Sophia Maqubela, 35, gathers wood every day between the rows of crops that grow around her house. She keeps an eye out for snakes and once she’s gathered as much as she can carry she stores it outside her front door. The electricity to the house was cut off by the landowner a few months ago and the only way to heat bathwater, or make a hot meal for the children, is to burn sticks and logs on an old wood stove in the kitchen.
Maqubela lives with her sister, Shireen, and their children on Bestwyk Farm in Prince Alfred’s Hamlet near Ceres in the Western Cape.
Sophia and Shireen’s father died in August 2017; he worked on the farm for 46 years as a mechanic, builder and driver. Their mother died six months after that; she used to work as a domestic worker for the farmowner, Johan van Wyk. After the deaths of their parents, Van Wyk has told Sophia and Shireen they must leave the house.
“He said he doesn’t know why we’re on the farm, he didn’t give us permission to stay here, he said we are spoilt and he wants to get a prosecutor to get us out of the house,” says Sophia Maqubela as she sits on a bed in the lounge. Half burnt candles shoved into empty beer bottles are scattered around the house, ready to be lit once darkness falls.
“My mother and my father, if they were here, they would not let us leave the farm because where must we go? My mother worked for [Van Wyk] for 30 years as a domestic worker, she raised his two children. His oldest daughter is just as old as I am, and now he says he knows nothing about us.”
Under the Extension of Security of Tenure Act (ESTA), Maqubela’s parents were legally entitled to stay in the house, but their tenure rights were not transferable after their death and their two daughters face eviction despite growing up on the farm.
“We feel hurt because we don’t want to go; we don’t because our whole lives are here, this is where our children grew up, it doesn’t feel like we should move from here,” says Sophia Maqubela.
Naomi Betana, a paralegal for the Witzenberg Rural Development Centre, is helping the Maqubela sisters fight their eviction. Betana says there are more farm eviction cases than her organisation can manage. She told Daily Maverick that families who are evicted often end up living in informal settlements in environments with shared ablution facilities, no running water in their homes, poor access to public transport, overcrowding, little access to employment, education and healthcare, and rife with gangsterism and drug abuse.
“The biggest concern is when the court has approved eviction orders without alternative housing, that shows us that the courts are no longer on the side of the poor. Where are people supposed to go?” says Betana.
Ruth Hall, a professor at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape, estimates that in the first decade of democracy almost 940,000 people were forcibly evicted from farms. Removals coincided with the withdrawal of apartheid-era subsidies for white-owned farms. Hall says that in the early days of democracy white farmers who used to rely on government support had to fend for themselves financially and reducing their labour force was a desperate attempt to drive down costs.
“What we’re seeing is really a naked brutal form of capitalism where people’s lives are expendable in the context of squeezed commercial businesses, where farmers are facing the global market, they’re squeezing labour costs and pushing people off their farms,” says Hall.
“I think we must be realistic, it’s an economic reality. But to change that requires real political will and a vision from our politicians which I don’t think we’ve seen up to now.”
President Cyril Ramaphosa’s national election campaign targeted farmworkers extensively even though repeated calls by activists for a moratorium on evictions have fallen on deaf ears.
In the farming community of Citrusdal in the Western Cape on 23 March 2019 Ramaphosa promised that his party would support the fight against evictions.
Ramaphosa: ‘We will talk about it later’
During a National Women’s Day address in Paarl on 9 August 2018, Ramaphosa praised the women of South Africa and acknowledged that women are predominantly “burdened” by poverty, and prejudice. But when a group of women disrupted his speech, singing and carrying placards that read “Stop farm evictions” and “We want our land back, Ramaphosa responded, “I have seen the posters. We will talk about it later.” The women were then escorted from the hall by then rural development and land reform minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane and former minister of women in the presidency Bathabile Dlamini.
Ramaphosa attempted to tackle the issue by pleading with farmowners to end evictions during a meeting at Beyerskloof wine farm in Stellenbosch before the national elections on 8 May 2019.
