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Dweller evictions, the heart of farm darkness

South Africa


Dweller evictions, the heart of farm darkness

Susan Smit, 52, is one of over 100 people who were evicted from Soetendal farm in 2015. Two years later they continue to live in substandard conditions where drugs are easy to come by, crime is relentless and unemployment levels are staggering. 23 May 2018. Photo: Leila Dougan

In 2015 Susan Smith, now 52, was evicted from a farm in Wellington on which she had lived for almost three decades. When she and others were dumped in an informal settlement called New Rest, their lives took a turn for the worse. As President Cyril Ramaphosa talks about land restitution without compensation, evicted farm dwellers who are forced to endure substandard living conditions in informal settlements continue to suffer the consequences of the past.

For the past three years Susan Smith has lived in a corrugated iron shack in one of the most impoverished areas in the Drakenstein Municipality where the average income is R14,000 per annum. Work is scarce, crime is rife and families fight the odds daily to eke out a living.

When it rains, water seeps through the iron and thin plastic sheeting and collects in large puddles under her bed, turning her floor to mud. Filthy communal toilets are around the corner, but she uses a bucket, especially after dark when it’s too dangerous to leave the house.

Smith was evicted from the Wellington district’s Soetendal farm on 11 December 2015 by the current owner, Alexander Werner Zybrands.

They threw us out like dogs, not people,” Smith told Daily Maverick in Afrikaans, during an interview in New Rest.

Twenty-three families were lawfully evicted from Soetendal farm under the Extension of Security of Tenure Act (Esta) after having provided their labour to the former owner, Dicky van Schalkwyk, for decades. Some employees had worked there for 35 years, others more.

Under Van Schalkwyk, Soetendal farm dwellers worked as pickers on the more than 48 hectares of farmland that produced grapes, guavas and vegetables. Others worked as cleaners, drivers and mechanics for the transport company which was based on the farm and provided some additional income to the workers and the owner, especially in the winter months.

A farm outside Wellington, Western Cape. 23 May 2018. Photo: Leila Dougan

Van Schalkwyk bought the farm in 1986 but “lost” it in 2010 for reasons he’s reluctant to talk about.

Zybrands bought the farm on behalf of the Alexander Rouvier Trust, at a public auction in October 2011. According to the Land Claims court judgment by Judge Canca, “occupiers” were “found on the farm” and all but three of the farm dwellers were evicted. Approximately 115 people were forcibly removed to New Rest, including 60 children and pensioners.

Van Schalkwyk is appalled at the conditions that Smith and his other former employees are currently living under.

Varke hokke (pigstyes)”, he calls the tin structures in New Rest.

Not even pigs can live there,” he said. Van Schalkwyk has since left Wellington and relocated to Bonnievale, but is still in communication with Smith and his other former employees who live in New Rest.

Smith’s story is all too common in the Drakenstein Municipality where farm evictions have become the norm. According to Carmen Louw, co-director of the NGO Women on Farms, some of the highest eviction numbers come from this municipality, which includes the farming towns of Wellington and Paarl.

Municipality spokeswoman Riana Geldenhuys said there are 519 registered Extension of Security of Tenure Act (Esta) cases; more than 200 of these have been finalised and 158 are pending in court. Geldenhuys said it is “unclear how many people could potentially be affected” by these cases before the court, but previous reports indicate that up to 20,000 farm dwellers and farmworkers could be affected.

Louw said evictions are becoming more common because farmers are looking to cut costs and one of the easiest ways to do this is to reduce the number of people living on the farms and “diversify”.

Susan Smith, 52, fills a bucket of water at the ablution block in the informal settlement, New Rest, where she lives. She and the other families who were evicted from the Soetendal farm in 2015 are demanding decent housing. Photo: Leila Dougan

Many farmers are branching out, converting excess housing into guest cottages that they can let to make some cash on the side. But the consequences for farm dwellers and their families are devastating.

In the mornings people wait to get onto the back of open trucks like cattle [for work], and when it’s dark they return to these informal settlements with substandard living conditions. There’s just trauma and hopelessness. Girls are pregnant, they get involved in drugs, it’s just one traumatic case after another,” said Louw.

Smith’s case is no different. Louw said that when the current owner, Zybrands, took over Soetendal he immediately started with “intimidation tactics” such as cutting off their water and electricity. He then produced an eviction order and on 11 December 2015 they were forced off the property. The Drakenstein Municipality intervened to provide “temporary accommodation” in New Rest.

Almost three years later, Smith is still traumatised by what happened that day. It was a Thursday morning and she was still in bed when one of her neighbours knocked on her door frantically after seeing the “vans and policemen” who had arrived to carry out the eviction order.

It was tears that day. We were shocked. [The police] stopped, and when they climbed out [of their vehicles] they started shooting. I went to the front and asked them why are they pointing their revolvers at us? We aren’t dogs, we are people,” said Smith.

Rubber bullets were used to disperse residents, their belongings were loaded onto trucks. Many personal items and furniture were either damaged or simply lost in the process. Children were piled into a police bus and dumped in New Rest where the municipality had laid down corrugated iron structures atop black floor sheeting which would serve as “alternative” and “temporary” accommodation. There were only two communal taps and no electricity.

A boy plays at an ablution block in the informal settlement, New Rest, in Wellington. 23 May 2018. Photo: Leila Dougan

Smith and the other Soetendal farm dwellers who had been dumped in the informal settlement spent that Christmas without electricity, using pots to cook their meals on open fires.

