/ 10 August 2005

Voices from the land

Poverty presents several faces. There is the face puckered by financial hardship — contorted and reconfigured, life’s stress-fractures — and the face reflecting not so much despair but a loss of hope. This is the face of many women farm workers on the bountiful wine estates of the Western Cape. Their poverty is reflected in their stooped shoulders and carbuncled hands. It is evident in the sub-human hovels many of them inhabit. But most of all, it is in their eyes, from which dreams of a better life departed long ago.

The landscape, simulated to resemble a little piece of Provence, presents a vignette of prosperity and privilege — an idyll of olive groves, vineyards, wheat fields and manicured mansions. The horrifying working and living conditions of the farm workers on some of the most-esteemed estates are hidden like sores under the skin. Only when scratched, do they rupture.

We encountered workers who had been born on the farms, had worked the same land for 20 to 40 years, 12 hours a day, six days a week. We met women who had nursed the farm bosses, women who are paid no more than R40 a day. They are fortunate enough to be classified as full-time labourers. Casual or piece workers are often paid a mere R1,50 a crate of grapes. It takes an able-bodied labourer at least 45 minutes to fill a crate. It doesn’t take an economics professor to do the calculation and come up with the answer.

If these workers were living in inner-city slums, their homes would be condemned. Damp, dank and pest-infested, they are unfit for human habitation. Yet entire families are squashed into them. Ten percent of their wages are deducted for rent.

And there they remain for generations, paralysed by a lack of education, dependent on the largesse of the baas for their shelter and survival, the threat of eviction and unemployment omnipresent.

Because of these fears, they endure the indignity of no water, electricity, refuse removal or adequate ablution facilities. The abuses still inflicted on farm workers, particularly women, such as assault, extortion and blackmail, seem to crawl from the most depraved corners of our iniquitous past rather than from a country hailed as a democratic role model worldwide. Government officials are aware of these human-rights violations but rather than ruffle the feathers of a lucrative export industry, some prefer to pretend they do not exist.

Of course, these conditions are neither endemic nor exclusive to South Africa’s farming sector. In February 2005 the Washington Post exposed the horrifying abuses inflicted on farm workers in the prosperous state of Florida. The Immokalee area, about 60km inland from the Gulf of Mexico in southwest Florida, produces the largest supply of fresh tomatoes for the nation’s supermarkets, and for some of the biggest fast-food chains in the world. But the farm workers are still dirt poor. They still work long days, with no overtime, no benefits and no job security, seven days a week. They are crammed into hovels or derelict trailers. Since 2001, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has launched boycott campaigns against products derived from the Immokalee area, and have conducted undercover investigations, which recently resulted in the conviction of three Florida-based farm bosses of slavery.

Reporter Evelyn Nieves, quoting Lucas Benitez, a farm activist and the coalition founder, described the conditions endured by the Immokalee farm workers as “the shame of this country”.

In recent years, South Africa has succeeded admirably in transcending its legacy of shame. Significant strides towards improving conditions on farms have been achieved predominantly by labour legislation and intrepid initiatives on the part of NGOs.

But, while South Africa’s infamous dop system — whereby wine farmers pay their workers with alcohol — has largely been eradicated, many farms still supply wine to workers on credit, perpetuating an ethos of abuse. So the legacy of the dop system lives on — dissipated family relationships, domestic abuse, chronic health problems, HIV/Aids and foetal alcohol syndrome, not to mention other congenital abnormalities.

But this is not just a document of poverty. It is also a journal of empowerment, of farms that serve as models of equitable employment, where workers begin their gruelling day with a sense of hope and pride. There are many farmers who treat those who work their land as valued stakeholders in an industry largely dependent on cheap and plentiful labour for its survival. The wine estates of Bouwland and Beyerskloof — to mention but two — have pioneered shareholding initiatives aimed at providing workers with a tangible stake in the industry. The slogan of the Fair Valley wine label, “the hands that work the soil feed the soul”, encapsulates the spirit of worker-owned and driven initiatives.

Women’s empowerment, in particular, has been bolstered by initiatives such as that at Old Vines Cellars, South Africa’s only women-owned and controlled empowerment winery. Old Vines has created jobs for women from historically disadvantaged backgrounds, with the 24-strong team made up (with one exception) of women — doing everything from picking to winemaking, bottling and labelling.

Furthermore, NGO initiatives, such as the Women on Farms Project (WFP), have made extraordinary strides in instilling a culture of human rights among workers and employers alike. Based in Stellenbosch, the WFP works with women farm labourers in the Overberg, Boland and Witzenberg regions and is active in the wine and deciduous fruit industries.

It aims to improve their living and working conditions, and to achieve gender equality in the workplace, the home and the farming community in accordance with the government’s land reform programme. This is based on the belief that agrarian reform is critical for job creation, poverty eradication and economic growth in the farming areas.