“The land reform process is something we should never fear. It is going to be done in terms of the Constitution,” he said. News 24 reported at the time that Ramaphosa asked farmowners to treat their workers with humanity.
“We face a serious challenge of evictions where farmworkers are evicted from farms,” he said. There’s been a lot of talk, but so far, very little action.
On 22 March 2019, the day before Human Rights Day, farmworkers and farm dwellers from across the province marched to Parliament and handed over a memorandum for the attention of Nkoana-Mashabane. Thozama Diamond, from the department of rural development and land reform, signed the memorandum and assured protesters that a response to their demands would be forthcoming. The Presidency representative Charles Ford said it would take up to eight weeks to get a response but thus far, three months later, no response has been received, according to the main organisers of the march, Women on Farms Project, a non-profit organisation that helps female farmworkers in the Western Cape.
The ‘new form of forced removals’
Carmen Louw, co-director of Women on Farms Project, places a large portion of the blame on a law which is easily abused by landowners. The intention of the 1997 Extension of Tenure Security Act (ESTA) was to protect the rights of farmworkers and farm dwellers. This law states that an eviction can only take place if an eviction order has been issued by the Land Claims Court, but this legal process of eviction has also harmed farmworkers and dwellers.
Louw says illegal and legal evictions destroy the lives of farmworkers and farm dwellers by uprooting them from social structures. She’s been involved in many situations where farmowners make conditions on the farm so unbearable that residents have no option but to leave the property. Water is turned off, electricity is cut, curfews are imposed and once the house is evacuated, land is rezoned and handed over to a developer.
Louw says ESTA regulates the eviction process rather than protecting residents.
“ESTA is a new form of forced removals,” says Louw.
Phuti Mabelebele, spokesperson for the department of rural development and land reform, agrees that there is “a real housing problem”, especially as evictions put additional pressure on municipalities, who are tasked with providing housing to communities in need.
In an email to Daily Maverick, Mabelebele says ESTA has made “limited progress in terms of preventing evictions” and that the ESTA Amendment Act, which was signed into law in November 2018 is meant to address these shortfalls by extending the rights of occupiers and further regulating evictions by ensuring that farmworkers and dwellers are legally represented.
“The overarching objectives of the ESTA Amendment Act include: to halt evictions, create widespread tenure security for past and present farm dwellers, and advance national aims of poverty eradication and inequality reduction,” says Mabelebele.
But the amendment does little to help families who have already been pushed through the legal system and find themselves in desperate situations.
Mariska Botha is 22 years old, unemployed and worried about the coming winter. She and her family have been living in the New Orleans camping site in Pasrl for the past 14 months along with 47 other families. On the chilly day, Daily Maverick went to the campsite, residents huddled around fires, and plastic bags were jammed between gaps in the large green tents to block out the cold wind. One resident, who would not give her name, was concerned about the plastic black sheeting on her makeshift kitchen floor which was beginning to tear, exposing the mud beneath.
Gerald Esau, executive director of community services at Drakenstein Municipality, says they had developed an area to accommodate the families living in the campsite, but the area is unsafe because of resistance from community members living next to to the proposed site who are demanding that their housing requirements be given priority.
‘We’re moving backwards’
Jannie Strydom, CEO of Agri Western Cape, says the government has failed to implement land reform over the past two decades in a manner that benefits farm dwellers, farmworkers and the agricultural sector, and that his company has been requesting “credible statistics” on farm evictions “for years”.
“We appeal to the academics and those involved in social movements to make their information, showing this ‘drastic increase’ [in farm evictions], available,” he says.
According to the Land Claims Court, 1,157 cases have been heard nationally since 2002, including 17 so far in 2019. This excludes illegal evictions, data of which is hard to come by. Hall says evictions have reached a point of crisis and farm evictions are on such a scale that “more black people are forced off the land by farm evictions than are getting land through the government’s land reform programme”.
