- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 14, 2007

STELLENBOSCH, South Africa

The bucolic valleys that produce South Africa’s best wines are also producing tension as white farmers are accused of forcing black workers from their homes.

Agriculture Minister Lulu Xingwana also charges farmers with abusing and intimidating workers. Incensed landowners say Miss Xingwana’s charges are exaggerated and risk stoking violence on farms and complicating the delicate path toward land reform.

The problems are not confined to the rolling vineyards and fruit farms of the Western Cape, but are also evident in the vast game and cereal farms elsewhere in the country.

“For a long time, the issue of evictions and violations of workers’ rights has not been on the agenda,” Miss Xingwana said in an interview.

“We must come up with a strategy to stop the evictions” that she said are taking place “every day in every corner of our country.”

A 2005 survey estimated that from 1994 to 2004, some 942,303 persons were evicted from their homes on farms, which are often part of their employment package, compared to 737,114 the previous decade. About 2.9 million people worked on farms and 950,000 lived on them, it estimated.

Unlike neighboring Zimbabwe, where white owners have been forced off the land by the government, in South Africa it is usually poor, illiterate blacks who are pushed away.

Martha Jonga, 62, worked for 40 years on a grape farm in De Doorns, a village about 75 miles from Cape Town. She said in January that she was given a week’s notice to quit the three-room cottage she shared with her two grandchildren and move to a damp one-room shack near a dam.

“I feel very bad because I want to stay in my own home,” she told a meeting of rural women attended by Miss Xingwana on a wine estate near Stellenbosch.

Annelize Crosby, parliamentary liaison officer with AgriSA, the main commercial farmers union, said people like Mrs. Jonga are entitled to stay in their homes as long-term occupiers. She said AgriSA tells all of its members to abide by the law.

Housing the aged costly

But farmers reply that, in a world of cutthroat competition, the cost of housing retired or sick workers is often prohibitive.

The Confederation of South African Trade Unions ascribes many of the evictions to the trend of turning farms into golf estates, safari lodges and tourist accommodations in preparation for the 2010 World Cup.

“Ruthless, apartheid-era employers treat [farmworkers] little better than slaves, exploiting their labor for poverty wages and then throwing them out of their homes when they make demands for basic rights and a living wage,” said labor union spokesman Patrick Craven.

White farmers still own an estimated 80 percent of South Africa’s farmland, down from 87 percent in 1994. Most analysts agree that the government will have an uphill struggle to achieve its target for black and mixed-race communities to own 30 percent of agricultural land by 2014.

The labor union has welcomed Miss Xingwana’s promise to tackle abuses.

But Miss Crosby said AgriSA was upset about Miss Xingwana’s “vague and unsubstantiated allegations.”

“We feel the allegations are causing friction and giving farmers a bad name, which is unwarranted,” Miss Crosby said.

AgriSA leaders and black farmers met with the minister this month to smooth over their differences. Farmers said their “unsatisfactory relationship” was inflicting great damage on the sector.

Miss Xingwana told them that she had never intended to accuse all farmers, and believes the “majority of the agricultural sector adhere to good farming practices,” a statement said.

“However, the minister reiterated that there are still human-rights abuses at the farms,” and it is her duty to speak out about them, it said.

Miss Xingwana reeled off examples she believes illustrate the mind-set of farmers: The farmer who escaped with a fine and suspended sentence for fatally shooting an 11 year-old-boy he claimed he mistook for a rabid dog; a farmer who shot a worker and said he thought it was a baboon; and the notorious case of a farmer who threw a former laborer alive into a lion-breeding enclosure.

Minister ‘outspoken’

“I cannot apologize for the truth,” said Miss Xingwana, who took over the land-affairs portfolio last year. Earlier, she had earned a reputation for outspokenness at the minerals and energy department when she criticized “lily-white” mining companies.

Farmers point out that they, too, are victims of violence.

Since 1991, there have been more than 9,600 attacks against farmers, including 1,560 killings, according to statistics collected by AgriSA. South Africa has one of the highest homicide rates in the world — about 50 people killed per day — and farmers say they feel particularly vulnerable because they often live in isolated areas.

The tension over land may be adding to their insecurity.

Kenneth Eva, a manager on a fruit farm in KwaZulu-Natal, was bludgeoned to death last month as he delivered an ultimatum to 250 black “squatters” to leave the land. They had refused, saying it did not rightfully belong to the white owner.

Another farm manager, Desmond Sterley, was found dead with a single bullet in the back of his head Feb. 5 on a stud farm near Worcester, 75 miles from Cape Town.

The labor union confederation says such incidents are understandable, given the daily humiliation inflicted on farm laborers and the snail’s pace of land reform.

In the Western Cape, it has taken 10 years to redistribute 210,035 acres of land, according to Fatima Shabodien of the Women on Farms Program, which lobbies on behalf of the rural poor. To meet the 30 percent target, authorities will have to increase this to 123,550 acres per year, she said.

Mrs. Shabodien and other activists say that if farmers are not prepared to compromise, they risk popular pressure for land grabs similar to those in neighboring Zimbabwe.

“Black South Africans have been too humble in the past,” she said. “Farmers don’t seem to realize that they are painting themselves in a corner. They are not giving farmworkers options.”

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