We want rights – not equity, say farmworkers*

The Department of Rural Development and Land Reform (DRDLR) achieved something momentous at the three-day National Land Tenure Summit in Boksburg last week – it united farm workers and farm owners in opposition to its proposal to split the ownership of commercial farms 50-50 between them.

Delegates called instead for government to implement existing laws to regulate evictions – mainly the Extension of the Security of Tenure Act (ESTA) promulgated in 1997 – and to provide tenure security for people living on commercial farms.

“The government does not implement. It does not listen. These policies of equity are just a piece of nonsense,” said one farm worker. “When you lose your job, when you are evicted, where do you go? This is what tenure reform is meant to address – not equity. Don’t give us equity. We don’t want equity. Give us rights. Enforce it. Focus on ESTA. That is all,” he said.

A representative of the farmers’ association, Agri South Africa, concurred: “A big part of the problem is non-implementation of existing policies and laws, so there should be a very strong focus on that.”

More than 2000 delegates from most affected sectors gathered for three days to discuss Minister Gugile Nkwinti’s proposals to give workers security on the land they farm. On Friday, they divided into eight commissions with two discussing each of four topics in parallel.

The commission on “Land Tenure Security on Commercial Farms” that I attended slammed the flagship proposal for “strengthening the relative rights of people working the land”, also known as the 50% policy, which would see the state buying shares in farming enterprises for farm workers with 10 years or more of so-called “disciplined service”.

One delegate voiced the fear of many when he said the proposal had already triggered evictions in anticipation of the split: “What mechanisms have you built in to allay those fears? They throw them off the farms so there will be nobody to share with. Has this even been thought about as you embarked on this?”

When alternatives were reported to the summit on Saturday that outright rejection had been watered down, perhaps on the basis of a less strident opinion from the second commission on the same topic.

But it was still enough to anger Nkwinti. Making the commission members stand up and identify themselves, he told them to leave the summit meeting. He said the twin commissions had failed to engage on the detail of his proposals and told them to go away and try again.

Later in the day, a different spokeswoman for the two groups presented a revised set of recommendations, no longer rejecting the 50% proposal but urging further discussions before it is finalised.

While described as a “radical” policy to realise the Freedom Charter’s vision that “the people shall share in the country’s wealth”, the policy rests on a model of equity sharing that has been shown to be ineffective in the past.

Nkwinti suspended an existing equity sharing scheme when he took office in 2009, saying “farmers in farm equity schemes do not part with their land” and that of 88 schemes in force at the time, only nine had paid any dividends and never more than R2000 a year.

He lifted the moratorium two years later without making any policy changes and now advocates the same problematic model as the primary, or even the sole, form of land reform and worker empowerment in agriculture.

The proposal would exclude women and children who are not employed on the farms and the growing number of temporary workers, as well as labour tenants.

Half the farm workers’ share would be reserved for people with 50 years of “disciplined service” – likely to be a very small number. While shares would be heritable, future allocations would dilute the value of those already distributed.

With the cost of the scheme estimated to be at least R141-billion, the proposal would see a massive windfall of public money into privately-owned farms without securing jobs or homes and with no guarantee of increased incomes for farm workers.

Amongst the comments made by farm workers were these:

  • “The problem is the need to bring back the dignity of the black man on his own land, not on another man’s farm. We need our own land,” said an elderly Free State farm worker;
  • “With your document here, you are still defending the white farmers, but you say it is radical. This is the dompas [pass book] of apartheid. In South Africa, we are not owning any land, we are not owning any car, we are not owning nothing. Tell the Minister to take this document and throw it away, this is an apartheid document,” said a Western Cape delegate; and
  • “I want to propose that we have been having good policies… It is a matter of ensuring it is being enforced… If a farmer decides to evict a farm worker and he has not followed a court process, the farmer must be penalised,” said a KwaZulu-Natal delegate.

Representatives from several provinces alleged that the publication of the draft proposals had already sparked mass evictions across the country.

Many delegates focused on the failure to enforce ESTA, the 1997 attempt to secure the rights of occupiers on commercial farms. An estimated 1.5-million people have been evicted from farms since then, and available research estimates that less than 1% of these have complied with the legal process. In a separate policy paper presented to the commission, the department conceded that the past 17 years had seen a “total system failure” to implement and enforce this legal and policy framework.

Commissions resolved to reject the 50-50 proposal and call instead for the government to enforce the existing law and to prioritise farm dwellers in the land redistribution programme so those who want it can get land of their own.

Participants also pointed out that they had provided input to government summits in the past – in 2001, 2005 and 2010 – and that the department had failed to implement agreed resolutions.

“The government has not implemented what it was supposed to have done, in terms of land redistribution and in terms of ESTA. We will be coming here again in some years and produce more documents. None of this matters unless government implements ESTA,” said one delegate.

The commission recommended that “total system failure” requires a total system re-design, with adequate resourcing. Participants identified several measures to secure tenure on farms:

  • A ring-fenced budget for securing farm dwellers’ rights and farm dwellers should be prioritised in land redistribution;
  • Staff posts in the department exclusively responsible for securing tenure on farms;
  • Training of the SA Police Service, prosecution authorities and magistrates to make the justice system more responsive;
  • Task teams of all relevant departments to respond to threatened or actual evictions;
  • A national tripartite forum of government, farmers and farm workers and similar forums at provincial level; and
  • A moratorium on evictions while institutions are being strengthened to implement ESTA.

Here is the irony: at an elaborate and expensive summit called to consult people on proposed policy, the responses of many delegates were not heard.

A clear message emerged from this commission: it rejected the proposed policy; it called on government and farm owners to implement and comply with the existing law; and it urged action to enable farm dwellers to get their own land.

But that message was not clearly conveyed to the minister, who insisted that participants return to discussions to focus on the detail of the policy he had proposed. The result is a government-convened task team to hammer out the details of a policy that those consulted had just rejected.

When will their message be heard?

*This article was originally published in The Daily Dispatch on 10/09/2014.

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