Angry Farm Tenants Take To The Trenches

Tenant farming communities are being ignored in the land- reform process. This could prove disastrous for the government, warns Dave Husy of the Farmworkers’ Research and Resource Project

RECENTLY 7 000 farm tenants and workers downed tools and took to the streets of traditionally ultra-conservative Piet Retief, marching through the town to present a memorandum of demands to the provincial premier. It was the first time that farm tenants in the district mobilised, in spite of pressure from white farmers, to express their frustrations.

The farm tenants, who supply labour to farmers in return for the use of a portion of farm land, directed their anger at white farmers and the government. Both, they maintain, have scant regard for their rights: the former because farmers have projected their fears of impending land reform into violent actions against tenant communities living on their farms; the latter, ironically, for failing to have a land-reform policy which deals adequately with their status and concerns.

The demands contained in their memorandum reflect a broad range of issues related to the political environment of rural areas. Key demands were:


* An end to the eviction of tenant communities. * A moratorium on the sale of farm land until their situation is resolved. * The immediate return of all impounded livestock. * The rebuilding of tenant houses destroyed by farmers or police. * An end to the use of police reservists on farms. * An immediate investigation into the abduction of a local tenant, Simon Vilakazi, by a farmer and the murder of another tenant, Bheki Mlangeni.

Other demands reflected the need for a review of the ecological impact of the forestry industry, an end to the practice of subcontracting, and stopping the expulsion tenant children from farms.

The memorandum also demanded that the clauses in the constitution relating to property rights and the proposed Restitution Bill be reviewed and changed. For farm tenants, these two documents represent an end to their battle to retain access to land in “white” South Africa.

The documents, they say, entrench white farmers’ power over the land and their power over the communities who live on it. And in agreeing to the documents, the ANC has forfeited any notion of widespread land reform, particularly in relation to black farm communities.

Central to the frustration of the farm tenants is the failure of the government to recognise their status. The Ministry of Land Affairs does not recognise them as a separate constituency from waged farm workers, and thus does not view them as communities with claims to land under the land-reform proposals.

Instead, they are regarded as a constituency within a much broader land-redistribution process which does not recognise rights to land, but rather forces communities in need of land to enter into a market-driven land-reform process.

This distinction is crucial. The proposed Restitution Bill recognises claimants who have lost a right to land because of a discriminatory law. Communities which fall within the ambit of the Bill will be granted land or just compensation without cost by the Land Claims Court; for those which fall outside the Bill’s ambit, a broader land-redistribution process involving purchase of land through the market will apply.

Though communities attempting to buy land will be assisted by various government grant schemes, the cost involved will place land ownership beyond the reach of many.

The labour-tenancy system has been in existence for so long that most tenant communities have come to consider the portion of farm land they use as their own. Birthright, historical occupation and use, and years of maintaining and working this land have all contributed to the notion of the right of tenants to the land.

But tenant communities are now losing this right as a result of evictions by white farmers. The farmers are themselves exercising a right afforded them by legislation developed out of apartheid policy: they are using the Trespass Act and the Prevention of Illegal Squatting Act to evict tenant communities from land they have occupied for generations.

The government’s failure to address this situation stems not only from a lack of policy in regard to the tenants’ status, but also from a lack of political will to confront white farmers. Traditionally the white farming sector has been an enormously powerful political lobby and the new government appears to want to avoid challenging the power wielded by this sector.

But government inertia on these issues could prove disastrous. It is not inconceivable that angry tenant communities will take their battle for land on to the farms themselves, as they have already indicated they will do. And if this happens, the ANC-dominated government may well end up defending white farmers’ rights against those of its own constituency — the stated beneficiaries of the ANC’s land-reform proposals.

Labour tenants are, and have always been, the nucleus of the country’s small black farming sector. It is this sector that the land-reform process is claiming to promote. To ignore it would not only frustrate the aims of a just land- reform process, but would increase the potential for violence and conflict in areas where tenant communities exist.

Addressing the situation requires recognition of the labour tenants’ right to land, and the urgent and effective application of a just land-reform process built on the notion of this right.

* Dave Husy is director of the Farmwork-ers’ Research and Resource Project, an affiliate of the National Land Committee

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