Dispossession and exploitation in Blouberg

Apartheid-era style dispossession and exploitation still fester in far-flung rural outposts where impoverished people have little choice but to accept their meagre lot.

Samuel Morudu doesn’t remember exactly when he started working on the farms. But his calloused, hard hands and a broken index finger tell a story of many years absorbed in the tough task of tilling the land in the Blouberg area of far northwestern Limpopo.

“I have worked on the farms since I was little boy,” he says in a deep baritone, slowly rolling up a zol of tobacco with a piece of newspaper. He was born in 1952 on a farm near Witdraai, about 70km northwest of Senwabarwana, a bustling little dorp north of the province’s capital, Polokwane.

His family were sharecroppers who paid for their tenure on the land with three months’ labour every year, a system known among the black farming community as  “drie maan” , corrupted from the Afrikaans  drie maande [three months].

He remembers his family moved around, living on different farms owned by white Afrikaners in the area along the Botswana border. They lived in earthen rondavels reinforced with sticks. It was on one of these farms that he started working as a boy, herding goats and later cattle.

As a result, he never got the opportunity to go to school. The only school nearby was in Tolwe, a farming village, and was for whites only. Children of farm workers were expected to start working alongside their parents as soon as they could. If there was a school on a farm for black children, it went only as far as grade four. 

Farmers didn’t encourage their tenants or employees to educate their children because they feared it would lead to a steady decline in their pool of cheap labour.

Evicted

Morudu recalls that in his late teens, he earned about 45 cents. Later on, as an adult, his wages went up to about R6 a month. His father, who had returned from working on the Reef to become a full-time farm worker, at one point earned R15 and a bag of mielie meal.

Morudu met his wife, Rebecca Serumule, who also came from a family of sharecroppers, on one of the farms. Serumule was born in 1962 and attended school up to grade four at a farm school, after which she also became part of the cheap labour force.
“We don’t know any other life. We are people from the farms,” says Serumule.

Morudu earned R800 a month for the first three years on the job. Serumule earned R500 a month for her first four years. By the time she was dismissed, she was earning R800 in 2004 under her last employer. Morudu was earning R2 200.

The monthly minimum wage for farm workers working nine hours a day, as set by the Department of Labour for the period 1 March 2016 to 28 February 2017, was R2 778.83. This was increased to R3 001.13 for the period up to February 2018. 

The couple are now unemployed. After giving their labour to a farmer for 14 years, Serumule as a domestic helper at the farm house while her husband was a herdsman and general labourer, the couple woke up one day to be told their services were no longer required. While they were still digesting the devastating news, their employer, Gert Johannes, allegedly hurriedly evicted them from the farm. 

Rebecca Serumule and Samuel Morudu woke up one day to be told their services were no longer required. Photograph by Lucas Ledwaba/Mukurukuru Media

They were employed by Gert’s father, Sefrey Johannes, in 2004. Their eviction was carried out without a court order. Their employer allegedly paid them out only three months’ salary each. They say they had committed no offence and had not been given any warning or hauled to a disciplinary hearing before their dismissal and eviction.

Their belongings were thrown on to a lorry that drove them to the RDP house they were given by the state in 2004. Some of their belongings, including bricks and an old tractor Morudu had bought from his employer on hire purchase, were left behind. 

The couple have since made a plan to have the items brought to Wegdraai, a remote village of mainly subsistence farmers where the donkey cart is the popular mode of transport. A taxi trip along a badly potholed road to the nearest town, Senwabarwana, costs R140.

Clay brick-built RDP houses and brick houses of different designs and ages stand on large square plots on the flat landscape. Red dust rises from the wide streets, breaking the monotony of the peaceful but somewhat haunting stillness of the village. Elderly people rest in the shade under trees after a long morning working in the fields. 

Now and then, a donkey cart clonks by carrying containers filled with water. The village suffers from the thirst afflicting most such settlements across the province. Water supply is erratic, so those who can afford to drill boreholes in their yards sell water to residents such as Morudu and Serumule, who have no such means. 

The village is connected to the electricity grid, which the residents pay for through prepaid meters. Life is relatively affordable. But when an entire household such as the Morudu family relies on one member’s pension, life remains a relatively tough, hand-to-mouth existence where even a cooldrink is considered a luxury. 

“Life is hard now. We are starving. We survive on my husband’s social grant,” says Serumule. And such is life for many families in Wegdraai who rely on the state’s social grants, meagre earnings from the farms, and, in some cases, remittances from relatives employed as migrant workers. 

Labour legislation is ignored

Vasco Mabunda, a land rights activist with the NGO Nkuzi Development Association, says Johannes should have negotiated a settlement with the couple or obtained a court order before evicting them. He says he should have also paid them the equivalent of a week’s salary for each of the 14 years they worked there.

