“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.