A farm in ward 15 of the Msukaligwa Local Municipality in Mpumalanga stretches for thousands of hectares. The farmer has diverse interests, but specialises in forestry, mielies, hay and livestock.
His family has been on the farm for decades and employs many of the descendants of the original black landowners. Some are now speaking out, saying the farmer has enforced harsh working conditions and routinely threatens to evict them.
Most of those who live on the farm depend on the farmer for employment. They used to live on bigger plots on the farm, where they were able to keep livestock and undertake small-scale farming. But in 2013, the farmer began harassing those who no longer worked for him, saying that only registered employees were allowed to live on the farm, according to the farm dwellers.
He gave them an ultimatum. If they wanted to remain employed, they had to relocate to a smaller area on the farm closer to the main road. The farmer promised to provide water and electricity. But the more confined area meant the farm dwellers would no longer be able to keep livestock.
It took the farmer about five years after most of the dwellers had relocated to install electricity. They say he charges them exorbitant amounts, some pay R150 for 40 units of electricity. Part of what they pay is an instalment of R50 a month for a meter, an arrangement to which the workers did not consent. For some – like Peter Mthokozisi Sibanyoni, 27, who has been working as a gardener for the past seven years – a quarter of their R2 000 salary goes to electricity, which they are only allowed to buy on a Thursday.
The farmer charges the dwellers for losing odd items on the farm, too. He decides what the value of the missing item is and then adds this amount to the electricity tariff or deducts it from their wages. In one instance, when a microwave went missing, he informed the community that he was going to deduct it from their salaries. However, it was later discovered that the microwave had been thrown in a dustbin after it was assumed to no longer work. He subsequently changed his mind.
Forced to withstand difficult labour conditions
Farm dwellers who work as drivers for a freight company in which the farmer has a stake say they are forced to endure exploitative working conditions because they don’t want to leave their ancestral land.
One of the drivers, Jacobs Mkhize*, says the farmer once sat them down for an entire day at work to explain how he wants things to be done on the farm. “[Even] today he was telling us that whoever no longer works for him should bear in mind that they don’t have a place to stay.”
Mkhize has been a driver for more than a decade. He and his colleagues are not registered in the bargaining council, he says, and are not provided with a number of benefits to which they are entitled, such as overtime pay and a food allowance.
“We are in a difficult situation. If he asks me to leave the farm, I will ask him to dig all the graves of my ancestors because I can’t leave them here. I want my offspring to know their forefathers. All I want is peace and freedom.”
Truck rolled over his knee
Vusi Mathebula, 54, is a father of eight. He says he can’t recall the exact year he started working for the farmer’s family. “I started working for his father. I was in construction where we were building houses, including the one that he resides in,” he says.
Around 2011, he was injured at work, when they were tasked with burning firebreaks near the forests. “The firefighter truck reversed and rolled over my left knee,” he said. He was sent to Piet Retief Hospital. The fracture was severe and his knee split apart. The doctors recommended that his leg be amputated.
When his condition worsened, the farmer sent him to a hospital in Pretoria. While there, he discovered that his medical file claimed that he wasn’t at work when he got injured. It said he had asked for a lift from the firefighters’ truck. “I was shocked to discover this,” Mathebula says.
He suspects that the farmer misconstrued the facts to escape paying what is due to him. It took Mathebula two years to recover. “While I was recovering, he only paid me R300 for a couple of months and then stopped. When I left his company, I was empty-handed, without any benefits. The farmer said he’d call me for us to talk, even to date, nothing. It’s been almost over 10 years since I was injured,” he says.
“If I wasn’t financially supported by my wife, I would have died out of hunger. The farmer said I must come back to work while walking on crutches. I realised that he was disrespecting me,” says Mathebula. “This saddens me a lot because he’s never bothered to pay out what is due to me. Even now, I am working in the forests and the leg gets terribly sore.”
On the verge of eviction
The farmer has now told all those who no longer work for him to leave the farm, without following legal procedures or involving the Department of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation.
Janenkemba Masilela, 46, is a father of four. He started working for the farmer in 1993. He grew up on the farm, as did his parents. But in 2012, “the farmer just said the job is finished without any explanation”. All he received were a few months of Unemployment Insurance Fund payouts.
Masilela says the farmer ended his employment because he was one of the few workers who was not scared to speak up about wrongdoings when the farmer held community meetings. “You do get fired for speaking out the truth, especially when you criticise him. I was sold out by the residents here. When the farmer gets angry for asking the truth, the locals would say I am a warmonger,” he says.
The farmer has told Masilela to leave the farm. “I am devastated and heartbroken because of this treatment. I really did not want to leave this farm as I grew up here.”
