Plight of farmworker tenants in focus as a scramble for coal grips KZN

Plight of farmworker tenants in focus as a scramble for coal grips KZN
Makhosonke Dlamini stands near the graves of his wife and children, who are buried on the farm where the family has lived for more than 30 years. (Photo: Lucas Ledwaba/Mukurukuru Media)

The Dlaminis have been on Volksrust farm near Glencoe for more than 30 years, but they fear for the future and the fate of their family burial grounds as rumours swirl that their land will soon be sold off.

Makhosonke Dlamini stands quietly among the graves of some of the 15 of his kin buried on the farm Volksrust, where the family has lived for the past 32 years. Greyish sandstone that adorns the hills above his home is piled in rectangular form to mark each resting place on the property near Glencoe in KwaZulu-Natal.

“This is my wife resting here. This is my son, this is my other son…”

His voice drifts away as he points sombrely at the stones with his wooden walking stick.

He pauses to point at another grave across the fence on the property of one of his sons, Mbongiseni Dlamini.

It’s the burial place of his grandson Qiniso. The 17-year-old was shot and killed while tussling over a rifle with farmer Garth Simpson in September 2021.

Simpson had allegedly impounded the family’s cattle that had strayed onto his farm. Qiniso and six other youngsters went to the farm to collect the cattle. An argument ensued.

In a video captured by one of the teenagers present, Qiniso is seen confronting Simpson, who is armed with a rifle. He grabs the weapon from Simpson, a brief struggle over the gun ensues and a shot is heard. Qiniso collapses. Reports say he was confirmed dead at the scene.

In September 2022, after a lengthy court case in the Glencoe magistrates’ court, Simpson was acquitted on a charge of murdering the young man.

“They say Qiniso shot himself. How can he shoot himself when he doesn’t have a gun?” says Dlamini, staring at the grave.

Now the Dlamini family faces other challenges that put the spotlight on the plight of farm dwellers and labour tenants.

The family has lived on Volksrust since 1991. They were brought there by Dlamini’s employer, Hercules Olivier. Dlamini’s father had worked for the Olivier family on another farm in the Newcastle-Ladysmith district since childhood. Makhosonke Dlamini started work on the same farm in his youth, herding cattle and doing general labour.

Themba Mabaso and his siblings have no municipal services on the farm where they live with the Dlaminis. Instead, they have to draw murky water from a stream that runs nearby. (Photo: Lucas Ledwaba/Mukurukuru Media)

When Olivier moved to Volksrust farm, he took the elder Dlamini and his entire family with him. The family established homesteads on portion C49 of the 310ha farm where they still live.

The sons married and had children, who also live on the property. They have subdivided the land and established further family homesteads.

Gave his blessing

When Olivier retired, he left the farm and the Dlaminis there. They say Olivier gave them his blessing to stay on the farm.

But there is no documentary proof of this and they now find themselves in uncertainty after portions of the farm were sold to two companies that are mining coal there.

As long-term occupiers of the land, the Dlaminis have rights to remain under the Extension of Security of Tenure Act 62 of 1997. The act seeks, partly, “to provide for measures with state assistance to facilitate long-term security of land tenure; to regulate the conditions of residence on certain land; to regulate the conditions on and circumstances under which the right of persons to reside on land may be terminated”.

But with a scramble for coal sweeping through the area, the Dlaminis, who these days are themselves commercial stock and crop farmers, have heard rumours that the entire farm is on the verge of being sold for mineral extraction purposes. They live in fear of finding themselves homeless.

The Dlaminis do not receive any municipal services such as water and electricity, despite a 2019 Pietermaritzburg High Court ruling that municipalities should provide farm dwellers and tenants with adequate sanitation, water and refuse collection.

Themba Mabaso and his siblings have no access to municipal servies on the farm where they live with the Dlaminis. Instead they rely on water from a stream nearby. The quality is bad and appears unfit for human consumption. (PHoto: Lucas Ledwaba/Mukurukuru Media)

That case was brought by the Association for Rural Advancement and the Legal Resources Centre as a class action on behalf of farm occupiers and labour tenants residing under the jurisdiction of the uMshwathi, Msunduzi and uMgungundlovu district municipalities in KwaZulu-Natal.

The Dlaminis and the Mabaso family, who also reside on the farm, rely on water from a murky stream on the property. They must also endure blasting at the two mines and complain that they are being denied access to some of the land and access roads.

Their homes, some built of rocks, have gaping cracks, which are blamed on the mining activity.

The Dlamini homes some of which are built with stone bear gaping cracks which the family says were caused by blasting at a nearby coal mine. (PHoto: Lucas Ledwaba/Mukurukuru Media)

This case highlights the plight of thousands of farm labour tenants across the country, which is still grappling with land restitution and reform issues.

In March last year, a report presented to joint parliamentary portfolio committees highlighted that unequal power relationships, uneven competition for land, a lack of political power and no tenure security were key issues facing farm labour tenants and dwellers.

The report, titled A Diagnostic Report on the Tenure Security of Labour Tenants in South Africa and written by Dr Donna Hornby and Michael Cowling on behalf of the Association for Rural Advancement, was commissioned for a high-level panel that is assessing key legislation and the acceleration of fundamental change by Parliament.

“Labour tenants have generations of skills and success at small-scale farming. The redistribution of white-owned commercial farmland to black small-scale farmers will help to drive agrarian transformation,” the report states.

The farm is not for sale

Newcastle-based social activist Lucky Shabalala, who runs Sisonke Environmental Justice Network, says the group is planning a march to the Endumeni Local Municipality in Glencoe next month to highlight the family’s plight.

He has engaged local authorities, which have revealed that the farm is not for sale.

Another rumour has it that the state has been engaged in efforts to try to buy it for the Dlaminis. But this is not supported by any documentary evidence either.

Dlamini, now in his 70s, is worried.

“I’m old now. And I don’t know where we stand with regard to this farm.

“It has become our only home because we have been here a long time. Now we hear it is being sold.

“What about our graves? I have 15 people buried here. When they move people they also dig up the graves. That, in our culture, is unacceptable,” he says. Mukurukuru Media/DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.


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