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Battlegrounds: Farmworkers are caught between the land and the law

2019-04-02 07:00

The plight of a farm-dweller family evicted from their home on a prominent wine farm in Paarl last week put the spotlight back on the growing tension between the legality and morality question relating to farm evictions.

This eviction followed days after President Cyril Ramaphosa assured farmworkers in Citrusdal that his party would support them in their fight against evictions and oppression.

Days later, Alfred May and his family found themselves out on the street with all his belongings when the sheriff of the court enforced an eviction order.

According to the organisation Women on Farms Project, May worked on the farm for 28 years until his employment was terminated. The eviction also sparked isolated protests by some farmworkers. Yet, according to a statement the farm owners issued, May was fired in 2008 because he sold liquor illegally on the wine farm. He had been asked to vacate the premises, but he refused. The owners insisted they followed due process with court rules and legislation, and thus acted within their rights.

“The eviction of the occupiers did not occur abruptly. It was the culmination of a nearly decade-long process at a large financial cost and prejudice to the farm,” the statement read.

Alfred May and his family found themselves out on the street with all his belongings.

Co-director of the Women on Farms Project, Carmen Louw, told Parlybeat the issue of tenure security was closely linked to broader land and agrarian reform. “Current legal instruments such as Esta [the Extension of Security of Tenure Act] give farmworkers limited protection, and farmers learned how to use these loopholes in legislation. They only need to provide accommodation to farmworkers while they are in their employ and when you reach long-term occupier status,” Louw explained.

“What we see now is farm dwellers who lose their employment before they reach long-term occupier status, as is the case with May’s eviction.”

A long-term occupier refers to a person who is older than 60 and who has lived on the farm for 10 years, or someone who became disabled or sick while employed on the farm.

Louw explained that women are often at an even greater disadvantage.

“Historically women were not employed on farms, so they never qualified for tenure security in their own right. As a result, widows are evicted ‘legally’, as was the case on a farm in Rawsonville earlier.”

Louw said legal processes also meant very little if poor farm dwellers who lived far away from courts could not access these courts, or were unable to read or understand legal documents.

ReadWhat happens when the owner of the farm you call home wants you gone?

During a recent seminar at the University of the Western Cape, Women on Farms Project director Colette Solomon said laws were well intended, but farmers were well-resourced in terms of legal representation.

“Farmworkers have a moral and economic claim to the land,” she insisted.

“One of the greatest perversions in South Africa is that those who produce our food often go to bed hungry.”

Solomon referred to a “systematic backlash by farmers over the land expropriation issue”.

“What we see is increasing evictions and unfair dismissals.”

One of the greatest perversions in South Africa is that those who produce our food often go to bed hungry.

Solomon said the organisation also observed “constructive evictions”. She explained that farmers often make living and working conditions unbearable to force farmworkers from farms. This may include cutting off water and electricity and locking doors.

When approached for comment, farmer representative body Agri Western Cape asked for details of evictions to investigate and said they could not comment on allegations.

However, according to Solomon, there were more than 1000 eviction cases on the court roll for the Drakenstein area. This included towns such as Paarl and Wellington. It was estimated that, if granted, these eviction court orders would affect about 20 000 farmworkers and families living on farms.

May was likely part of these statistics.

The Women on Farms Project deals with an average of 35 tenure-related cases a year. Last year the organisation dealt with almost 100 matters affecting almost 500 farm dwellers.

Director of the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (Plaas), Professor Andries du Toit, said there were clear problems with the legal framework and with the implementation of the current law.

Processes such as this end up excluding large numbers of people from any kind of meaningful citizenship, relegating them to an impoverished and insecure existence on the margins of a wealthy society

“However, the legality of the issue aside, a big problem is that evictions contribute to the marginalisation of the poor and vulnerable population, who join the large masses of landless and unemployed people seeking to survive on the edges of the urban economy.”

Du Toit labelled it as a “clear betrayal of the promise of our Constitution”.

“Processes such as this end up excluding large numbers of people from any kind of meaningful citizenship, relegating them to an impoverished and insecure existence on the margins of a wealthy society. Not only does this have potential destabilising political consequences in the long-term, but it’s also not in accord with our values as a society.”


• This article originally appeared on ParlyBeat, a biweekly digital newsletter aimed at linking policy and oversight processes in Parliament to the lived realities of ordinary people. Follow ParlyBeat on Twitter.

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October 13 2019