The year 2018 started with two gruesome farm murders in KwaZulu Natal and North West respectively. With these incidences making headlines, I was reminded of the unpublicized 2015 mass farm evictions for the about to be unionized migrant workers who had resided, occupied and worked on the Johannesburg farm in Limpopo for more than 15 years.
These incidences might be poles apart, but they are equally deplorable and reprehensible developments witnessed in KwaZulu Natal, Limpopo and North West within a short space of time. The sad part is that their pejorative consequences threaten to haunt, if not define, the bequest of the African National Congress (ANC) of South Africa as far as land is concerned.
As the ANC’s elective congress resolved to expropriate land without compensation, the actions of some white commercial farmers has left the farming community with an egg on its face, and whose end is now there for everyone to see as the land question clouds begin to gather in earnest.
Less than 48 hours before the new-year, the community of Claridge in Pietermaritzburg was left in great shock as farmer Philip Solomon shot and killed his former employee at a funeral. He has widely received opprobrium from the cold blooded murder over a burial dispute at the farm. Whilst no one was injured physically, the actions of this farmer have, some in life-threatening ways manifested his trigger happy behavior which lack communal restraint.
Philip Solomon is not the only one. In the arid, but fertile region of Limpopo in Lephalale area lies Johannesburg farm whose owner benefits incalculably on cheap migrant labour. The majority of the farmers in South Africa take advantage of the economic desperation of the migrants whom they employ without benefits.
Such actions from the farmers are nauseatingly palpable as they unleash an unnerving volley of manipulation and abuse because they control the means of production as the previously advantaged minority.
At Johannesburg farm the migrant workers’ rights are not respected. Consequently, the farm labourers are auto-pilot vacant for manipulation, exploitation and abuse by brutal racist white commercial farmers and their cronies. What started as a normal routine negotiation for overtime ended up spelling disaster for more than 300 hundred migrants. The general farm workers worked for a paltry rate of R60 (US$5) per day and supervisors would get R80 (US$6.50) per day for a 12 hour shift. The working hours were increased and the knock off time to just an hour before midnight on a six day week. They were enslaved into a 17 hour working shift without prior consultation and consent. This took a toll on the employees as they were never paid for overtime. They consulted the management for clarity with regards to the overtime payment and they asked for a mere R10 (US$0.83).
Such a paltry request enraged the owner who then summarily dismissed them. What is sad is that the legal minimum rate for farm workers is just above R120 (US$10) per day and they were earning less than half the minimum wage. The migrant labourers were shot at using rubber bullets the Marikana-massacre style, they were tear gassed, pepper sprayed and had dogs set on them. In this flee and fear encounter, the farm workers were brutally assaulted and the emergency services had their hands full on the day.
The assaulted people included those in the vulnerable group, pregnant women, the old and young children. Such never reached the media attention. Criminal charges were pressed, a labour matter was registered, but the farmer made sure that justice was denied using the power of the brown envelope.
It was a travesty of justice that the Johannesburg Farm’s owner got away with such gross and inhumane abuse of human rights. The farm workers’ labour rights are being butchered in South Africa. Those seeking to only put food on the table have fallen prey to the unrepentant employers. Despite having permits to reside in South Africa indefinitely, the employees were deported on the eve of the criminal and labour matters.
Last year, Schalk Burger Snr, the father of Springbok Schalk Burger reportedly paid employees R6 and R10 a day, R42 and R94 per week. This is just a tip of the ice-berg.
While these farm incidents are indeed different they are nevertheless unified by quite important, legitimate and growing public concerns about the rights of farm workers and the land issue. One does not have to be a malcontent of any kind to point out that no matter how one looks at the death at a funeral tragedy, a cold-blooded massacre cannot be an appropriate response to a land issue even on down-trodden workers, even if their actions are deemed illegal. By definition, a massacre breeds a culture of violence and entrenches institutional hatred in the farms. It is for this reason that the farm killings must be condemned.
Last month, the ANC passed a resolution for the appropriation of land without compensation. Against this backdrop, it should be said without any prejudice, fear or favour that the land issue in South Africa has reached a boiling point.
The land issue should not be resolved in isolation of the benefits for the farm workers. There is something much more fundamental here which needs to be unraveled and dealt with candidly and resolutely as it speaks to what is quintessentially wrong about what has been particularly wrong with the way the land issue has been purportedly handled.
The need to expropriate land should not ignore the rights of the farm workers. Irrespective of the skills level, the migrant farm workers suffer the most brutality. Such brutality goes unreported due to vulnerability and fear that is installed by the farmers.
The precarious conditions of the workers are further eroded by the fact that the Department of Labour does not have a facilitation team of inspectors that offers assistance for access into farms. Any attempts to conduct a discernible programme to organize farm workers through mobilization, recruitment and organization remain futile as access into farms is denied with the hired security personnel.
In the midst of this land issue, the rights of the precarious workers must be protected.
The Labor Department on its sectoral determination has reviewed the minimum wage and raised it to R3 169.19 per month, R 731.41 per week, R146.28 daily and R16.25 hourly as from 12 March 2018.
The sad element of the minimum wage policy is the involvement of the president in waiting of South Africa, Mr. Cyril Ramaphosa who was part of the task team that resolute that R 3000 is the reasonable minimum wage a few months back. As a former trade unionist, Mr. Ramaphosa became a mining mogul, but a dark patch over the Marikana-masacre hangs over his head. On that fateful day, at least 34 mine workers in Marikana were massacred in cold blood while at least 78 were perilously wounded, some in life-threatening ways by trigger-happy South African police whose lack of professional self-discipline was repulsively palpable as they let loose an uncomforting cascade of gunfire from their state-of the-art mechanical military hardware which were captured by television cameras and repeatedly broadcast wide-reaching.
He had the minimum wage policy assignment to redeem himself. But once again, what more did the precarious class expect from a former employee cum-trade unionist cum-capitalist and owns the means of production?
Moral insinuation of this wage policy is that the growing inequalities are leading to less social cohesion and unsustainable development. At this point in time, the mobilization for decent work and decent living conditions must top the labour departments’ agenda.
With all these events creeping from everywhere, the South African government and stakeholders are recommended to:
1. Comprehensively inspect the conditions of all farm workers.
2. Properly investigate and impartially prosecute all reported instances of human rights abuses and alleged torture on farms without fear or favour.
3. Ensure that salaries for all farms workers are paid in terms of gazetted minimum wages.
4. Fine and shut down the farms of repeated violators.
5. Partner with civil society, organized labour, and farmers to carry out a comprehensive education campaign on the rights and conditions of workers under South African labour legislation and the South African constitution.
After all is said done, is there an alternative to capitalism? Are the farm workers going to be protected fully? Is the government going to assist unions in mobilization, recruitment and organizing farm workers who live in inaccessible farms? Will the expropriation of land without compensation give land rights to the farm dwellers? With all this in mind, one can only hope that 2018 will bring valuable change to the precarious class.