“In terms of trying to undo racial inequalities in access to land we’re moving backwards,” says Hall.
If the ANC was serious about the land issue, justice would have already been served and the previously disenfranchised black population who underwent decades of systemic oppression and land dispossession would have enjoyed some form of justice by now, says Betana, who is in favour of changing Section 25 of the Constitution.
Hall says it is not the Constitution but rather its implementation that has failed. She says farm dwellers are legally able to “upgrade their rights” and fully own the portion of land they occupy and use – but the government has chosen to not use this law.
“There’s a direct conflict between the interests and rights of farmworkers and dwellers…Will government ever say to an owner, ‘Okay you don’t want this person on your farm but actually we’re going to subdivide your farm and give private ownership to the [farmworkers]?’ It’s never happened [but] it’s been there in the law since 1997. Instead, what we see happening is that government has been facilitating the forced removal of people off farms,” says Hall.
Strydom says expropriation without compensation could lead to credit downgrades, an economic recession, disinvestment and a rise in unemployment in rural areas. He says policy uncertainty also remains a challenge to the agricultural industry.
“Commercial farmers across the board are concerned about this prospect that there might be expropriation of land without compensation…I think there’s quite a lot of wait and see going on in the commercial farming sector because they clearly are worried about what the ANC means by expropriation without compensation.
“At least R160-billion worth of farmland debt is held by the big four banks plus the Land Bank so it’s not just commercial farmers who stand to lose by expropriation without compensation, it clearly is also the financial sector,” says Hall.
“Constitutional amendments and expropriation without compensation may make for good electioneering but it doesn’t make for more emerging farmers. The protection of property rights is absolutely critical to investment, food security and sustainable agrarian reform,” says Strydom.
The number of farm employees was estimated at just over 770,000 in February 2017, according to the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) 2018 Agricultural Statistics Document. National agriculture production is concentrated in the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, and according to the department’s 2017/18 Economic Review, the value of primary agricultural production in South Africa was estimated at R281-billion and showed a growth of 7.5% since 1994.
According to Wandile Sihlobo, chief economist of the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa, the agricultural sector was at its peak in the 1960s when it employed 1.7 million seasonal and permanent workers. By 2010 this number had decreased to about 750,000.
“Back in the 1940s, the agricultural sector used to be one of the leading employers, with an average share of 42% in total employment. This, however, has changed over the years due to the introduction of new technologies in the sector, as well as growth and expansion in labour participation in other sectors of the economy. Between the 1940s and 2010s, the agricultural labour share in total employment declined 21-fold to 5%,” writes Sihlobo.
It’s a delicate balance. On one hand, you have a major economic player, exposed to ruthless global markets in a country that’s undergoing serious financial strain and constantly on the brink of junk status. On the other hand, you have decades of oppression, unemployment and substandard living conditions. Hall says farmowners deal with farmland as a business and the economy has been squeezed in such a way that owners see anyone who lives on the land as a liability.
The expropriation bill is due to go before the National Assembly but it’s unclear when the Bill will get to Parliament for the start of the legislative process. And while the wheels of democracy slowly turn, daily problems remain for families like the Mays who live on the side of a road in Paarl after being evicted from Windmeul Kelder wine farm; Susan Smith who was evicted from Soetendal farm in 2015 and lives in an informal settlement; the Domingo family who live on Platvlei farm and faced eviction last year; the 47 families who live in the New Orleans Camping site in Paarl; and the Maqubela sisters who are forced to collect wood each day after their electricity was cut off.
“People are not going to wait for another two decades to see if government is going to act. The pressure is up and government will have to take more decisive action,” says Hall. DM
Questions sent to Johan van Wyk, from Bestwyk Farm in Prince Alfred’s Hamlet, Western Cape, via email regarding the eviction of the Maqubela family were unanswered at the time of publication. Follow up emails were also not responded to and attempts to reach him via telephone were unsuccessful.
"We are surrounded by story." ~ Alice McDermott