Land News

Farm dwellers betrayed – space for new pathways?

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?

The answer is complicated. Many commentators argue that the threat of land reform in the early 1990s caused land-owners to rid their farms of families living on them in a pre-emptive strike against the possibility of land claims. However, the de-regulation of agriculture and the disappearance of subsidies and cheap credit in a tough farming environment characterized by recurrent drought unleashed vicious competition amongst commercial farmers. Those who have survived are those who continue to expand operations, invest up or down value chains, shift to export crops or improve efficiencies and productivity. Many of these adaptations involve labour shedding and shifts from permanent to seasonal and contract labour. The peripheries of our cities and small towns have becomes extended shanty-towns as a result.

Nevertheless, government shares culpability for the fate of farm dwellers in the democratic era. Not only has it made little effort to reflect on the regulatory environment in which all farmers – big and small – try to survive in South Africa, it has simply abandoned small farmers and the millions of people who remain insecure in the only homes they’ve ever known. Labour tenants’ legal claims to land ownership have been lost by careless officials, the implementation of Constitutionally derived laws simply abandoned with no explanation, and a huge share of budget allocated to an ever shrinking number of politically connected beneficiaries. Whatever the other dynamics at play, the democratically elected government’s reckless abandonment of people on farms has been the biggest betrayal.

But new political voices are beginning to fill this abandoned space. The #FeesMustFall campaign, which declared that the country’s problems could only be resolved after the land was returned to its African owners, and the Economic Freedom Front (EFF), with its call to occupy unused land, have begun to shift the political terrain. Suddenly, some progressive landowners recognize that the people living and working on their farms could be allies in a world where the slogan “white monopoly capital” potentially threatens all certainties of rural life.

It is this space that AFRA’s new Pathways’ Project occupies. In our next blog in January 2017, we will describe the project, the social analysis that has given rise to it, and what it hopes to achieve. We also consider the possible impact on the project of the recent Land Claims Court victory for labour tenants, when the judge awarded a Special Master to oversee the implementation of the labour tenants act.

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