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South Africa: Harvesting discontent -- farmworkers rebel; Stop rural slavery! Respect the farmworkers!
By Mercia Andrews
January 13, 2013 -- International Viewpoint -- The protests and mobilisation that started in the small town of De Doorns on November 6, 2012, galvanised the anger of farm dwellers against decades of discontent at extreme exploitation and oppression that persist on farms, in rural towns and South Africa's agricultural sector.
De Doorns is not dissimilar to hundreds of small rural towns across the Western Cape province and South Africa as a whole. The grievances and problems that farmworkers and rural poor speak of extend from the Western Cape to the borders of South Africa in Limpopo and Mpumalanga. However, the De Doorns uprising has to be seen an important moment. Like Marikana in the mining sector, De Doorns has ignited the imagination of farmworkers and the rural poor. As with the mineworkers' demand for R12,500 (US$1428) per month, the farmworkers' demand of R150 ($17) per day has become the rallying call of the struggle.
In fact, mining and agriculture, the historical backbone of South African capitalism, have been severely shaken.
The spontaneous protests and often self-organised actions of farmworkers that unfolded on farms and in rural towns are historic, inspiring and have indeed stunned the rural establishment. Even the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forests Tina Joemat-Pettersson recognised this when she said, “farms and agriculture in the Western Cape will never be the same again”.
The significance of what has been unfolding is that a people who have been labouring under almost feudal conditions, yet remained poorly organised (union representation stands at less than 5%), rose up spontaneously on some of the wealthiest and most productive farmlands in the country, demanding a living wage and radical transformation of the countryside.
A new generation of farmworkers has grown up in the post-apartheid South Africa. These are young workers who challenge their parents for not standing up to decades of oppression on the farms. They’ve had better education, and if one uses the towns of De Doorns and Robertson as examples, cell phones and social media such as Mixit, played an important role in motivating and facilitating neighbouring farmworkers to join in action. Access to popular organisations, television and the radio contributed significantly to overcoming the isolation and marginalisation of farmworkers and allowed for co-ordination – however tentative.
Rural women, many of them seasonal workers, have played a leading role in mobilising at community level in townships and informal settlements on the outskirts of farms. In many instances women led the protests, giving confidence to the men to follow suit. These women often earn less than the men and have more insecure conditions of employment and tenure.
Behind the strike
It is important to ask what ignited the struggles in De Doorns. What has given rise to this historic awakening in the rural areas? And why has the strike and protests been able to spread to many of the surrounding rural towns in the Western Cape in a relatively short space of time?
It relates in essence to a range of objective and subjective reasons. Key among these is the fact that despite the legal changes in labour relations since 1994, little has changed on South Africa’s farms. Rather, one can describe much of the current labour relations as a continuation of the apartheid-era of baasskap, feudalistic social and economic conditions of master-servant relations. Massive human rights violations have continued, as highlighted by many local reports as well as the August 2011 Human Rights Watch report Ripe with Abuse. The post-apartheid Labour Relations Act as well as other labour legislation supporting equity and decent work has been largely ignored by farmers.
The Department of Labour, which is supposed to monitor and undertake inspections of farms, is unable to cope. It has very limited access to farms and, even worse, sometimes colludes with the farmers against the workers.
Conditions of abuse
Over these past few weeks, in meeting after meeting, farmworkers told stories of how they work and live:
“This week my pay was only R240 [$27] and I don’t know why. I don’t get a pay slip.” (Bonnievale)
“When I joined the union I was told that I must fuck off from his farm, he wants no trouble makers.” (Francois, Ashton)
“They are so rude and abusive, they are racist and speak very badly to us.” (Betty, De Doorns)
There are many stories of violence and intimidation:
“A group of us were huddled together taking shelter from the rain and the farm manager marched up to us and ordered us to go back to work. Suddenly he started beating us with a spade.” (Gawie, Ashton)
“Just before the strike was to resume the farmer lined us up against the fence, pointed his shotgun at us, told us he will shoot the lot of us if we join the strike.”
From many of these testimonies it was also clear that a substantial number of farmworkers earn well below the R70 [$8] per day minimum wage that is the bone of contention.
“I work on an apricot farm on the road to Montague where I am paid 89c for every 25kg drum of apricots I fill, and if I want to earn a lousy R89 [$10] per day I have to fill over 100 drums with apricots. At the end of such a week all my limbs ache and I can barely stand straight.” (Margriet, Montague)
These are stories of hardship and suffering. Many have similar tales of how they are constantly humiliated, belittled and even beaten:
“My boss has seven farms but we don’t have toilets and when we demanded toilets, he said he would rather buy an additional farm than install toilets... All their children go to university and have cars. We cannot afford anything, not even school shoes.”
Problems of organising farmworkers
Today there are just over 500,000 farmworkers in South Africa, of which the largest proportion, 121,000, are employed in the Western Cape province. Very few farmworkers, both permanent and seasonal, are organised. In fact, only three to five per cent are unionised. The history of the labour movement in South Africa suggests that it was extremely difficult to organise farmworkers during the apartheid era given the strong state controls in rural areas, which made access to farms, where most of the farmworkers lived, very difficult.
Those parts of the Western Cape where the protests and strikes have been fiercest are also the regions that are most organised, with a stronger presence of small unions, popular movements, farmworkers’ associations and NGOs.
