Bitter tears in the ‘valley of wine and roses’ where farmworkers battle eviction
On Friday two cases in the Robertson Magistrates' Court highlighted how farmworkers in the Winelands continue to battle eviction from farms they’ve lived on their whole lives. The eviction attempts appear unlikely to stop any time soon, but civil society groups have stepped in to help.
The picturesque town of Robertson in the Western Cape’s much admired and visited Winelands, in the Langeberg district, is a place of bitter tears for farmworkers facing forced evictions.
In the “valley of wine and roses”, the Rural Legal Centre (RLC) and the Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU) are working with the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (Seri) to assist evicted farmworkers and their families.
The RLC and CSAAWU are supporting and helping farmworkers who for decades have lived on the farms they are being forced out of. Some of the workers were born on these farms and, in turn, have had children who were born on the same farms.
On Friday, 22 September, Zenobia Adonis’s case was the first of two farm eviction cases heard in the Robertson Magistrates’ Court that day.
Her case was heard in the morning and postponed to 13 October. A CSAAWU representative, who asked not to be named but who is working closely with Seri and a number of claimants, was in court observing proceedings and told Daily Maverick that the court had ruled that Adonis and her family may, while the case is ongoing, legally stay in the home where she was born and has lived her whole life.
The house had been tenanted by her father who lived and worked on the farm for more than 20 years. He was served the original eviction notice but died in the midst of court proceedings. After his death, his daughter continued to fight the eviction.
CSAAWU confirmed that discussions were ongoing with the farmer about providing a house for Adonis.
Claims of victimisation
In the afternoon, it was the turn of Edwin Plaatjies to appear at the Robertson Magistrates’ Court. He is being evicted from the farm Eilandia Plase and was allegedly victimised by the farm owners after he became a union shop steward for CSAAWU, according to a CSAAWU member.
Attorney Asenati Tukela, who is representing Plaatjies, said Seri was involved in four cases being heard at the court, all against Eilandia Plase, and that the court had decided to hear the cases separately instead of together.
Plaatjies, now 31, was a mere three months old when his parents secured employment and accommodation at the farm. After their deaths, they were buried on the farm.
On Friday, after two hours of hearing from Eilandia Farms’ attorney, the case was postponed to November and “we asked for a postponement as the union and Seri, to assist our client to take the dispute forward”, the CSAAWU representative said.
Plaatjies is a parent, and his partner and young child are the second and third respondents in his eviction case. In court papers, he says that his partner “in her own right and capacity” had also been living on the farm, where he met her.
Plaatjies states: “It is paramount that I mention that Eilandia Plase is the only home we know. The farm is the only home I know and there is no other place. When I was about 12 years old, I started toiling and working the land on this farm until I was summarily dismissed in 2015. Despite being dismissed in 2015 I have continued to stay on the farm with the knowledge and concession…”
CSAAWU’s joint general secretary, Deneco Dube, calls Plaatjies “Eddie” and seems to know him well. Dube told Daily Maverick that all was well with Plaatjies working and living at the farm until, “Eddie joined the union after 2012 — but especially when he was elected to shop steward and he had to take up the issues of workers — they don’t want a union on their farms.”
Dube says the farmer then “orchestrated a case against” Plaatjies and “they eventually managed to charge and dismiss him … but he continued to live there”. Possibly because his partner still worked on the farm.
But in November 2021, said Tukela, Plaatjies was served with an eviction notice, “on the grounds that he no longer had permission to live there”. However, the attorney said that Eilandia Plase, in terms of the Extension of Security of Tenure Act (Esta), did not have the right to evict Plaatjies.
According to the government, one of the aims of Esta is, “To regulate the conditions and circumstances under which the right of people to reside on land may be terminated.”
Plaatjies and his family may remain on the farm until the case is resolved.
The lawyer for Eilandia Plase, Heine Otto, told Daily Maverick: “We confirm that we act on behalf of the landowner in the above matter.”
Otto said it would be inappropriate to comment before a court had delivered a verdict. “We can, however, confirm that the version handed to you by a third party [CSAAWU] is completely inaccurate.”
Tukela told Daily Maverick that Seri, as the attorney on record for CSAAWU, was ready to represent all the cases the union brings to it.
On 12 August, a Speak Out meeting was held in Robertson to discuss evictions from farms and the treatment of farmworkers. It was organised by CSAAWU and supported by the RLC, which offers support and legal assistance to “farmworkers and poor rural people”.
Farmworker evictions have been occurring for decades but more organisations are stepping forward to assist farmworkers facing the double threat of homelessness and joblessness, as reported by Daily Maverick’s Vincent Cruywagen in 2021.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Thousands of farmworkers face eviction once the National State of Disaster ends, activists warn
From the complaints and grievances aired in Robertson at the Speak Out meeting, it is clear that farm evictions are not going to end any time soon and are occurring for a variety of reasons.
One speaker told of a farmer who had introduced a “levy” of R490 per person for each occupant of a house on his farm.
Another farmworker, who had been employed on a farm for 30 years, said a new owner took over the farm in 2019 and “we could immediately see that he does not know what he is doing”. He said they were laid off in April but were not allowed to work elsewhere. On top of that, the water and electricity were cut off to the farmworkers’ houses, but “the water to the vineyard has not been cut off”.
A 60-year-old farmworker from De Doorns said her life was a constant struggle and that she had lived most of her life on a farm with her parents.
After her parents died, she continued to live and work on the farm and started a family there. A few months ago, the farmer informed her and her family that the farm was bankrupt and that they would have to move. She said the question was: Where? DM