We were dumped here like dogs,” said Smith.

Electricity was only installed a year later, in December 2016.

The sad story is that the alternative accommodation is actually permanent accommodation,” said Louw.

Three years later, the black plastic sheeting which acts as the only protection from the wet winter earth has worn thin. One of Smith’s greatest fears is criminals bending the corrugated iron in order to get into the house; it’s a common occurrence in the area and she often gets one of her neighbours to share her room for fear of sleeping alone.

We don’t want to stay here any more because it’s dangerous. Here our lives are in great danger,” she said.

There is no public transport, access to drugs and alcohol for the youth are too easy and jobs are few and far between. Unemployment in New Rest is as high as 63% and residents are largely dependent on casual labour. Smith has managed to find part-time work with two families who live in the affluent part of town, but her situation is tenuous.

Whole families lost their livelihoods and their identity was scarred,” said Louw.

According to Professor Ruth Hall, land expert at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (Plaas), women and children are the most vulnerable groups when it comes to evictions, and forced removals are leading to the mushrooming of informal settlements.

As many as 940,000 farm dwellers were evicted from commercial farms in the first decade of democracy.

These people swell the ranks of those living in informal settlements around the small towns, around the cities, and (it) feeds into further demand for land reform,” said Hall.

Hall recalls a land redistribution conference in 1993. Cyril Ramaphosa, then secretary-general of the ANC, said at the conference:

The massively unequal distribution of land is not merely an unfortunate outcome of apartheid, it is the totally unacceptable continuation of apartheid.”

What [Ramaphosa] is pointing to is that these [unequal] economic structures continue to live on with us. And here we are 25 years after that statement and it’s now an indictment of the failings of post-apartheid governments,” said Hall.

Ramaphosa has been consistent in his message about land reform.

If people think the issue of land will go away, wake up and smell the coffee,” he told Members of Parliament in May 2018 while replying to questions in the National Assembly.

At an Iftar dinner in Cape Town with the Muslim Judicial Council at the end of May 2018, Ramaphosa did not shy away from talking about land.

If we were ever serious about anything, [land] is the one thing we are deadly serious about,” he said at the time.

According to a report by Business Day he spoke at an event held by the Afrikanerbond during their centenary celebrations in Paarl in June 2018.

If we want this country to move forward‚ we must have land reform. It has to be done in a deep and meaningful way. If well handled‚ this issue of land will help to bind the nation together and produce benefits for everyone,” Ramaphosa was quoted as saying.

The president has not missed an opportunity to talk about land reform, and this seems to have been taken up by others.

Deputy Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform, Mcebisi Skwatsha, said the Drakenstein Municipality could be a “test case” for land expropriation without compensation after an indaba on farm evictions hosted by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC).

Depending on the attitudes of the farm owners, we might want to test whether this could be a case to consider expropriation without compensation in the Western Cape,” said Skwatsha, according to a report by Groundup.

But even if the municipality is used as a test case, it’s not clear whether farm dwellers like Smith and others who were evicted from Soetendal in 2015 would be compensated, given adequate housing or whether they would be left to fend for themselves in informal settlements like New Rest.

Hall said that one of the biggest problems with redistribution is that it has never been a political priority and this leads to frustration.

The whole land reform budget has never been more than 1% of the national budget,” she said.

In May 2018, while tabling her department’s budget, Rural Development and Land Reform Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane announced that 98,000 hectares of land are to be redistributed in in 2018.

That only constitutes 0.1% of commercial farmland,” said Hall.

Jeanne Boshoff, communications manager at Agri Western Cape, puts Skwatsha’s comment down to “political football” and said farms are “production units, not residential areas”.

But Smith is adamant that she and her neighbours want to live in a brick house again, with a small yard, running water and their own toilets inside the house.

It’s what our children are used to… at the farm our cupboards and fridges were full. Here you struggle. We don’t want to be here any more,” she said.

Martin Oosthuizen from Oosthuizen & Co Attorneys in Paarl, who represents Zybrands, said the current owner of the farm held “several meaningful engagement sessions” with the evicted farm dwellers and “followed a four- year legal process”. According to the owner, employment was offered to those evicted, and none of the farm dwellers “took up employment”.

When the applicants failed to convince the occupiers to either work for the Trust or to vacate the property, the applicants launched eviction proceedings,” said the Land Claims court judgment.

Hy lieg,” (he’s lying) said Smith. She said Zybrands only took four women into his employment, but after a while even those four were let go without any reason, she told Daily Maverick.

Advocate Andre Gaum from the South African Human Rights Commission agrees that farm dwellers are vulnerable and “in danger of getting their human rights violated”. He said one of the biggest challenges is lack of awareness and rights among farm dwellers and that advocacy is essential in rural areas.

In this particular case, if [Smith] has not laid a complaint with the Human Rights Commission she should seriously do that as well and we can then assist to make sure her case is dealt with in terms of the legislation,” said Gaum.

Wazimap data

Smith lives in Ward 5, one of 31 wards in the Drakenstein Municipality, comprising Wellington and Paarl in the Boland region of the Western Cape.

Poverty is rife in the area, as Census data from 2011 shows the average annual household income for a year is R14,600 and only 37.1% of the ward’s population is employed.

In contrast to this are the statistics for a neighbouring part of Wellington – Ward 2, where the average annual household income is R230,700.

Census data shows 65.8% of the ward’s population is employed – almost double that of Smith’s ward. DM


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