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A brutal harvest – violence against farmworkers

Learn and Teach reviews a shocking report about the way farmers treat their workers….

For thirty years, Mr Jacob Maseko and his family have lived on a farm owned by a Mr Simon in Eerstelingsfontein, Belfast, as farmworkers. Mr Maseko suffers from heart disease and has to go to Pretoria for treatment. Mr Smith told Mr Maseko he was being “cheeky” and beat him — even though he knew about Mr Maseko’s heart problem.

Afterwards Mr Maseko made a statement that reads: “Mr Smith grabbed me by the throat and forcibly choked me and also hit me with a tight clenched fist all over my face, chest and neck. And he then pushed me against the wall several times.” After Mr Smith brutally assaulted the farmworker, he gave him a “trekpass” (eviction notice) which said that he must leave the farm within 10 days.

This shocking story is one of hundreds that tell of white farmers’ cruelty towards the people who work for them. Recently, Ms Lauren Segal, who works for Wits University’s Project for the Study of Violence, wrote a report about the violence against farmworkers.

The report is called: “Brutal Harvest: The roots and legitimisation of violence on farms in South Africa.”

Although the report is only about violence on farms in the South Eastern Transvaal, Ms Segal says that the same kind of violence is taking place on farms all over the country. But the worst cases are found in the South Eastern Transvaal.


The report begins by saying that violence takes many forms. It is more than just beatings. Making farmworkers work in dangerous situations is an act of violence, and so is evicting people from the land. Forcing people to work very long hours with too little food is an act of violence.

So is neglecting the houses that the farmworkers live in. One farmer Ms Segal spoke to said that the houses farmworkers live in on his farm were not his business. He said: “The farmworkers like to live in these conditions. They are happy. To you and me they are shocking. This is absolute filth as far as you and I are concerned.”

Violence also means low wages. In 1986 the earnings of farmworkers throughout South Africa was R103 per month. On some farms, workers are paid as little as R5 a month.

The violence that is carried out by farmers is not only directed against the farmworkers, but their families too — including children. Children of farmworker families are forced to work without considering their age or their schooling calendar.

In one case, a twelve year-old girl was badly bitten by a farmer’s dog and could not work. The farmer threatened to evict the family from the farm, because he said the little girl was the only useful member of the family and the others were of no use.


The report blames the government for much of the bad situation on the farms and for the way the six and a half million black people who live on white farms are treated. The farmers have always been South Africa’s “golden boys”. They get special treatment and support from the government.

Almost all the laws made are to protect the farmers, not the workers. For example, the government made a law in 1980 abolishing the system of labour tenancy. Under the system of labour tenancy, farmworkers were able to grow crops and keep cattle in return for working on the farm for part of the year.

This system didn’t suit the government or the white farmers, because they wanted “full-time servants and not part- time farmers”. The government said that instead, the farmworkers should be given wages. But many farmworkers are only paid R10 to R30 a month — and have less or no land to farm.

The report also attacks the government for turning a blind eye to the bad conditions that farmworkers live in. There are only a few laws about housing, food rations and medical care — but these are not respected. Farms are supposed to be inspected, but a report written in 1980 showed that not one farm was inspected.

Farmworkers are not covered by laws such as the Labour Relations Act, the Unemployment Insurance Act or the Factories Act. There is no law that allows them to take public holidays or sick leave or even annual leave pay. There is no law to say how many hours a farmworker can work, or anything about overtime pay. There is also no minimum age for farmworkers, so often young children are made to work. In short, farmworkers have very few rights.

On the other hand, the law is very good to the farmers. The fact that there are so few laws protecting farmworkers means that the farmers can do nearly anything they like. There are also laws that favour the farmers. For example, there are many laws that allow the farmer to evict the worker without having to go to court.

By making all these laws that favour the farmer, the governments — past and present — have made sure that there will always be black people to work for white farmers, and that there will be no black farmers to compete with them.


The report also says that the courts are to blame for violence against farmworkers. Ms Anika Classens, a para-legal who worked in the South Eastern Transvaal for eight years, described what happens in the courts. She said that nearly all the farmworkers who appear in court do not have lawyers. Often, the court proceedings are not translated properly for the farmworker. And she adds this frightening piece of information: “I have seen the magistrate refuse to accept pleas of “not guilty”, and repeatedly shout at, or question the accused until he or she gives in.”

She says that in the time she stayed in the region, eight cases of blacks being killed by whites were reported. Half of the people were killed by the police. White farmers who are found guilty of murder do not go to jail for even one day, but black people spend months in prison awaiting trial for charges that are not serious.

Classens believes that if whites were arrested and sent to jail for the violence they carry out against blacks, they would stop attacking them.