Democratic South Africa has introduced a battery of progressive legislation. The constitution guarantees the right to freedom of expression and association. While in theory everyone has the right to belong to a union of their choice and the right to strike, most farmworkers have been denied these rights through the prevailing conditions of fear and intimidation that is the everyday reality of South Africa’s farming system. Joining a union often leads to eviction or retrenchment.
Another difficulty that confronts those organising farmworkers is the very isolation of the farms and workers who reside on them. Unlike urban workers, farmworkers struggle to meet with other workers regularly. There is a lack of access to public transport and resources to link up and organise.
Behind the strike also lies a tale of deepening poverty, ironically entrenched by rising food prices. Low wages and increasing costs have served to intensify the desperation to the point that farmworkers have little to lose by rising up.
Farmworkers complain that they spend the bulk of their meagre income on food, yet still go hungry. This is a complaint from both those living on the farms and the contract and seasonal workers. Those who live on the farms very often buy food on credit from the shops set up by the farmer on the farm itself. They also buy electricity via pre-paid meters recently installed in their shack-like homes. They often have to pay rent and pay an additional amount for children living with them, but not working on the farm.
The result is direct deductions from their wages against the balance of what they owe. This "credit system" has left thousands of workers in a cascading debt trap. Over and above this, farmworkers also have to pay school fees and in some cases boarding fees for hostels. This burden of feeding and fending for the family as well as the extended family piles additional pressure on meagre incomes.
Inequality is extremely stark where impoverished farmworkers live in such close proximity to the farmer and his family. Glaring disparities in living conditions, sanitation, transport and mobility, access to health services are right in your face. The farmworker is made to feel sub-human. The more the farmworker does not have, the less deserving he or she is considered to be. For example, denying their farmworkers decent sanitation in the vineyards and fields serves to entrench the farmers' perception of their employees as animals. This much is apparent as one goes from farm to farm.
These difficulties notwithstanding, the sleeping giant has stirred. A new period has dawned. Farmworkers in more than 20 towns across the Western Cape have mobilised and started to organise themselves, both on the farms and in informal settlements where many contract workers live. The protests and strike have seen contract workers and seasonal workers (including those who live on the farms and those who are brought in each day) making common cause.
The protests have also unlocked new forms of self-organisation on the farms as farmworkers establish farmworker committees. Significantly, alliances between small farmer organisations, contract workers and community groups have cohered to not only support the protests, but also to make new links between the basic demands of the farmworkers and those who demand a radical transformation of the countryside.
Perhaps the words of Marx should be invoked when we see the truckloads of workers travelling to farms daily: “Capitalism has produced its own gravedigger”.
[Mercia Andrews is a land rights activist and is a member of the Democratic Left Front.]
Stop rural slavery! Respect the farmworkers!
Via Campesina Africa solidarity statement on the farmworkers' mobilisation in South Africa
Maputo, January 14, 2013 – During November 2012, the world watched farmworkers' strikes, particularly those working in vinyards, in the Western Cape province, South Africa. They were protesting against exploitation and poor working and living conditions on farms, demanding an increase in minimum wages. In many cases, South African police responded to the demonstrations with violence and intolerance and showed no respect for laws. Many farmworkers and activists were arrested, including peasants of the Agrarian Reform for Food Sovereignty Campaign, a member of La Via Campesina.
After dubious negotiations that halted the strikes in December, the South African government has refused to make any change to the minimum wage and the situation has remained unchanged. Early this January farmworkers resumed the strikes and are being heavily repressed by police.
Since the strikes began, South African civil society organisations have denounced the fact that owners of the farms and the police were acting in close collusion to repress the striking workers; they benefit from a high level of impunity. It also appears obvious that the owners of the farms are continuing to pour racist and sexist insults on farmworkers.
The farmworkers' strike in South Africa has to be seen as an African movement of the rural poor protesting against injustice and explotation.The agricultural sector in South Africa employs not only South African citizens. Many of the farmworkers working in bad conditions are migrant workers: men and women from neighbouring countries such as Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi. These farmworkers are sometimes the most affected by the owners of the farms, who take advantage of the fact that they are in many cases working illegally and without social protection. South African commercial farming is the most powerful on the continent; it flourishes at the expense of the oppression and exploitation of agricultural workers.
These strikes are also the result of the government’s failure to implement land reform in South Africa. The 30 per cent land distribution that was promised by 2015 is very far from being implemented. In fact, in 2013 it is now 100 years since a Land Act that dispossessed millions of people from the land and turned them into the super-exploited farmworkers and the South African proletariat, was constituted in 1913. These strikes are a cry of ”Enough is enough!” of 100 years of rural slavery.
The African region of the International Peasant´s Movement, La Via Campesina, declares its support and solidarity with the farmworkers in South Africa and condemns all forms of violence perpetuated by the South African police and government against all farmworkers and activists. We join the voice of South African civil society organisations and demand that the South Africa government take active steps to listen to and act on the call of the agricultural workers who are demanding a living wage and a life of dignity.
Globalise the struggle, globalise the hope!
Contacts for more information and solidarity
Petrus Brink, Agrarian Reform for Food Sovereignty Campaign
(+27) 761 534 627 – mobile
Cape Town, South Africa
Via Campesina Regional office for Africa
(+258) 21 327 895 – landline
[La Via Campesina is an international movement of peasants, small and medium producers, landless, rural women, Indigenous people, rural youth and agricultural workers. We are an autonomous, pluralist and multicultural movement, independent of any political, economic or other type of affiliation. Born in 1993, La Via Campesina now gathers about 150 organisations in 70 countries in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas.]