Covid-19: The Fight against the Pandemic Must Protect the Human Rights of People on Farms

“I am losing business day by day. We don’t have permits to go sell our produce in town, and we also cannot do door to door sales because we have to practise social distancing.” These simple words, from a woman who is a smallholder farmer in Impendle, paints just one small picture for the devastating impact the Coronavirus shutdown is having on vulnerable communities.

We commend the South African government for acting faster than many other countries around the world to try and prevent the spread of the Coronavirus. However, 13 days into the lockdown, low-income households, including those living and working on farms – who are among the most marginalised and invisible groups in South Africa – are in crisis. Families are locked-down on farms, with no income, limited and dwindling food supplies, and no access to medical resources.

Households whose livelihoods depend on selling livestock or crops have been badly affected. Since the outbreak of the pandemic and the subsequent lock-down, they have been largely unable to sell their produce. Households whose livelihoods depend predominantly on wages from farm employment, might experience job losses or might not receive their full wages. With the agricultural season now coming to a close, these farm workers might not be able to claim Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) benefits to help them survive the winter months since labour centres are closed. In cases where workers are not covered by the UIF, there is unfortunately no government relief for them.

Households with low income who receive social grants to supplement their livelihoods or are solely depended on social grants are also struggling. In the case of child-care grants, research has shown that these are not sufficient to meet a child’s nutritional needs. We also know that this grant is often spread to cover the entire family, and in these cases does not adequately protect families from hunger. The case is worsened by the fact that schools are closed. Millions of schoolchildren from poor families depend on the daily meals they receive at school every day. With reduced incomes and the shut-down of school feeding schemes, which are only slowly starting to re-open following Government’s announcement on the 7th April that they are now allowed to operate, children’s food security and nutritional status will certainly suffer.

The Coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the absence of basic amenities and services on farms. This includes safe water and sanitation infrastructure, adequate housing, and access to medical services. Access to clean water and sanitation infrastructure is essential to protecting human life during this pandemic since hand-washing is critical in preventing the spread of the virus. So too is social distancing, a practice that is made difficult given the inadequate housing infrastructure available to many households residing on farms. Farm dwellers are also reporting that since the lock-down mobile clinics have not been coming on to farms. Those on chronic medication are therefore not receiving their treatment. People living on farms are also concerned that they may be side-lined during the mass roll-out of testing for the virus.

“My chickens are dying because of the closure of stores who sell inputs, animal feeds and medicines,” a smallholder farmer in Cosmoor Farm shared with us.


Unfortunately, advocacy campaigns and court judgments have to date not been effective in prompting government to deliver such infrastructure and services on farms. With the current pandemic, however, government has suddenly sprung into action, supplying water tankers and water tanks, and drilling boreholes for vulnerable communities. While we commend government for this, more needs to be done to ensure that all communities have access to water, and that this urgency and vigour in action by government be maintained once the pandemic is overcome.

“Government needs to establish temporary grants for unregistered farmers as their income has been affected during the lockdown,” urged small-scale farmers in UMgungundlovu.

In light of the above, we call on government to prioritise the poor and marginalised during this period of national crisis so as to mitigate against increasing poverty. There are, for example, smallholder farmers who make less than the minimum threshold required for support as set by the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development. Are these small farmers to be excluded from receiving government assistance? At present it would appear that government is not adequately considering the impact of the pandemic on the poor, on farm dwellers, and on those active in the informal sector.

In order to ensure that South Africa’s poor are not further marginalised during this unprecedented period in our history, the Association for Rural Advancement, a land rights advocacy organisation, and Siyanqoba Rural Transformation Forum and Qina Mbokodo, grass-root organisations working on farms, propose the following:

  1. That in order to support low income families, the current child-care grant be increased by R500 per month for the coming six-month period;
  2. That Government compel all employers, including farmers, not to fire employees or leave them sitting at home on unpaid leave. Farmers, like other employers that are struggling to cover wages during this pandemic, should be urged to apply for support from the Temporary Employee Relief Scheme and the fund set up by the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development. Farmers that can pay their workers, but choose not to do so, should be reported for noncompliance, prosecuted, fined, and ordered to pay compensation.
  3. The Solidarity Fund is mostly earmarked for purchasing personal protective equipment, sanitisers and medical supplies. We appeal to Government to ensure that some of these are supplied on farms for those farm workers who are continuing to work.
  4. The majority of farm dwellers and farm workers do not have access to information. Given that much of this information is being distributed via social media, Government needs to cut the cost of data for the duration of the lockdown. Government needs to unroll educational campaigns on radio so that people on farms are adequately informed.

All of the above proposals require resources. However, the cost of not putting in place an effective safety net would result in increased poverty, malnutrition and food insecurity.  Given South Africa’s already high levels of unemployment, poverty, and inequality, this is something the country cannot afford. With these proposals we hope that the government will ensure that no household is left starving while the pandemic runs its course.


 Written by Nokuthula Mthimunye 


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