Unaware of their rights
The Extension of Security of Tenure Act 62 of 1997 provides protection for farm dwellers in cases where a farmer might want to deny residency, according to Nokuthula Mthimunye, a media officer for land rights advocacy organisation the Association for Rural Advancement.
“What we’ve seen [is that] people in farms are not empowered enough and don’t know the rights they have; they would not use the legal way. In most cases people have been evicted illegally,” says Mthimunye. “Even with an eviction, you are supposed to be taken somewhere, the court will determine the value of the house, your livestock, and will consider your previous rights in order to determine the new rights you are supposed to get.”
She adds that the farmer is in the wrong by evicting the dwellers without fairly compensating them, providing alternative accommodation or organising resettlement through the human settlements department.
Stha Yeni, a doctoral candidate at the University of Western Cape’s Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies, agrees with Mthimunye. “There are a lot of abuses [on farms] and human rights violations are a norm because they are remote … Sometimes the farm owners act like the people are property.”
Weak implementation of laws
Yeni continues: “Whenever the government puts in place legislation that seeks to address this racial history of discrimination, the response by the commercial farmer is to evict people. These evictions are illegal and don’t follow court procedures and take advantage that people are vulnerable and aren’t literate. While there are so many evictions that have gone through without court orders, not a single farm owner has been arrested. This shows you that when it comes to implementation of these laws, you see who the winners and losers are.”
When prompted after no response for a week, Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development spokesperson Reggie Ngcobo said, “Let me check with these guys from the media if they got the response, as they were supposed to get a response.” He has not answered subsequent calls or responded to text messages.
‘This land belongs to us’
Although some have relented and agreed to relocate to the smaller area, other farm dwellers remain defiant. Ephraim Muggibelo Simelane, 59, is one of them. “I have been working for the family for about 40 years,” Simelane says. Despite giving more than half his life to the farm, he fell ill once and his contract was terminated.
The farmer has told Simelane to leave the farm. “I told him that I am not leaving, that is not going to happen, not now and not ever. Personally, I don’t see the reason why I should leave the farm. He has to do whatever that he wants,” he says.
Simelane says the farmer has complained about the number of goats he keeps. “For me to be able to keep livestock helps me a lot and it is my source of survival. People like me who have worked for this farmer for decades, we should be very far in life. But look at my life now, there is nothing to show for it.”
Phumaphi Elliot Thabethe, 71, is one of the oldest residents on the farm. He, too, remains defiant. His forefathers settled on the land long before it was incorporated into the current farm. Thabethe says that in the early days, the current owner’s great-grandparents would lend the farm dwellers their oxen to cultivate the land.
“There were no forests. It was plain land when we came here,” he says. “His father used our assets to farm, he exploited us. His great-grandparents found us here. This land belongs to us.”
Thabethe says that over time the family began pointing to vast amounts of land, saying it was theirs. As a result, they assumed ownership during the apartheid era, dispossessing Africans of their land. “He keeps saying that his forefather bought the land, but from who? Did they pay for the land to the government or us, the people they found here? They stole this land from us,” he says. “Freedom in this farm is non-existent. If he wants me to leave, himself, too, must go.”
Thabethe says they tried to lodge a land claim many years ago with the then department of rural development and land reform. But nothing has materialised.
Water in a pandemic
Msukaligwa ward 15 councillor Thenjiwe Motha has told New Frame about some of the challenges she faces to provide services on farms. “Issues of farm dwellers are most traumatising, especially when you are a councillor that visits your areas,” she says.
In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, Motha received a number of water tanks from the local government. She sought permission from the farmer to install one of the tanks there so that the farm dwellers would have enough water, as the borehole water becomes dirty when the tap is overused. And it is often overused, because more than 20 families depend on it.
According to Motha, the farmer told her: “Councillor, listen, the land is mine and I am the one that pays for it. Those people are mine. If they have issues regarding services, I have a committee. I don’t want the Jojo [water tank] because it would bring crime. As a matter of fact, I want nothing that comes from government.”
Describing her understanding of the relationship between the farmer and the farm dwellers, Motha says: “It is a mess that I have never seen. When you listen to him, you’d think he’s kind, but he is a vicious snake. The dwellers struggle a lot and they reside in an apartheid prison.”
Numerous attempts were made to contact the farmer for an interview about the living conditions of the farm dwellers. He said, “I am not interested in talking to journalists because I’ve done that before and it came out very skewed and totally not true.”
A week later, he was offered an opportunity to respond to the farm dwellers’ version of the story, in writing. He did not respond.
*Name has been changed for fear of reprisal.