Violence against women on farms and in farming towns, usually by their partners, is under-reported. Lester Kiewit talks to people who are trying to improve the lot of these women
For most of her adult life, Gertruida Baartman’s husband raped and assaulted and kept her captive by withholding money.
Baartman, who worked on farms in the Kouebokkeveld near Ceres, is just one of the countless women in farming areas who are repeatedly abused. Their stories are often unspoken — even by their immediate family and close friends. And their stories are unknown because media attention is trained on what happens in urban centres.
Baartman grew up in Touws River, along the N1 highway and about 200km from Cape Town. She met a man and moved to Ceres. She picked pears, apples and other fruit in season when farmers required her labour. “I met him when I was 25 years old. He presented himself so well. He was like an angel, and I thanked God for giving me such a decent man. We courted for eight months. I was married for three weeks and then the beatings started,” she says
“I tried to leave. I would reach the gate of the farm. And then I had to turn around and go back home. And no matter how my body hurt, I just had to satisfy him. Many times after he hit me he would then want to sleep with me.”
Baartman is unable to finish her sentence. Recounting this is difficult. She takes her time, negotiating with the tears that keep taking over for time to speak. “I thought I was over this, but it’s like a wound being reopened.”
Baartman says the violence did not stop at assault and rape. Far from home, and with three children, she was also held at financial ransom.
“What would I have done without him? He was the breadwinner, the permanent worker. I only worked seasonally. And where would I go? Who was going to take me and my three children?”
Baartman, who now works in farmworker unions and women’s upliftment programmes, bemoans the culture of silence when it comes to violence perpetrated against women on farms. She says women are made to believe it is simply their cross to bear.
“People don’t interfere in other people’s lives. Even the police. If you phone the police they would say this is a marital problem and the husband and the wife has to sort it out. There was never really help … even my own family. I once left and went back home and they said I chose a husband and I must live with it.”
Women are also trapped by landowners — it is not unusual for families to be evicted if women complain to the farmers about abuse by their husbands, further entrenching the silence around gender-based violence.
“If we were to go complain to the farm manager and say we’re being beaten, instead of dealing with the husband the farm would evict all of us. So at the end of the day, we are all out,” she says. “So what’s left to do other than to be obedient rather than complain.”
After a particularly vicious assault, Baartman approached the courts for an interdict and in 2017 she filed for divorce. She knew that sooner or later the violence could result in her death.
Although she has not been with her husband for the last 10 years she still lives in fear.
Baartman’s story is replicated in many farming areas.
Women are the prey, the punching bags, the slave-like labour of their male partners and relatives. Their employers and managers on farms also hold their power over them.
With few cases reported, credible statistics on the rate of gender-based violence in the Western Cape’s farming areas is scarce. The Western Cape overall saw a marginal decrease in the number of reported rapes in 2019 when compared with 2018 — from 4 744 cases to 4 649 cases.
Larger towns such as Malmesbury and Worcester have had a slight increase in reported rape cases, while farming towns like Ceres, Du Doorns and Grabouw have shown a minor decrease.
Because statistics are recorded as police precinct level, there’s no data of how many of the assaults took place on farms.
Gender activists say the police crime statistics are inaccurate, claiming that most of cases of domestic violence and rape go unreported.
“It often becomes a case of her word against his word. And so a lot of women don’t even go through with reporting cases,” says Wendy Pekeur, the project co-ordinator at the Ubuntu Rural Women and Youth Movement.
“There is also so much spousal rape. So many women tell me this happens to them. But they don’t come forward, they don’t report it, because they are taught to believe it must be like that,” says Pekeur. “It is up to us to tell them that that isn’t intimacy; that is rape.”
Rebecca Mort, the health and empowerment co-ordinator at Stellenbosch-based nongovernmental organisation (NGO), Women on Farms, says the odds are stacked against women when it comes to reporting acts of violence against them.
“There is difficulty in farm dwellers accessing police services, particularly in access to reporting when it comes to phones, airtime, and electricity. What we at Women on Farms often struggle with is that it’s very difficult for women because they live very far away from police stations and courts. There’s little public transport in rural areas,” Mort says.
“There’s an intense unwillingness for police to service farm dwellers and their security needs. So literally just to drive out to farms to get the police to act on interdict order violations is very difficult.”
Many women depend on their abusive partners for money and accommodation because men are more likely to be hired as farm hands than women.
“Women are reluctant to lay cases against their partner or whoever they are living with because they don’t have alternative accommodation. They are dependent on their male partner in their life, who is usually the permanent worker on the farm,” Mort says.
The Women on Farms programmes help to make women aware of their rights to safety and security, as well as their right to financial stability.
