Labour tenants want more than land back

‘This is not only about getting our land back. What about the many years I worked from the age of 13 as a domestic worker at the white farmers’ house, cleaning the house, looking after their children, doing their laundry, and working in their garden for six months every year, mostly without pay unless the white farmer was in a good mood, and he would pay me R10 at the end of six months?” said Mama K.

This question has been asked several times by former labour tenants, and most recently by a woman (who I will call Mama K) at the convening of former labour tenants by the Special Master who was appointed after the Constitutional Court ruling in August 2019, to oversee the processing of about 11 000 land claims that remain incomplete. 

Who are former labour tenants and on what basis are they claiming compensation? The origin of the labour tenancy system was a consequence of land dispossession and forced removals attributed to colonial conquest, capitalist development and law and the state. A labour tenant is a black person dispossessed of their land and to survive, they were forced to work for white farmers who had acquired the swindled land. 

This was done for six months a year with little or no pay, in return for the right to use a small portion of the land for their own purposes such as grazing, growing crops and residential usage. This system depended on the ability of heads of households (men) to commit the labour of their wives, daughters and sons to work in response to the demands of white (men) landowners. Hence Mama K was forced to provide free and cheap labour from the age of 13. 

Two years ago, I facilitated several focus group discussions with former labour tenant land claimants from the uMgungundlovu district in KwaZulu-Natal on their views on land expropriation without compensation

The former labour tenants argued that, as people who were forcibly dispossessed of land and continue to experience socioeconomic exclusion, they must get their land back and receive compensation for their material losses and suffering. 

They do not want a mere upgrade of tenure rights on the marginal land on which they live, they want significant portions of arable land from which they can derive livelihoods for themselves and future generations. 

As one former labour tenant land claimant put it: “As a young boy it was very painful to see my father cry as the white man confiscated about 30 of his cattle; we never saw those cattle again, in fact, if you need a cow for umsebenzi [a ceremony] today, you buy it from a white man.”

Some drew on their childhood memories and experiences to support their argument and others spoke of violations they continue to endure on farms because their land claims remain unresolved. 

“We can’t live like we are in prison. There are many South Africans who travel on the N3 over there, all they see are large farms with high fencing. They do not know these are actually prisons to us. We want our land back because we belong here and have every right to live freely, with our dogs, goats, cats or whoever we like,” said one person. 

They reject the idea of the state paying compensation to white farmers who are beneficiaries of their dispossession. The question from Mama  K about forced and unpaid labour invites us to unpack land dispossession from the perspective of former labour tenants so that we don’t lose sight of the depth and nature of the injustice, violation and dehumanisation they suffered under colonial and apartheid regimes. 

Today, the former labour tenants continue to live under similar inhumane conditions on white commercial farms under this democratic government. Their current concerns and historical experiences have featured minimally in debates about land redistribution and land expropriation without compensation. 

Instead, emphasis has been on whether the private farm owners should be compensated and on agricultural production, thus centring commercial farmers and silencing the questions of historical dispossession and redress.

Mama K’s insistence that we centre them in redress needs to be reckoned with by those making decisions about transformation through land redistribution. The former labour tenant land claimants are not asking for favours from the government; they are asking for justice. 

Sithandiwe Yeni is a PhD candidate in the SARChI Chair in Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape. This article is an edited version of a chapter in the book Land in South Africa; Contested Meanings and Nation Formation, published by the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection

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Sithandiwe Yeni
Sithandiwe Yeni is a PhD candidate in the SARChI Chair in Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape.

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