The police also protect the farmers. The report gives this example: a farmworker was suspected of stealing a farmer’s sheep. The farmer asked the police to arrest him. It is said that the farmworker was badly tortured while he was in detention. The police wanted to force him to say in writing that he stole the farmer’s sheep. But the farmworker refused to say he was guilty. The court postponed his case a number of times because they did not have enough evidence.

Some weeks after the arrest, the arrested farmworker had to be carried into the courtroom in a blanket, because he had been so badly tortured. It was only this time that the magistrate dismissed the charge because of lack of evidence. The police dumped the farmworker wrapped in a blanket outside the court. A passer-by took pity on this stranger and took him to nurse. Two days later, the man died.

Criminal charges were laid against the police and they were found guilty of “assault”. The Legal Resource Centre (LRC) that represents ordinary people in legal matters, took up a civil case and sued the police for damages. After a long battle, the court gave the father of the dead man R1 200. The court said that the dead man’s father was old and dying, so he did not need much money.


The report then talks about the church, which has always been silent about the violence. By keeping quiet, the report says that the church is supporting the violence.

The farmers in the South Eastern Transvaal say they are “religious and church-going”. But what they do on Sunday is not what they do during the week. Sometimes, farmers use religion to defend what they do to their workers.

For example, a Mr Rabe — a farmer and a leader of his church congregation — beat up his worker, a Mr Xaba. The worker later died and Mr Rabe was charged.

One Sunday in church, Mr Rabe told his congregation his feelings: “I don’t feel guilty before my God that I have killed Mr Xaba. The trial has strengthened my belief. The doctors have told me that the liver of Xaba was so eaten up by alcohol that he would have died anyway in one or two years.”

Rev. Horst Muller, the Lutheran minister in Piet Retief, explained why the ministers don’t speak out about the violence. “The feeling in the community is very much one of ‘don’t bring politics into the church’. Things such as labour matters are defined as politics and if you bring them up in the church, you are likely to get a pressure group formed against you. It depends on whether you are prepared to face that or if you want to live in harmony with your community.”


The report then goes on to talk about the fear of the white farmers. It says that one of the reasons for the violence, is the fear that white land will be taken away and given to blacks.

For example, Mr Eugene Terreblanche, leader of the right-wing Afrikaanse Weerstandbeweging (AWB), said in a speech: “My ancestors paid in installments of blood for certain parts of the country. We bought land with blood and tears. We have a title deed on it… It cannot be the property of an Indian or a Tswana.”

On the other side, says the report, farmworkers and their families see themselves as the “permanent residents” of the farms. They see the farmers as “temporary residents”. They say of themselves: “We are not people who are visiting or people who are passing through. We were born right here on this farm and we belong here.”


The paper goes on to say that the main reason that farmers were committing acts of violence against their workers is that many farmworkers were not challenging the system. Instead of farmworkers organising themselves into trade unions, they just pack up and leave the farm.

One sad story is that of a farmworker called Mr Khumalo. His boss, Mr Heinrich, a farmer in Driefontein, mistakenly thought that Mr khumalo was pointing a finger at him. He walked up to Mr Khumalo and bent his finger back and broke it. Mr Khumalo lost the use of his finger. Mr Heinrich apologised, but never offered to pay for the medical expenses. In protest, Mr Khumalo packed his belongings and left the farm.

Organising farmworkers is not an easy task. The labour laws make it possible for workers to join a trade union, but impossible to register the union. This means that the union is not recognised by the farmer.

Another law that makes it difficult for trade unions to organise farmworkers is the Trespass Act. This law forbids farmworkers to meet on a farm where they are not employees. This means that farmworkers from different areas cannot hold a meeting on one farm.

Lastly, because farmworkers are labour tenants, if they join a trade union and they go on strike, the farmer has the right to dismiss them. The farmworker loses his job, his house and shelter for his whole family.

Farmers have always been against trade unions. In 1987, the Conservative Party MP, Mr S P van Vuuren, said that there was no place in farming for labour laws. “The farmers do not want trade unions and the labourers do not need them,” he said.

In spite of the problems of organising, unionists believe that it is the key to changing the situation. Mr Phil Masia, the General Secretary of the Municipal, State, Farmers and Allied Workers Union (MSFAWU), an independent union, says: “Once the farmers know that their workers are unionised, there are NOT high incidents of violence and farmers stop brutalising their workers. So organisation is .:. central to the problem of violence.”

The report ends with Phil Masia saying that it is not enough to point fingers at the farmers alone. We, all of us, are responsible. Every time we eat, we should think about where the food comes from and the conditions of the workers who make the food for us.

Finally, the report challenges the newspapers and television for not reporting about the lives of farmworkers. The more the media report about farmworkers, the faster things will change. And change they must!


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