“If you were born on a farm, grew up there, you have no other place to go. There are real constrictions on women’s economic freedom and power and their access to resources that can enable them to live a life of freedom and safety,” Mort says.
The organisation is calling for greater employment stability in the agricultural sector so that social issues, such as domestic violence and substance abuse, can be better dealt with.
Farmers have been shifting towards mechanisation of farm operations and, together with the implementation of an agricultural sector minimum wage, are hiring fewer permanent workers and more seasonal temporary labourers.
This means people migrate every few months from their homes to farming areas, putting a strain on local resources such as housing, policing and social services.
“Workers are coming for a season and then leaving, so it’s a difficult situation to manage. In De Doorns, that police station is ill-equipped to deal with the Hex River Valley. And the FCS [Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences] unit is located in Worcester [30km away], and it must also service several other farming towns,” says Mort. “So, if a woman is raped in De Doorns, she must get to the local police station. They must call the FCS unit in Worcester [and] they must come out. If she wants to find out about what is happening with her cases she can’t go to De Doorns police, she is reverted to FCS in Worcester.
Silence: Incidents of domestic violence, including rape, are often not reported in farming towns like Ceres. (David Harrison/M&G)
“Now if you’re a seasonal worker, and you don’t have an income because the season hasn’t started, where are you meant to get this money to travel there? Many women end up withdrawing their cases or losing track.”
President Cyril Ramaphosa has promised a R1.1-billion emergency plan to bolster police resources, strengthen the criminal justice system, and provide support to victims of violence.
But activists such as Pekeur worry that these interventions may be concentrated in urban centres. “Farm women have a triple burden. You’re black, you’re a woman and you’re so far removed from the urban centres. Government, police, medical facilities — they’re all inaccessible.”
In the case of Baartman in the Kouebokkeveld, it cost her R100 to get a taxi to the nearest town, which was 70km away.
Pekeur adds: “The city people are well organised. There are lots of NGOs working in the cities. Grassroots women have formed organisations and advice offices in these rural communities. They’re taking up these cases. But they’re not in the mainstream, so they’re not noticed and they don’t get the funding they need.”
She says that, while interventions are needed to make girls and women on farms feel safe, programmes that focus on boys and men are needed too.
This would help to undo the legacy of apartheid, patriarchy and an agriculture labour system that valued the worth of men over that of women.
“Starting with the young farm boy will make a difference,” Pekeur says. “Even teaching the basics, like entering a girl’s space, is not allowed. So that boys will become aware of issues like harassment and how it is a problem,”
Hers is one of many, small actions in rural areas that are trying to change what is a national problem.
New strategy will supplement rural safety plan, says premier
Western Cape Premier Allan Winde says a new provincial anti-crime initiative dealing with violent crime in urban centres will have also positive outcomes for the safety of people in rural areas.
Last week, Winde announced a R1-billion a year plan involving 3 000 law enforcement officers, as well as detectives, to help the police build court-ready cases.
The plan will augment a rural safety plan that has been in place since June. Eventually, the rural safety committee will also be responsible for containing rural violence and crime, he said.
For now, the new officers will work in areas with the highest murder rates in the province. In the Western Cape, 50% of murders occur in only 10 of the 150 police precincts.
Winde said the ongoing Operation Lockdown, supported by the South African National Defence Force, to flush out gangs and guns in the Cape Town metro has had the unintentional effect of displacing gang and drug activity to rural parts of the province.
“With the military deployment and the police putting extra resources into the hotspots in Cape Town, we are seeing the drug dealing moving out to other rural areas,” he said. “If we can look at the rural areas where we can deploy these new recruits, we’re thinking of the Chicago region in the Drakenstein, and Avianpark in Worcester, as two hotspots.”
Winde said that dealing with gender-based violence must be coupled with strategies that deal with substance abuse and strengthening families. This is a plan that could take a generation to bear fruit.
“It’s not a simple root cause. It links to absentee fathers, it links to our history, it links to high youth unemployment rates, it is complex. So the plan is not just about policing, it is about our health MEC implementing a ‘first 1 000 days’ strategy for young children. It’s about social development. It’s about the education department having resources for developing young children.”
Winde said that, as the province’s first citizen, he feels personally responsible for residents’ safety, even though policing is a national competency.
“When you speak to a citizen who is feeling unsafe and you say to them: ‘Sorry but the province only has a policing oversight role, we can’t do anything’, they don’t accept that. They elected me as the premier of this province,” Winde said. “I take responsibility even though I don’t have the constitutional mandate. I would really like [provincial] control of the police. But while that [discussion] is going on, the people are dying. So I have to step into that gap, and I feel responsible through the ballot.”