A Land in Limbo: Hope Deferred

“We remember the farm workers and labour tenants uprooted from the land,” Nelson Mandela, Howick, 1996

By Rebekka Stredwick

To mark both South African Human Rights Day and the 20th anniversary of the signing into law of the Land Reform (Labour Tenants) Act by President Nelson Mandela, we have commissioned a series of photographs to tell the stories of some of the labour tenants waiting for their claims to be processed for the land on which they, their parents and their grandparents have lived and worked.

Human Rights Day in South Africa reminds us of the events that took place in Sharpeville on the 21 March 1960, when 69 people died and 180 were wounded as police fired on a peaceful crowd which had gathered in protest against the Pass laws. It marks the shared rising of ordinary people in a collective proclamation of their rights.

Bhekindlela Mwelase, 86 Yrs with Pass Book
Confined – Bhekindlela Mwelase, 86 Years Old, Labour Tenant Claim lodged in 1998, with his Pass Book. “Generations of my family have lived here. We used to farm this place – we were the only occupiers. Now I have to ask permission to crop – we are restricted to a small number of goats and cattle.” Photo: Max Bastard

Today we reflect on this reminder of the cost paid for our treasured human rights – rights enshrined in law in our Bill of Rights, which opens by promising to protect “the rights of all people in our country and affirms the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom”. Today more than ever, however, we need to critically question whether these ideals are a reality in the lives of some of South Africa’s most vulnerable citizens – labour tenants.

Suspended in limbo, the lives of labour tenants on the margins of society reveal a myriad of emotions and states – confinement, neglect, doubt, resignation, fustration, and hope-deferred are just a few of the ‘sighs of sorrows’ that stir us into action.

Mndeni Skhakhane, 94 years old. Photo by Max Bastard
Neglected – Mndeni Skhakhane, 94 years old, labour tenant claim lodged in 1998. “I have nothing to pass on to my children. I have worked my whole life for nothing – I now have nothing to show for it. They have ignored us.” Photo: Max Bastard

This Thursday, the 24th March, the broken pomises of the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform (the Department) will be tested in the Land Claims Court as we seek the appointment of a Special Master to oversee the processing of 19,000 outstanding land claims, representing approximately 100 000 South African farm dwellers.

As we pause and reflect on the detail in each photograph, we are reminded that this Class Action is not just about unravelling beaurocratic mess and broken promises, it is also about honouring the lives and futures of ordinary South Africans.

Image 2 - Labour tenant Mndeni Skhakhane with his two granddaughters, Hilton College Labour Tenant Class Action, Hilton College Farm, KwaZulu Natal. Credit Max Bastard B&W
Determined – The 16-year-old granddaughter of Mndeni Skhakhane: “I say to the government, you should do everything in your power so we can have what is rightfully ours; our school was closed down but we want to stay, we want to develop our community.” Photo: Max Bastard

It is a testimony to the indomitability of the human spirit that many of the claimants are in the twighlight of their lives but are still doggedly holding on to the hope that the Government extended to them twenty years ago. Let us not, however, rest and depend only on the human spirit to sustain hope – hope can also be fragile and, over many years of waiting, be tipped into despair.

Our Government says: “We have a responsibility to ensure that our human rights record and history are preserved and strengthened for future generations” (South African Government, 21 March 2016). We call on the Government to honor this commitment and responsibility – we owe it to our forefathers as well as to our current citizens, old and young.

Hope deferred
Hope deferred – Labour tenant claim lodged in 1998. “We were born on the farm; the farmer has been teaching us the dairy business. The Government bought the farm in 2013 but we are still waiting for them to give us our title deed.” Photo: Max Bastard

This year’s commemoration also coincides with the 20th Anniversary of the signing of the final draft of our precious Constitution into law, which took place on the 10th December 1996. We remind the Government that security of tenure is a right under our Constitution and is owed to those who have been deprived of their rights in terms of past racially discriminatory laws. It is time that labour tenants in South Africa see an end to their long struggle.

Defiant - The Last Man. Photo by Max Bastard
Defiant – “I called my house the Last Man. Even though they (the owner) won’t give us work, I will stay, even if I am the last man.” Photo: Max Bastard
“Freedom …..must be understood as the transformation of the lives pf ordinary people in the hostels and the ghettos; in the squatter camps; on the farms and in the mine compounds. …. it demands of us to be in constant touch with the people, to understand their needs, hopes and fears; and to work together with them to improve their conditions.” – Nelson Mandela, Speech at an event to meet leaders in the Free State, 17 September 1994
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