By Donna Hornby
21 December, 2016
December 15, 1995, was a Friday. My office phone rang. “There’s a family on the side of the N3 with their livestock. They’ve been evicted. They don’t know where to go.” It was 4 pm on the last working day before Christmas holidays. A violent thunderstorm was brewing outside AFRA’s offices in Pietermaritzburg. With a sinking heart, I called every lawyer I knew. The answers were the same. “Not much we can do at this time of the year, especially on a Friday. Sorry.” My final, feeble effort was a church. And then I went home to begin celebrating the festive season.
This case was not unique back then. But the rainbow over the nation was the recently promulgated, far-reaching new Constitution. The Bill of Rights entrenched a range of new rights for all citizens, including secure tenure to those who had been previously deprived of it or comparable redress where secure tenure was not possible. Citizens now also had rights to housing, water and health care, which the state was obliged to progressively realize, as well as rights to adequate food and equitable access to land. The following year, with pressure from land rights organisations and a sympathetic Department of Land Affairs (DLA), the Land Reform (Labour Tenants) Act was passed, giving labour tenants secure tenure over the land they lived on and used, and the possibility of claiming ownership. In 1997, the Extension of Security of Tenure Act (ESTA) was passed to protect the tenure and way of life of people living on farms they didn’t own. Farm owners could now only evict under tightly regulated conditions, with a court order, and only after an investigation had been conducted by the DLA.
We had good reason to hope that the horror of evictions – and the acrimonious relations that led up to them – was a thing of the past. We also had reason to hope that the government’s commitment to a developmental state would be extended to people living on farms. We were wrong.
More evictions took place between 1995 and 2005 than in the decade preceding the new Constitution. The rights of labour tenants to keep livestock and grow crops to supplement paltry salaries were further eroded, and these small farmers who exchanged their labour and the labour of their children for access to farmland were systematically transformed into wage labourers. The ferocious struggles against cattle impounding, reduced land for cropping, deprivations of water and firewood, and ploughing of graves couldn’t gain political traction because of their isolated nature. What the Nationalist Government had failed to do was finally being achieved under a democratic government. How had this happened? Continue reading