#BlackMonday: We must centre farmworkers in the “farm killings” debate

Though writers have opined on the apartheid nostalgia exhibited by #BlackMonday protesters, there has been silence in terms of placing land and non-white bodies residing or working on farms at the heart of this violence. Shouldn’t every Monday be a Black Monday in South Africa, asks Sobantu Mzwakali.

The #BlackMonday witnessed thus far was not black per se, but coloured with amnesia, racial anxiety and chauvinism. To put matters into perspective, we must interrogate violence experienced by non-white bodies on farms while placing our relationships to land at the centre of this issue.

“Farm killings”, exclusively referring to horrors inflicted upon white bodies though violations and murders of both non-white farm workers and dwellers persist nationwide. Conceiving of these crimes in targeted or persecutory terms (we have all heard the vile white genocide narrative), white farmers view violence against them to be resolved by the police or vigilante justice. However, farmers are unlikely to be safer, this violence is connected to capitalist exploitation specifically in relation to property relations.

One generation into democracy, the majority of farmworkers and the rural poor endure grinding poverty while a minority within the white population cannot reconcile themselves with the end of apartheid both ideologically and materially. The latter was expressed across the country by #BlackMonday protesters dressed in black to draw attention to farm murders and honour (white) farmers who have been killed. The message was clear, black lives do not matter. This is reflected both in these farmers conceptions of farm murders solely affecting their ilk as well as the violence of continued racialised inequity.

In a Facebook post, the Women on Farms Project (WFP) pointed out that farmers were only able to participate in the protest that day because the work on their farms was still being done by their workers. “Farm workers would not be afforded the same right to protest by farmers,” they said.

During apartheid, farm workers were subjected to laws that left them vulnerable to gross human rights violations including physical assaults, child labour, inhumane living conditions and evictions without notice. The safety of farmworkers was institutionally threatened; farmers held absolute power over workers. The powers exercised by white farmers were not only over workers but also farm dwellers residing in their jurisdiction. This was deeply entrenched in property and land relations, which controlled and determined farmworkers working conditions, perpetuating the interests of the minority and capital expansion.

A week after the farmers’ protest, Professor Stephen Devereux, Colette Solomon and Enya Yde shared the findings of research undertaken last year, titled “The farmer doesn’t recognise who makes him rich”. This research interrogated the nature and extent of non-compliance and labour rights violations in terms of wages and contracts, labour rights, and occupational health and safety on commercial farms in the Western and Northern Cape, particularly focusing on women seasonal workers.

South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy promised previously disadvantaged citizens that the rights enshrined in the Constitution of South Africa would be respected. Has this promise been kept?

Section 23 of the South African Constitution codifies the rights to fair practices, to unionise and to strike. Additionally, the sectoral determination for farm workers establishes a regularly updated minimum wage for farm workers, as well as the rights to wage negotiation, to obtain a written contract, to health, a protected environment and the right to sick leave.

More broadly, there are several key legislations providing rights for workers (including farm workers) such as the Basic Conditions of Employment Act which regulates the conditions around leave, working hours, employment contracts, legal deductions, designed to ensure fair and regulated labour conditions. There is the Occupational Health and Safety Act, generically covering farm workers in regards to safety and health at work. The Unemployment Insurance Fund requires formally employed workers to have a monthly deduction towards social security. The Labour Relations Act governs the relationship between an employer and a worker. It is crucial as it determines whether the workers’ rights’ have been applied or respected in practice. This also applies to unionisation – the right to access and join unions.

There are many rights enshrined in the constitution which ought to be upheld and there is a responsibility for farmers or farm managers to ensure these rights are respected. However, the department of labour must also perform inspections.

WFP’s findings suggests these rights are violated across the board. They say:

  • 39% of farm workers surveyed claim not to have received a contract;
  • 21% reported not receiving a minimum wage – a contravention of the law – while 18% do not know whether they are receiving a minimum wage;
  • Two out of three women workers are exposed to pesticides during their work;
  • Roughly 70% of seasonal women workers are exposed to pesticides;
  • Two-thirds of farmworkers are not provided protective clothing;
    Two-thirds of farm workers lack access to toilets while working;
  • There has been an increase in unilateral determination and imposition of working targets by the farmers. If these targets are not met, workers miss daily or weekly wages as farmers circumvent minimum wage payment; and
  • There is less protection for seasonal workers compared to permanent workers including less access to social security during unemployment periods

Unionisation may remedy such violations. However, the research shows unionisation is only at 10% amongst seasonal workers. Solomon blames it on farmers’ hostility and antagonism towards unions; 73% of workers claim their bosses do not allow unions at the farm and 54% saying farmers don’t allow workers to attend union meetings. With workers failing to unionise, recourse is very limited.

The report also states that farmers continue to “blatantly evade the law”. The department of labour needs to do better at inspecting farms. Some farmworkers report never seeing labour inspections on farms at all. Others say departmental representatives only meet with the farmer without speaking to the workers and that if they do speak to workers, they only speak to those handpicked by the farmer.

The report suggests legislation is merely a short-term tool to respond to urgent issues. It promotes agrarian transformation and land redistribution as remedies.

Under such harsh working conditions, violence against farmworkers expresses itself with devastating consequences. Eugene Terre’Blanche died at the hands of two farm workers – one a minor, 15-year-old whose employment breached the labour laws of the country and the other a 27-year-old. The dispute that led to this act of violence was Terre’Blanche’s apparent failure to pay their wages of R300 per month, a sum far below the government mandated minimum wage for farm workers.

It is the arrogant assumption of entitlement of those who are privileged, with historical wealth, and those inured from the vicissitudes of real, grinding poverty that they alone are immune to violence they perpetrate.

Sobantu Mzwakali is an activist writer based in Cape Town.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect The Daily Vox’s editorial policy.