/ 22 November 2013

Big business versus local food supply

Farmers such as Siga Govender face an ­uncertain future as plans
Farmers such as Siga Govender face an ­uncertain future as plans

'The land means the world to me in the sense that I'm here six days a week from 7am till 5pm and when I get home it's only my farm that I think of and nothing else. So it's my livelihood and I would like to remain on the land."

Siga Govender works on the fertile land next to the old Durban airport, located south of the city.

He may have worked in the area for 36 years and on this 14-hectare ground for 25 of those, but he is one of 16 farmers who face eviction to make way for a R100-billion dig-out port.

His grandparents arrived from India as indentured labourers in the 19th century and began farming shortly after their entry into South Africa, passing their love of farming on to their children and grandchildren.

Together with his wife, Siga grows vegetables such as spinach, cabbage, lettuce and beetroot, herbs such as mint, thyme and dhania (coriander) and flowers such as marigolds.

His son and daughters have always worked on the farm, transporting the produce to the local morning markets in the city and surrounding areas, and working on the land to plant and harvest the crops.

<strong>Industrial expansion</strong>
Although they are studying and pursuing other careers at the moment, he hopes that his children will take over the land once he has grown too old to continue farming.

He and his family are part of a community of farmers who work on the 16 farms in the area.

Despite the continuous onslaught of industrial expansion that makes South Durban a renowned pollution hot spot, the basin is home to more than 200 000 people, whom the farmers feed with their fresh, cheap produce.

In April 2012, Transnet and the Airports Company of South Africa (Acsa) agreed to a R1.8-billion deal to buy the old Durban International Airport area.

This allowed them to begin a three-pronged development, which includes a dig-out port, an enlargement of the existing port through a back-of-port expansion and the creation of a link road from the Bluff, cutting through the communities of Clairwood, Austerville and Merebank to connect the port with national road networks.

The land was registered in Transnet's name on October 1 2012.

Marc Descoins, programme director of the dig-out port at Transnet, confirmed that part of the land that will be used for the construction of the port is where the airport tenant farmers are located.

"We expect to begin construction in 2016, at which point the farmers will have to have vacated that land," says Descoins.

<strong>Proactive consultative engagement</strong>
He adds that the issue of relocation will be addressed through "proactive consultative engagement".

"Transnet has taken the first step and reached out to both the farmers and their representatives. [I]n the interim [it has] indicated that it is willing to enter into three-year contracts with the farmers, who currently operate on a month-to-month basis," he says.

"The environmental impact assessment will commence in early 2014, where stakeholders will have more opportunities to [make] input into the process."

The threat of displacement is not new to Siga. He was previously moved from land that was also part of the old airport, but was sold to Sasol Fibres and has subsequently become the site of a warehouse for the Jet clothing company.

Kista Govender has been Siga Govender's neighbour on the airport land from the beginning. His parents were farmers from Springfield in Durban and were moved to the airport land during the industrialisation of the area.

The contracts the farmers work under state that they can be evicted with 30 days' notice.

<strong>Stable income</strong>
These contracts were granted to them by the then House of Delegates (the chamber that ostensibly represented the Indian community during the apartheid-era tricameral Parliament) in the 1980s. They were subsequently taken over by Acsa and have since been transferred to Transnet.

For Kista, displacement would mean the loss of a sustainable livelihood and a stable income.

"I got used to working and so I can't stay at home. I rely on the farm. If I don't work here, I can't do another job. I'm not collecting an old-age grant; I work for my living," he says.

In 2005, when Acsa sent out its development plans, the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance joined the Airport Farmers Association – with Siga as their chairperson – to keep the land for the purpose of farming rather than for the expansion of industry.

Soon after, other plans for displacement were proposed by the eThekwini Municipality in conjunction with Checkers, Toyota, Transnet and other surrounding industries and businesses.

The farmers won that battle and remained on the land.

However, last year, the proposal for the R100-billion dig-out port was confirmed in both President Jacob Zuma's State of the Nation address and the budget speech by Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.

<strong>Cultural identity</strong>
The land is not simply soil and plants to the farmers, but is closely tied to their sense of heritage and cultural identity.

Like Siga, most of the farmers have had land in the South Durban area passed down to them from their forebears who made the journey from India to South Africa as indentured labourers in the 1860s.

In comparison, big industry arrived in the area in the 1930s and intensified operations from the 1950s.

People of Indian origin were allowed to work the land south of Durban because under colonial rule they were barred from doing so north of the Umbilo River, closer to the city. Finally, the farmers settled on the old airport land in the late 1980s.

They were welcomed by the surrounding communities, but residents have mostly been hostile to industries such as Engen, Sapref (a joint venture between Shell SA Refining and BP Southern Africa) and packaging and paper group Mondi.

The farmers say they are part of the lifeblood of the South Durban community as they support not only informal and local markets such as the Bangladesh Market, but also chain supermarkets such as Shoprite-Checkers and OK.

"We supply food that is fresh, number one, and cheap in the sense that we are close to the markets. And if we don't supply to the thousands of people who buy from us, they will be deprived of their daily food," says Siga.

<strong>Neoliberal economic policy</strong>
Savy (or Sally as she is known by the rest of the farmers) Govender has been farming with her husband since 1989, providing for her family, the labourers on her farm and the community.

She speaks of "the one house, one garden" strategy proposed by KwaZulu-Natal Premier Zweli Mkhize in 2009, and how this is being contradicted by the construction of the dig-out port and the displacement of the farmers.

"I think they [the government and Acsa] are very unfair, because you hear on the TV every day the government wants everyone to do subsistence farming. They're encouraging people to grow their own food.

"Because how many people are actually farming these days? We would love to be here a long time, but the government is being unfair to us; to them we are nobody," says Savy.

The government's neoliberal economic policy was heightened with the introduction of the macroeconomic Growth, Employment and Redistribution programme in 1996.

The consequent promotion of privatisation, a decrease in trade and industrial regulations and minimal state involvement in these sectors have left much of the South African population vulnerable to environmental and social injustice.

But Descoins maintains that the proposed dig-out port is "a very positive initiative for the region".

<strong>Constructive engagement</strong>
"The challenge for all of us is to ensure that it is a sustainable development that benefits all, and encourage constructive engagement around any such issues, as well as dialogue and dissemination of information that is based on accurate and factual information."

Meanwhile, Siga and his fellow farmers will continue to fight to maintain the life they desire.

"Here we are, 16 farmers who are established and have for 25 years been farming in the area. Instead of assisting us, they want to get rid of us and get us off the land," he says.

"I don't know if that is on their mind, but if it is, then that is sad. I feel positive that we will stop them in the sense that we will get public support in the matter, because it's something that they need and something we supply on a daily basis."

Megan Lewis is the media and ­communications officer at groundWork, a nonprofit organisation that works with communities around the country on issues of environmental justice