Citrus picker threatened with unlawful eviction

Farm worker Thandiswa Xali has been ordered to leave a farm where her family has lived for decades. She stands to lose both her home and her livelihood during the Covid-19 outbreak.

Thandiswa Xali, 31, was born on Groenlus farm, near Kirkwood in the Eastern Cape. She has worked there since she was 17, picking oranges. Her parents were also born there and her father, Phumzile Edward, lived there until he died, while her mother still works on the farm. Both her grandparents had lived and died there too.

Xali went to the local school nearby and has never called another place home. Despite this, she is facing an unlawful eviction right in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic that has forced the country into a 21-day lockdown. She is the mother of a toddler who will be evicted too, and her cousin has also been told to leave.

About 25 neglected houses for farm workers stand next to the citrus tree orchards, down a long dirt road and several kilometres from the nearest shop. On a wall near the houses are templates of posters from the British grocery chain Tesco and the Sustainability Initiative of South Africa. They feature the names and photographs of the worker and employment equity representatives on the farm, as well as a grievance procedure. There is also a locked box where farm workers can place their letters of complaint.

Citrus farmers who export their produce to Tesco have to follow ethical trade practices, such as providing “leadership and mentorship programmes, including a strong focus on women”, and adhere to accommodation and transport guidelines. But this does not happen, said Vuyisile Sikani, chairperson of the Sundays River Valley Workers’ Forum, which is fighting a number of unfair dismissals and unlawful evictions in the area.

“They don’t follow the law, which says they must go to court and present a good reason for this eviction. They are forcing that family to move out without consulting the court,” said Sikani, adding that if the farmer applies for an eviction order, the forum would challenge it.

The owner of Groenlus farm, Kobus Swart, abruptly told Xali last year that there would be no work for her this season, which begins in April, and she would have to leave her house. She was then made to demolish a shack which she had built in front of her house.

19 March 2020: Thandiswa Xali of Groenlus farm in Kirkwood, Eastern Cape, is being evicted from her home. Seen here are the ruins of an outside room that she was allegedly instructed to demolish.

Kicked out of home 

“We all lived here. My grandparents had a house and my father had a house. This year, he [Swart] told me, he doesn’t have work for me and he wants this house. But all those years I have been working here. I didn’t go to another farm or what to work – I’m working here,” said Xali. There is plenty of work on the farm, she added, because Swart brought in 21 new workers from Zimbabwe in mid-March.

The farmer and farm manager have now threatened her in person three times, she said. “Kobus Swart told me if I don’t go out of the house by 24 March then he will make me live with the Zimbabweans, 10 of them, in another house. He says I am going to stay with them.”

At the time of publication, Xali was still in her house.

The forum, which actively campaigns against xenophobia, has members from South Africa, Lesotho and Zimbabwe. For many years now, seasonal farm workers from Zimbabwe and Lesotho have migrated to the region between April and October to harvest fruit. They often rent rooms from South Africans in the informal settlements in the area or stay with South African workers on the farms, with little or no friction between the citizens of different countries.

Expropriation without compensation 

Simphiwe Dada, director of the Khanyisa Education and Development Trust, which advocates for the socioeconomic and political rights of impoverished people, condemned Swart’s actions “in the strongest possible terms”.

“In a democratic South Africa, people are living a life of intimidation, fear and harassment, and their right to dignity is undermined. It is our view that Mr Swart’s farm should be expropriated without compensation. This will not only send a strong message to other racist and xenophobic farmers, but will also economically and socially liberate farm workers and dwellers,” Dada said.

Swart disconnected the electricity to Xali’s house four months ago. Since then she has been cooking and heating water outside on a fire. She can no longer keep any food in the fridge and uses candles at night to light the house. The electricity to the houses is supplied by Swart, who allegedly charges R70 for 50 units’ usage. The farm workers do not have their own electricity accounts or prepaid meter cards.

Sikani has tried to tell Swart that he is breaking the law and must seek a court order to evict Xali. But, he says, the farmer will only speak Afrikaans and refuses to listen to him.

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On the evening of 19 March, the forum held a meeting with 60 farm workers next to the orchards, using a solitary torch for light in the darkness. The forum’s executive committee, who are all volunteers, and Tuse Manene, a paralegal officer from Paterson, spoke with the workers about their rights regarding eviction, unfair dismissal and verbal abuse from farmers.

“Farmers sometimes unfairly dismiss people. They say to the worker, ‘One, two, three, ek gaan jou uitvat hierso, jy gaan uit by die werk [I am going to remove you from here, get out of the workplace].’ This is against the law,” said Manene.

“We find the farmers treat people badly. They say, ‘Hei, kom hierso, hei, jou fokken donder, maak gou [Hey, come here, hey, you fucking bastard, hurry up]!’ That treatment is not allowed. Because of those conditions, some workers quit. But don’t quit. Come to the forum and we will advocate for you,” Manene told the workers.

19 March 2020: Farm workers from Groenlus farm hold a meeting with the executive committee of the Sundays River Valley Farmworkers Forum to discuss evictions, unfair dismissals and verbal abuse from farmers.

Women often targeted

Xali says she is fearful for what will happen to her if she continues to disobey the unlawful order to leave. An organiser for the forum, Ntombosindiso Gila, says women are often targeted for eviction on farms in the area.

“There are serious cases where the white man is saying these women must go because they don’t have permission to stay and because they don’t have husbands. So if you are a woman without a husband, you must leave. [We] find that these women had husbands but they passed away while they were working there. We need to be strong and make sure these women are not going anywhere for the sake of the rights of women,” said Gila.

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Swart would not comment and referred New Frame to Nelis van Niekerk from CBMS Consulting & Training, which handles “the necessary paperwork for evictions” for Groenlus Boerdery. Van Niekerk did not respond to calls, texts or WhatsApp messages, although the latter were read.

As Covid-19 broke out, dozens of social justice movements called for a moratorium on evictions.

“Evictions or other attempts anywhere in the country to remove people from where they live at this time are manifestly unjust. The law should not prioritise property rights over the basic human rights to adequate sanitation, health and housing,” said the organisations, which included Abahlali baseMjondolo, Ndifuna Ukwazi, the Association for Rural Advancement, Land Access Movement of South Africa, Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies, Centre for Applied Legal Studies, Women’s Legal Centre and Lawyers for Human Rights.

In response, Ndifuna Ukwazi said, the justice department has issued an instruction to municipalities to halt all evictions.

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