Since the WFP’s inception in 2000, considerable progress has been made, but it still lags behind the daily hardship endured by most farm labourers. The global changes in agri-business contribute to the ever-increasing vulnerability of farm workers, particularly women. They are still the most marginalised, exploited group of the labour force, and the harvest they reap remains bitter.

This is an edited extract from Jurgen Schadeberg’s book and exhibition “Voices from the Land”, which was sponsored by Atlantic Philanthropies, a human rights funding organisation. The exhibition opens on August 7 at Museum Africa, 121 Bree Street, Newtown. The book will be available from October 26. For more information visit www.jurgenschadeberg.com

Rachel Paulse

“Ek sal binnekort sterf. Ek weet dit, en daar’s niks wat ek daaroor kan doen nie [I am going to die soon. I know this, and there’s nothing I can do about it].”

Rachel Paulse sobs, heaving racking sounds that seem to emanate from a much bigger source than her bird-like frame. She has just returned from a clinic where she was told she was having a stroke. She is completely numb down her left side, her speech is slurred, one of her hands shakes uncontrollably. But no work, no pay — and, possibly, no place to stay.

Paulse has lived and worked on the La Provence wine estate with her family for the past five years. She works a 12-hour day for which she earns R120 a week. The five-member family shares a one-roomed hovel. In summer, the house is a furnace; in winter, a frost trap. There is a single water tap outside and there is no electricity and no ablution facilities.

La Provence is one of the oldest wine estates in the Franschhoek Valley and is widely regarded as the bucolic town’s poster-girl of taste, productivity and privilege. But the worldwide successes of some of Franschhoek’s 21 wine farms have been cultivated on the backs of workers like Paulse and her family.

Evelyn Ockers

Evelyn Ockers, for much of her life, has had an intimate relationship with hardship. Her most vivid recollection of a childhood Christmas was the one when her father returned home blind drunk and attacked her mother with a pickaxe.

Ockers (48) was forced to leave school in grade three, and was working by the age of 11. She fell pregnant at 14. Her child died 10 months later. Married since 1977, she has also been abused by her husband. And she doesn’t remember a time when she didn’t work.

Yet her story is an inspiring tale of courage and compassion in the face of often indomitable odds.

“My ma, nou sy het verskriklik swaar gekry [My mother, she had an exceptionally difficult life]. But she taught us right from wrong.”

It was Ockers’s obvious intelligence and charisma that attracted the attention of the Women on Farms Project (WFP). Stricken with asthma after long-term exposure to vineyard pesticides and unable to work full-time, She was approached to assist in setting up a farm workers’ trade union in 1996.

Today the movement, Sikhula Sonke, has made enormous strides in educating women farm workers on their rights, challenging evictions, and promoting land and agrarian reform. She also works closely with social workers to educate workers on the devastating consequences of alcohol abuse.

“Every day we deal with these problems, not to mention the general abuses inflicted on workers … But the biggest challenges facing the WFP are evictions, unfair dismissals and intimidation.”

Challenges entail confronting recalcitrant farmers, intervening on behalf of frightened workers, empowering them and assisting them in bringing complaints before the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration.

Ockers lives on the Uitkyk wine estate just outside Stellenbosch where, she says, she is treated extremely well by the farm owner. “I have learned that, just as one cannot stereotype women as passive victims, one also cannot label all farm owners as cruel and reactionary.”

Francis Davis

Francis Davis, with her gamine beauty, catwalk grace and gentle demeanour, seems out of place in her gnarled environment.

The 14-year-old-lives with her parents in one of the worker cottages framing the La Provence wine estate. Shy, but articulate, she exudes both timidity and remarkable self-containment. One senses an inner, secret, little girl’s world that differs markedly from the one in which she lives. She averts her gaze at the mention of boyfriends, movies, fashion and teenage fantasies. Her response is more guarded than coy.

But when she talks about her career ambitions, she becomes animated, exuberant even. She wants to be a police officer — to protect her parents, her friends, and the community. Farm work, nah! She has bigger plans …

A grade seven pupil, Francis has not attended school since the end of 2004. During her last term, her mother took her out of school to visit relatives in Paarl. Her teachers didn’t want her to go, but her mother said she needed her.

The annual school fees of R350 were also straining her parents’ paltry pockets.

She misses school terribly. Her favourite subjects include Afrikaans, English and history.

According to the Women on Farms Project, both the education and social development departments have been contacted about Francis’s situation. Apparently there’s not much that can be done. But if she does not return to school, she faces a future much like that of her parents. Without proper education, hers will be a future of unrelenting labour — as wife, mother and farm worker.

Her mother doesn’t like Francis talking to me, especially in English. She hovers throughout the cursory interview conducted in Francis’s “bedroom” — a corner of a bleak room. “Wat het jy oor my vertel? [What did you tell them about me?]” is the frequent demand of her mother, to which Francis replies, tremulously: “Niks, mammie, niks. [Nothing, ma, nothing.]”