Farm workers remain landless and marginalised

The postapartheid government has betrayed both the Freedom Charter and the Constitution with its failure to get land into the hands of those who actually work it.

“You work from hand to mouth when you work on a farm,” says Jacob Phyllis, 53, from Nyarha township, Bedford, in the Eastern Cape. For 12 of the more than 30 years Phyllis has spent as a farm worker, he worked on the same farm on which his great-grandfather, grandfather and father had toiled before him.

Phyllis manages a cattle farm these days. Despite his skills, knowledge and experience, he is poorly paid. He also complains about poor working conditions. 

Like him, Monica Msingizane was born and raised on a farm. Her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were also raised there and ended up working on the farm. Msingizane, 43, works as a domestic worker in a farmhouse and lives in Nyarha. 

4 June 2021: Farm worker Jacob Phyllis with his daughter Yvonne Phyllis at their home in Nyarha. 

Msingizane says if the government could give farm workers land, they would thrive because they would be able to grow food and keep cattle. On the farm where she works, each worker is allowed to have only three cattle. Should the number increase, the owner tells them to decrease it, which is what happened to Msingizane and her husband. A friend kept the other cattle for them, says Msingizane. 

This rule stems from old colonial and apartheid laws that disposessed Black people of their land and forced them into so-called native reserves. The Land Act of 1913, the Native Trust and Land Act of 1936 and subsequent proclamations such as the Stock Limitation Act of 1950 expected of Black Africans to submit their cattle tally regularly. If the number was above a certain limit, they had to get rid of the cattle or risk being fined and having them impounded. 

Ntombizandile Lolo, 50, also has her roots on a farm where her family stayed for many years. But when her father died and her younger brother could not take his place as a worker, they were evicted. She moved to a shack settlement in Bedford, but continued working on the farm until she lost her job in July. Now she doesn’t have access to the graves of her forefathers and -mothers. This causes her pain because her spiritual connection to land has been disrupted. 

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The wrong beneficiaries

Attempts to get land through the government’s redistribution programme have failed for both farm workers and dwellers. Phyllis says he has applied more than four times for land but each application has been a failure. 

“The only thing we see are these people who are close to politicians… it’s them who are getting land and they know nothing about farming, but because of political connections they get the land,” he says.

“The farmers are selling their farms and the government buys the land, but you get beneficiaries that come [from] elsewhere [and do not stay or work] on the farm. This is what causes the [redistributed] commercial farms to fail. This then creates an impression that Black people cannot farm, [but it] is because the farms are not given to Black workers who know how to run a farm.”

6 June 2021: Monica Msingizane was born and raised on a farm and now works as a domestic worker in a farmhouse. 

Msingizane echoes Phyllis’ sentiments. She adds that the people who grew up on farms and worked there all their lives do not receive anything, which does not sit well with her and other farm dwellers. 

The elite capture in land redistribution was confirmed by a 2019 report by the University of the Western Cape’s Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies, which found that South Africa’s land reform programme excluded poor and working-class people. Over the years, well-off Black people, often with significant resources outside agriculture, have come to dominate the list of beneficiaries. 

The intended beneficiaries, mainly low-income households, landless people, farm workers, women, emerging commercial farmers and labour tenants, do not have political and economic influence and cannot influence land distribution.    

6 June 2021: Six generations of the Phyllis family lived and worked on this farm. Pictured is the house where Jacob and his siblings were born.

Broken promises

Phyllis, Msingizane and Lolo’s stories are a reminder that the Freedom Charter’s promise that “the land shall be shared among those who work it” has been betrayed by the postapartheid government, and so has the promise of equitable access to land, enshrined by the Constitution in section 25 (5).

The historical injustice of land dispossession is yet to be resolved fairly owing to a heavy backlog of more than 11 000 applications – by 2019 – that need to be settled. “If each took only one day to process,” the Constitutional Court held, “the load would take about 24 years for the Department [of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development] to surmount, including work on weekends – and, without weekend work, 40 years.”

The issue of land redistribution has been the subject of a heated national debate for years, with some calling for the amendment of the Constitution’s property clause to allow expropriation without compensation. The “intensity and bitterness” of this debate has been profoundly exacerbated by the department’s “failure to practically manage and expedite land reform measures in accordance with constitutional and statutory promises”, the court said in the same judgment. 

It added that “it is not the Constitution, nor the courts, nor the laws of the country that are at fault in this. It is the institutional incapacity of the department to do what the statute and the Constitution require of it that lies at the heart of this colossal crisis.” 

6 June 2021: Jacob Phyllis at the site of his family’s ancestral graveyard on the farm where they all worked.

This institutional incapacity saw the court introduce a special master to help administer land claims by labour tenants. Public service reform veteran Richard Levin was appointed in the role in 2019 and has tabled a plan to deal with the backlog. 

However, missing is land redistribution to farm workers – the people who till the soil and take care of animals to ensure that there is food for the nation. Largely, they don’t have access to land to farm for themselves. This is devastating for thousands of land-hungry farm workers who have the skills to work the land but are without access to land. It is a betrayal of the struggle and the constitutional promise of a better future. 

Though the land question has not been ignored, it is imperative that the government moves beyond empty political rhetoric and address land hunger. As Frantz Fanon writes in The Wretched of the Earth, 

“For a colonised people the most essential value … is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity.” 

Phyllis, Msingizane and Lolo are among a group of farm workers who made a documentary about their plight in conjunction with The Forge, a progressive platform for discussion and ideas. They spoke at a screening of the documentary, which is yet to be released online.

6 November 2021 : From left, Nomzamo Zondo, Yvonne Phyllis, Cynthia Nophelo Phyllis, Jacob Phyllis, Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, Monica Lolo and Virginia Ntombizandile at the screening of a documentary about the Nyarha farm workers in Johannesburg.
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