Mabunda, whose organisation advocates for farm worker and land rights, says this is one of many cases of rights violations in the area.

“Farmers are now dismissing workers and replacing them with foreign nationals from Zimbabwe and Botswana. They think this will protect them from the law because the foreign nationals are employed without papers and will not run to report any violations of their rights,” says Mabunda.

In 2003, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) found in its report resulting from public hearings, the National Inquiry into Human Rights Violations in Farming Communities, that there were ongoing evictions from farms despite the promulgation of legislation to protect tenure security. The report also found there was a general and widespread lack of compliance with labour legislation.

A follow-up report published in 2008 found that the security of tenure of farm dwellers remained poorly implemented and illegal evictions continued. It also found that once under the threat of eviction, farm workers frequently lacked support, and their access to legal representation remained inadequate.

Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform Maite Nkoana-Mashabane acknowledged the ongoing oppression on the farms in her Budget Vote speech in Parliament earlier this year.

“It is shocking that in 2018, 24 years after we achieved democracy, illegal evictions and human rights abuses on farms still persist. It has recently come to my attention that in some parts of the country, people face the indignity of not being able to bury their loved ones on land they have resided on for most of their lives. These kinds of incidents undermine the land rights culture that we are trying to instil,” she said.

Ongoing suffering

The story of Morudu and Serumule is not unusual. Scores of farm workers face a similar plight in remote areas of the country.

As is often the case with farm labourers who do not earn enough to pay their children’s way through school, none of the couple’s nine children completed high school. Three are also employed as farm labourers, four are still in school, and two are married and living elsewhere. Two grandchildren whose mother died also live with them.

“We want to be paid out because we are struggling. We live in a RDP house which is very small. We buy water from those with boreholes at R70 a month. We buy electricity,” says Serumule.

The RDP house, whose walls spot dangerously wide cracks resulting from poor workmanship, has been divided into four rooms – two bedrooms, a lounge and sitting room. The lounge and sitting room also serve as bedrooms at night.

Serumule cooks the family’s meals on a wooden fire in a makeshift, roofless kitchen out in the yard. A donkey cart and tractor are parked parallel to each other. Donkeys laze about in a kraal.  

In December 2016, Morudu injured his index finger at work. He reported the incident to his employer, who instructed one of his workers to take Morudu to the local public clinic. But the healthcare system also failed Morudu. At the clinic, he was examined by a nurse who told him there was nothing wrong with his finger and sent him back to work.

Morudu tried to work. But he couldn’t. The pain in his finger was too much to bear. Eventually, using his own money, he travelled to hospital where he was admitted for a week. He was told his finger had to be amputated, but he refused. Although he was still in pain, he returned to work for fear of losing his earnings. The injury was allegedly never reported to the department, as required by law, and as a result, he was never compensated. He now struggles to do even house chores. 

“We are not satisfied with what happened. He paid us only for three months. We have never been found guilty of any offence,” says Serumule.

“There are no jobs. The only job opportunities available are those on the farms. My husband can no longer work because of his finger,” she says. 

“He was a good employer, but he didn’t handle our retrenchment in a good manner. We served only one month’s notice. We never did anything wrong to him,” she says. 

Dismissals

In the Baltimore area, also near the Botswana border, Moses Morudu was working in the fields, driving a tractor as usual, when his enraged employer approached him fuming and screaming.

He was dismissed on the spot. His crime? His Zimbabwean-born wife, Miriam Moyo, an employee on the same farm, had reported her employer to the police after he allegedly assaulted her. 

They were evicted from the farm. Moses Morudu’s nephew, Sello, also an employee on the farm, was dismissed a few days later. All dismissals were carried out without following the proper procedures of charging the workers and subjecting them to a disciplinary hearing. 

The case was reported to Nkuzi, who took the employer to the Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA). The commission found in the trio’s favour, forcing the employer to settle. 

Mabunda says the case was important in that it was the first time an undocumented foreign national brought a case successfully against an employer. Many refuse to seek recompense because they fear their illegal status in the country could be used against them.

But, says Mabunda, with farm workers becoming increasingly aware of legal avenues to follow in case of their rights being violated, farmers are now turning to desperate, undocumented foreign nationals as cheap labour.

“They have this attitude that the foreign nationals won’t pursue cases against them because they are desperate and they have no documents. This leads to serious exploitation, but we are fighting to change it. We want the law to force farmers to comply and not hide behind the fact that people don’t have documents,” he says.

The hiring of foreign nationals has led to tensions between them and South Africans, who accuse them of being opportunistic and reversing the gains being made against the abuse of farm workers.

Dividing labour

In August 2017, Mokgadi Tracey Leboho was fired on the spot for demanding protective safety gear from her employer on a farm near Baltimore. Her work included treating tobacco leaves in a smoky room. She was constantly coughing from the smoke and her eyes stung.  

