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 Thursday 04 October 2007
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SOUTH AFRICA: Farms simmer over tenure rights

Photo: IRIN
Several million black South Africans live on farms owned by mostly white farmers
JOHANNESBURG, 21 September 2007 (IRIN) - Public hearings into human rights violations on South African farms this week have lifted the lid on simmering tensions between farmers and farm dwellers.

Millions of black South Africans live on farms owned by mostly white farmers, where evictions and other human rights abuses sometimes still take place, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) heard from Nkuzi, a land rights non-governmental organisation (NGO).

Agri-SA, the agricultural union representing farmers, said it had always condemned illegal evictions, but called for land tenure rights for farm dwellers outside the commerical farms.

"At the moment there is no separation between the living and working conditions of farm workers," said Lourie Bosman, president of Agri-SA. "Unlike other sectors of the economy, the responsibility of providing land and housing for the employees [farmworkers] has fallen on the employer [farmers], which is not fair. Besides, you have to respect the property rights of the farmer."

Complicating matters was the fact that there are about 740,000 farmworkers in South Africa and about four million farm dwellers who are not employed by the farmers, Bosman pointed out. In its submission the agricultural union also seemed to hint at a correlation between farm dwellers and increased farm attacks, which it said had shot up: more than 9,400 attacks on farms and 1,890 murders have been committed since 1991.

The farm dwellers, represented by Nkuzi's Teresa Yates, argued that they had a right to stay on the farms, "which, in many cases, was the only home their forefathers and they had ever known".

Last week, Deputy Agriculture and Land Affairs Minister Dirk du Toit warned farmers who evicted tenant workers illegally that their land would be expropriated, raising the temperature of an already heated situation.

According to Yates, almost one million black South Africans have been forced off "white farms" since 1994. About 48 percent of evictees now live in townships, mostly in the poorer sections; 30 percent are in informal settlements, and 14 percent have relocated to other rural areas. "There is currently no provision or planning for the proper accommodation of people from farms."

SAHRC chair Jody Kollapen noted that despite laws such as the Extension of Security of Tenure Act of 1997, which makes it a criminal offence for farmers to evict farm dwellers without legal representation, "these kinds of evictions still continue".


Nkuzi's Yates told IRIN, "The root cause of abuse and neglect is the unequal power relations between the farmers and farm dwellers; at the heart of poor working and living conditions on farms is dependency on farm owners."

A study conducted by Nkuzi found that over 40 percent of farm dwellers actually do not want to be on farms, due to lack of freedom, poor treatment by farmers, bad working conditions and the threat of further evictions, while 16 percent do not want to be on the farm due to lack of facilities such as schools. Just over 27 percent of evicted households would prefer to stay on a farm: "the life and work on farms is what they know".

But Agri-SA argued that the state and local government were "shifting its responsibility" to provide services to the rural communities. "Farmers have been supplying water, sewage, schools and even upkeep of roads," Bosman told IRIN. 
''The root cause of abuse and neglect is the unequal power relations between the farmers and farm dwellers; at the heart of poor working and living conditions on farms is dependency on farm owners''


Both parties agree that there has to be a separation of tenure and labour rights. "It would solve most of the problems: the farmworkers would be less exposed to the risk of exploitation [if they were living outside their work environment]," said Bosman.

Yates said their organisation was not opposed to the option of tenure rights outside the farms, "provided the areas farm dwellers are relocated to are sustainable settlements within commercial farming areas, and offer production opportunities".

She called for the creation of a new dispensation in farming areas that would include commercial farms, small farms and new settlements for farm dwellers.


The SAHRC's Kollapen said although the situation had improved since the last hearing in 2003, the absence of an effective implementation and monitoring strategy continued to adversely affect farm dwellers.

There had been an expansion of legal services being provided to farm workers and farm dwellers, increased capacity by the department of labour's inspectors to carry out inspections on farms, greater visibility of NGOs working with farming communities, and a reduction in crime and violence.

He said between 12,000 and 15,000 inspections on farms in the past three years, which had led to improved working conditions in 70 percent to 75 percent of cases, but there was a lack of confidence in the criminal justice system and distrust between the police and the farming community.

The department of land affairs, which also participated in the hearings, said it had a solution in the form of a land rights management facility, which aims to provide legal representation to farm dwellers, and also contains the option of mediation to reach a settlement before legal action was taken.

The SAHRC is expected to release its recommendations in the next two months.


Theme(s): (IRIN) Economy, (IRIN) Governance, (IRIN) Human Rights


[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
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This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States. Republication is subject to terms and conditions as set out in the IRIN copyright page.