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South Africa

Op-Ed: The farm labour question – Fifty-fifty shades of obfuscation

Op-Ed: The farm labour question – Fifty-fifty shades of obfuscation

Government is pushing ahead with the policy on ‘strengthening the relative rights of people working the land’, an idea that has been caught in the wave of the SONA furore. Here’s a little more on the (troubling) political context. By ANDRIES DU TOIT.

Media attention on the content of the 2015 State of the Nation address has focused (among other things) on the announcement that government will push ahead with the controversial “fifty-fifty” policy on strengthening the rights of farm workers.

This policy proposes that those who have worked and lived on a farm for ten years or more should by law get a proportional share in the ‘land’ or ‘equity’ on the farm.

This has not been one of the South African government’s most well received or popular proposals. In fact, when it was initially announced it was met with consternation, and condemned by a wide range of stakeholders. Commentators pointed out that it was badly drafted, probably unconstitutional, difficult to implement, and unlikely to benefit farm workers in any case.

Even organisations representing farm workers or speaking for their interests did not support it. At the South African Land Tenure Summit, a consultative conference organised by the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform in September 2014, the draft policy was rejected out of hand by two separate commissions, and the Department was told to go back to the drawing board.

But in spite of these objections, government appeared determined to implement it. At the Summit, the minister refused to accept commissions’ negative feedback and told them to go back to work, revising their recommendations to engage more seriously with the detail of the proposal. And in his State of the Nation Speech on Thursday, President Zuma announced that the ‘fifty-fifty policy’ would be piloted on 50 farming enterprises in the coming year.

Why is this happening? Why are the president, the party, and the Department continuing to push a policy that has been roundly rejected by experts, opposed by key stakeholders in the agricultural sector, and which does not even seem to be supported by the farm workers it is supposedly intended to benefit?

For an answer, it is necessary to look further afield. The rationale for the policy does not lie in its supposed benefits for those who work the land. Rather, it lies in the political theatre currently unfolding in South Africa as a whole, and the government’s need to appear to outflank its critics on the left. In this political theatre, the government’s failed land reform policy is a sore and vulnerable point.

The problem is that ‘the land question’, as it is commonly known, is not simply a problem with its roots in the distant, Apartheid past. It is a current and ramifying issue. Agrarian livelihoods are shrinking and disappearing – not only for farm workers, but for small and subsistence farmers in the former homelands and elsewhere. For decades now, poor and marginalised people have been leaving land-based livelihoods, often ending up in peri-urban shantytowns, rural slums and poverty traps. The end of Apartheid did not reverse this process of jobless de-agrarianisation: in fact, it has continued and even accelerated over the last 20 years. What is driving it is not the laws and policies of the past, but the brutal realities of economic life in our present-day food system. The deregulation of agriculture and the growing power of processors, retailers and agribusiness bring about harsh conditions for farmers and producers. New farm labour and tenure legislation increase the pressure even further. The name of the game in primary production is ‘get big or get out’ and to push down costs as far as possible; and often the path of least resistance is to pass on costs and risks to employees.

Farm workers and the rural poor have been the chief victims. Reliable statistics are hard to come by, but the trends are clear: the most rigorous report on farm evictions, done 10 years ago by the Nkuzi Development Association, estimates that 2.3 million people were displaced from farms between 1994 and 2005 – far more than gained access to land through land reform programmes. (1) The majority of those who ‘work the land’ are now in reality no longer farm dwellers. They are seasonal workers and the employees of contractors and labour brokers, living in a wide variety of formal and informal housing: some in RDP settlements, but many in shantytowns and shack settlements on the outskirts of rural towns and under the authority of traditional leaders. And they are the ones who still have work. Most of those who leave the farms and the former homelands end up un- or under-employed, eking out a living in the informal sector or subsisting on social grants.

This is a development with far-reaching effects. To mention just one example, the growth of informal settlements without sanitation is one of the factors contributing to the deteriorating quality of water in South African river systems. In some horticulture-producing areas concentrations of faecal micro-organisms are thousands of times higher than the standards set by the WHO and our Department of Water Affairs; a development with severe implications for the local and international trading status of South African producers. (2) This is a problem for the broader population and a grave threat to the horticultural industry that depends on these rivers. But the most severe burden of jobless de-agrarianisation falls on the marginalised and vulnerable poor themselves, who have to survive under grim and often hopeless conditions.

This situation is clearly politically, economically and morally unsustainable.

But dealing with it will be challenging. It will require a rethink of the policies that shape our food system as a whole, and that determine who benefits, and who does not. It will require a coherent response, not only on farm workers’ rights, but on how to create rural economies that sustain the livelihoods of poor and marginalised people. Answers will not be easy to find, and will require political courage.

In this context, it is easy to see why the “fifty-fifty” policy is so attractive.

One thing is clear. It will not solve the problems faced by farm workers. In fact, it has very little chance of making any positive difference at all. The policy will only benefit workers who have rendered disciplined service on one farm for ten or more years; so the vast majority of farm workers (all those who live off farm, and most farm dwellers) will be excluded anyway. And the tiny minority who do conform to its requirements will get a paper entitlement that means very little in practice.

Farm owners, in contrast, stand to gain quite a lot. For many of them, cash-strapped and in need of a capital injection, the “fifty-fifty” policy could be a lifesaver. Government will be constitutionally bound to pay them compensation; and in return they will give very little away. This has been shown fairly unequivocally by the patchy track record of farm equity share schemes which, with one or two notable exceptions, have not resulted in any real empowerment for farm workers.

But the main beneficiary will be the government itself. Because the biggest advantage of the policy is that it obfuscates the issue. It directs attention away from the real humanitarian, developmental and economic disaster of jobless de-agrarianisation. It directs millions of Rands of taxpayers’ money towards an ineffectual charade and cosmetic, symbolic change. It avoids the danger and the risk of making difficult policy choices. It allows land-owners to line their pockets.

But best of all, it does all this while allowing the ANC to look more radical, and to silence its critics on the left. What’s not to like? DM

Photo: Protesters occupy South Africa’s national highway the N1 and advance on police throwing rocks during protests in De Doorns, South Africa, 10 January 2013. EPA/NIC BOTHMA


  1. Wegerif, M., B. Russell and I. Grundling, (2005). Still Searching for Security: The Reality of Farm Dweller Evictions in South Africa. Polokwane North and Johannesburg: Nkuzi Development Association and Social Surveys.
  2. Britz, TJ and Sigge, GO (2012) Quantitative Investigation into the Link Between Irrigation Water Quality and Food Safety: Volume I. Research Report, South African Water Commission.
Andries du Toit is the Director of the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies

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