A struggle in vain: a labour tenant’s story

Donna-pic-Zabalaza Mshengu

Zabalaza Mshengu

His name means Struggle, and despite turning 101 in January, Zabalaza Mshengu is still struggling to get government to process his legal claim to the land where he hopes to live out the time he has left.

From his derelict home on a commercial farm near Ashburton KwaZulu Natal, Mshengu points across the N3, shaking with emotion at his memory of a precarious life. “This all used to be one farm before the highway came. My mother and father worked there for no wages, and when I was old enough I also worked on that farm. In return, the farmer gave us land to graze our cattle and grow our crops. My father’s grave is there – I don’t know if that owner even knows it is there.”

Mshengu had reason to hope in 1996 when a new law promised to secure his rights to the land he had grown up on. The Land Reform (Labour Tenants) Act derives from the Constitution, which guarantees tenure to people deprived of it in terms of racially discriminatory laws (see a timeline on labour tenancy in South Africa). The act addressed the plight of labour tenants who, like Mshengu, had clung to land and the remnants of independent farming by working for land owners without receiving wages despite attempts by successive apartheid laws to destroy this way of life. It provided for labour tenants to claim ownership of the land they and their fathers had lived on and used. By the closing date for the lodging of claims in March 2001, about 19,000 labour tenants had applied for land ownership. Mshengu was one of them.

But 14 years later, the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform has once again failed to comply with a Land Claims Court order that it explain how it will resolve these land claims. The application was brought in July 2013 on behalf of all labour tenant claimants by the Legal Resources Centre acting for the Association for Rural Advancement (AFRA) and four labour tenants who reside on land belonging to Hilton College. The Department has, on at least five occasions, either failed to respond to Court orders or has submitted affidavits late. A report on the case by AFRA’s director, Mike Cowling, a former professor of law, states: “The bottom line is that the Department has comprehensively and systematically failed to carry out its basic mandate in respect of labour tenant applications.”

Cowling’s conclusion was once again confirmed last week when the Department failed to provide the information the Court required. Once again, the Department failed to show the courtesy of informing the Court or the applicants that it was unable to comply with its orders. And once again, the applicants’ lawyers have had to request that either the information is provided or that the Department is found to be in contempt of Court. It has until Friday to respond.

Mshengu, understating his exhausted patience, says simply: “Land affairs is taking far too long to settle my claim.”


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