Bhekindlela Mwelase, the first applicant. It is more commonly referred to as the Hilton College case, after the private school in the KZN midlands on which Mwelase, who is 86, was born and where parents and grandparents before him lived. In 2001 he lodged a labour tenant claim, which was opposed. By 2012 there had been no progress in either his claim, or in about 19 000 others. In 2013, Mwelase, supported by the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) and the Association for Rural Advancement (AFRA), went to court to force the Department to explain why it had not implemented the Act by referring the claims to the Land Claims Court for a ruling on whether the claimants were indeed Labour Tenants and if so, for the Department to grant them their land or negotiate an alternative.
Bhekindlela Mwelase. Photograph by Max Bastard
The case since then has been characterised by delays and broken undertakings, forcing the applicants first to obtain a structural interdict to force the Department to show what it is doing to honour its obligations, and now to ask the court to appoint a Special Master to supervise the Department in its functions. Continue reading