'This farm is our life - we won't leave'
Darkness falls on the Koo Valley in the Western Cape. Andries Joostenberg (63) and his son hang up their axes, stack the last logs of cut wood and trudge indoors. In the kitchen of one of the farm’s cottages a family huddles in semi-darkness around a wood stove. The electricity has been cut and so has the water: final instalments in a siege designed to drive Joostenberg off the land.
There is no 7de Laan or television news tonight. A candle on the kitchen table illuminates half a dozen faces: three generations of Joostenbergs. It is a silent, sombre scene.
Joostenberg’s wife, Lea (58), buries her face in her hands and weeps. The nebuliser she needs to manage her asthma cannot run without electricity.
It is Thursday evening. The deadline set by the court for the couple to vacate is noon on Friday. Yet, no boxes or suitcases have been packed. On the eve of his greatest tribulation in 50 years on Langdam farm, Joostenberg and his family stand firm.
“They have money and lawyers, but my family’s bond is stronger than that stuff,” whispers their grand-daughter Itha Seheri (19). “This is our home. How can you break a home that is as strong as ours?”
For Shirley Davids, a regional organiser for the Commercial, Stevedoring, Agriculture and Allied Workers’ Union (Csaawu), the case is symbolic of farm evictions throughout the province. A failure to protect the Joostenbergs here is a setback for the tenure rights of farmworkers in general, she says.
The eviction order is to be challenged. Csaawu points to the Extension of Security of Tenure Act that gives habitation rights to long-term occupiers over the age of 60, provided they have lived on the land for at least 10 years.
Ruth Hall, researcher for the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies, agrees that this right is inalienable. She says that, in the case of the Joostenbergs, it is the farmer who has broken the law – that the cutting of basic services such as water constitutes an “illegal eviction”, even if the tenants continue to occupy the land.
Langdam guest farm’s accommodation is relatively new, but – with offers of cheese and wine tasting, horse riding, bird watching and seasonal fruit picking – Langdam-in-Koo appeals to tourists.
Escape from “the stresses of everyday life”, beckons the farm’s online brochure. Yet behind the luxury cottages and the peaceful country living, is a community in ruin.
“My heart breaks when I think of my neighbours – how their children played with my own in the yard; the community that we once had,” says Lea Joostenberg, the last remaining matriarch of Langdam’s fruit pickers.
“Now we see rich people coming here from the city. They don’t realise where they are staying – in the homes of families who left with great sorrow in their hearts.”
But Glenda Brummer, the farm’s owner since 2008, paints a picture of the Joostenbergs as violent, disingenuous and dangerous. She speaks not of a souring relationship with Andries Joostenberg, but of one that was sour from the very outset. It is his insubordination and incitement of other workers, for instance, to which she attributes the failure of Langdam’s fruit farming and the resort to self-catering accommodation.
Joostenberg, already on a final warning, was found guilty of “gross disrespect” in 2012 and fired. The eviction, and the two years of court proceedings that preceded it, are necessary safety precautions recommended to her by neighbouring farmers, Brummer says, after Joostenberg threatened to kill her.
The Joostenbergs, claiming that they have no alternatives and an ancestral claim to the land, have resisted requests from Brummer to follow their neighbours off the land. In the process, Joostenberg has seen a lifetime of accumulation – livestock, a commercial vegetable garden and a firewood business – laid to waste in a few short years.
The stock disturbed the peace and quiet sought by paying guests to the farm, Joostenberg was told. The vegetables consumed too much of the farm’s water. The five head of cattle were slaughtered, excess vegetables for the market uprooted.
Finally, on July 2, a sheriff with an eviction order from the Montagu magistrate’s court arrived. Neither of the Joostenbergs was home. When they returned, the doors to their home were padlocked. That night, and the next, the family slept outside among their possessions in near freezing temperatures.
On the third day the family reoccupied the house. Brummer claims they did so by breaking in. Joostenberg denies this, saying that the farm’s foreman removed the padlocks. Regardless, he now stands before the local magistrate, charged with breaking and entering into the farm.
It was in 1964 that Job Geduld arrived on Langdam farm in search of work for himself, his wife and two adopted teenage sons, Andries and Jan Joostenberg. So began nearly five decades of entanglement between the Joostenbergs, Langdam and the De Kocks, who had owned the farm for at least 100 years before.
By candlelight, the Joostenbergs speak about raising a family on Langdam. Their story starts several decades ago with 24-year-old Andries courting and falling in love with 19-year-old Lea on a neighbouring farm.
Lea giggles when she recalls the simplicity of their beginnings: no water, no toilet, no lights, a straw bed, a “harde lewe [hard life]”. The irony of their current destitution cuts the chuckle short. “Kind of like you see us living now,” she mumbles.
In the old days, as now, a farmhand’s scope for promotion was narrow. “In the city, you can get a better job,” Joostenberg says.
“It is not like that out here. You are a farmworker your life long. Your life is the farm. But you can dream. One day, you may have a bigger home, a few cows, pigs and a way to provide for your family that isn’t just bound to your pay at the end of the week.”
It is a dream that Joostenberg, with the help of farmer Andre de Kock (who sold Langdam in 2008), could realise. His family has lived in the house, from which they stand to be evicted, since 1988. It is secluded and provided the Joostenbergs with a degree of independence through stock rearing and horticulture.
Typical of apartheid labour relations
Joostenberg’s relationship with the De Kocks is typical of apartheid labour relations throughout rural South Africa, says Hall. So too is the eviction in post-apartheid South Africa.
“Of course there were major abuses meted out on farmworkers, but farmers also adopted a paternalistic approach in providing for their staff,” says Hall. “Privileges in terms of housing, services and other assistance, were, however, always seen as a favour, not as an entitlement.”
With the advent of democracy, progressive labour legislation, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and greater critique of the country’s inequality, that paternalism was challenged and eroded. In the wake of the violent farmworkers’ strike of December 2012 and January 2013, farmers questioned why they should continue “providing” for their workers after then labour minister Mildred Oliphant announced a 52% wage hike for the sector.
Farmers complained that if they paid more in cash they would have to charge workers for rent, water, electricity and other costs, a threat that Csaawu and other unions say has been implemented.
It’s within this context that farm evictions should be seen, Hall says, especially in cases where new owners take over farms with existing tenants.
“New owners often struggle to understand that a farmworker does not live on a farm to be close to their place of work. The farm is their life, not just a workplace. They often have nowhere to go, no chance of survival outside that context.”
Although Brummer claims she has the support of her neighbouring farmers, at least one has spoken out in support of the Joostenbergs. Anton Burger (81), a relative of the De Kock family and owner of the farm Concordia, supports Joostenberg’s claim of “lifelong habitation rights” granted to him by the De Kocks.
“This is not how we treat people,” Burger says. “What’s happening to Andries is not fair. I have families on my farm who no longer work for me. How can I kick them out? I know well that they have nowhere to go.”
Last Friday dozens of Csaawu members gathered outside the Joostenberg’s home to face down the police, who were about to arrest Joostenberg for trespassing. Then Brummer’s lawyers agreed to another, final week’s grace before the police would be called.
Csaawu claims this as a victory. But Joostenberg and his family continue to relieve themselves in the bushes, cook on an open fire, cart bottles of water to the house from a spring –and wait for another court-ordered eviction.
“Living like this is the price to pay for standing firm. But we are willing. This is our home,” Joostenberg says.
This article was originally published on groundup.