“The place we work in is full of dust. We are not safe. The smoke comes through the ovens. We cook the tobacco,” she says.

She still bears scars on her stomach after suffering burns while on duty. Aware of the danger, Leboho asked her employer to provide her and her colleagues with safety gear. But she wasn’t prepared for what followed. “Do you want to work?” her fuming employer asked.

“Yes, I want to work, but I want safety clothes,” she replied.  “I can’t be bothered with you people with IDs. You are full of trouble,” the employer shouted. “Die hek is oop! [The gate is open!] You Pedis are lazy!”

And with that, Leboho and three of her colleagues were dismissed. A few days later, they heard they had been replaced by Zimbabwean labourers. “Zimbabweans don’t speak out when they are paid less than what the government says we should be paid. We are labelled troublemakers when we ask questions. We work with Zimbabweans, but we are not on good terms. They don’t question the farmers. They don’t demand safety equipment. They just want money,” charges Leboho, still waiting for her case to be resolved before the CCMA after her former employer failed to turn up for a hearing.

The preference for vulnerable migrants over South Africans has pitted poor people from different sides of the Limpopo River against each other.“Employers refuse to give us safety equipment because the Zimbabweans don’t use it. Instead they laugh at us,” she says.  “We do not hate the Zimbabweans. They are people just like us. The only problem is that they accept poor pay and bad working conditions. When we fight the employers, they laugh at us,” she says.

Lesiba Samuel Phakgadi was punished by being given the task of uprooting a massive tree with his bare hands after his employer lost a case at the CCMA. The employer’s son and his friends would allegedly watch Phakgadi toiling in the sun as they drank beer, taunting him, saying he was a natural earth-moving machine. He took the matter back to the CCMA on the basis that he was being victimised after winning a previous case in which he was unfairly dismissed.

But he was fired again. He asked his employer what the reason for his dismissal was, because he had not damaged anything. He was told he had refused to carry out his duties, which included herding cattle. In August 2017, his employer allegedly told him to sign a piece of paper and take his money, but Phakgadi refused.  “He said to me, ‘Kak! Sign here! You don’t listen,’” says Phakgadi.

He had worked for one year and nine months herding cattle, every day from Monday to Sunday, and on public holidays. “There was no weekend, no holiday,” says Phakgadi.

Phakgadi says the money was not bad. When he started he earned R2 900 a month, which was later increased to R3 200. But he was docked R700 for taking time off to arrange and attend the burial of his brother. 

Phakgadi eventually lost his case at the CCMA as he could not arrange legal representation, a reality faced by many farm workers, and one confirmed by the 2008 SAHRC report, which found power dynamics on farms to be heavily skewed in favour of employers.

Farm workers often do not have the means to travel to far-off offices that offer assistance because they lack funds and work in remote areas. Many also have low levels of formal education and lack the understanding of the workings of the law, unlike their employers, who are generally rich, educated and have resources to afford lawyers.

Van Wyk’s response

Johannes responded to the allegations through his Cape Town-based lawyer, Jacques van Wyk. Morudu and Serumula have no lawyer. They can’t afford one. 

In his response, Van Wyk denies that Johannes dismissed or evicted Morudu and Serumule, labelling the allegations as defamatory. He says the couple retired voluntarily after “negotiations”, and were never evicted but left out of their own free will. He also denies that they are entitled to any further payment or severance package.

Van Wyk paints a picture of Johannes as a good employer who, in addition to the couple’s remuneration and accommodation, provided them with monthly groceries, and free electricity and water.

He says “during March 2018 it was agreed with them that, having reached retirement age, they would retire from employment with effect from April 2018. They were at the time both receiving a state pension, which was inimical to and inconsistent with their continued employment. It was further agreed that, at that time, they would relocate from the farm.”

He claims “they had no objection to or complaint in this regard”. He goes on to describe the three months’ salary Johannes paid out to the couple after 14 years of service as a “gratuity”, which he claims both Morudu and Serumule accepted.

Despite Van Wyk’s claims that both Morudu and Serumule receive a state pension, only Morudu does. He paints the alleged eviction as a generous gesture where the employer arranged transport for the couple “to upload all their goods and to take them to their home to which they were relocating, near Tolwe, in the Blouberg district”.

‘He only gave us a few groceries’

“We never negotiated anything. He [Johannes] just called my husband one morning and told him he no longer had a job for him. Even now we are still shocked,” she says.

Morudu and Serumule say although they worked for Johannes for 14 years, they never received a payslip and were never registered with the Department of Labour.

“Groceries? What groceries? He must not tell lies. He only gave us a few groceries … It was only a few items not more than R500. He and his lawyer are not telling the truth,” she says.

– Mukurukuru Media

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