Land was at the heart of the colonial drama and it remains central to demands for redress in South Africa. In 1915, Sol Plaatje wrote, in heartbreaking prose, of the “roving pariahs” who had been forced off white farms following the Native Land Act, which Plaatje called “a legislative monstrosity”.
But waves of evictions from commercial farms, many of them white-owned, have continued after apartheid. Attempts at redress, or to extend a degree of protection to farm workers, have incited new rounds of expulsion.
The adoption of the Extension of Security of Tenure Act in 1997 resulted in mass clearances. Now, talk about the expropriation of land without compensation is leading to a new wave of removals. It is estimated that more than 20 000 people are currently threatened by farm evictions in just one municipality in the Western Cape.
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This crisis is not solely a labour issue. There is a historical continuity that should be brought into the analysis. There is a history of colonial dispossession that forced black people into the racial feudalism of life on white farms as farm workers or, in the past, as labour tenants.
In parts of the former Cape Colony and the old Boer republics, black people were subsumed within systems of slave labour. Individuals and families had to earn their tenure by their labour on land that was handed to white people.
Under this exploitative labour system resulting from land dispossession, surviving farm dwellers and labour tenants clung to the scope the system offered: chiefly, to raise families, keep cattle and plough.
Apartheid closes in
After the National Party came into power and instituted fierce segregationist legislation, grassroots political opposition launched a series of campaigns that included boycotts, strikes and anti-passbook drives.
In the 1950s, when decolonisation in Africa was on the agenda, the Freedom Charter promised that “the land shall be shared among those who work it” and will be “redivided among those who work it, to banish famine and land hunger” in South Africa. The Charter declared that “the people shall share in the country’s wealth”.
However, the drafting of the Freedom Charter coincided with anticommunist paranoia as the apartheid government moved to consolidate its rule based on a Bantustan strategy of retribalisation, taking the provisions of the Land Acts of 1913 and 1936 to their logical conclusion.
During this period, rural riots, primarily based in the reserves, showed that rural Africans were capable of taking threatening action.
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From the 1960s, the apartheid government – in conjunction with organised agriculture – launched a drive to eliminate labour tenancy throughout South Africa and replace it with a system of reduced, full-time farm labour.
In what was then Natal, white farmers voiced their fears about the political and security risks of what was officially described as “die beswarting van die platteland” (the blackening of the platteland, the countryside).
In response to these kinds of fears, the apartheid government clamped down viciously on political opposition and moved all black people from white towns and farming areas while allowing the government more control over them.
This response included passing the Bantu Laws Amendment Act of 1964 – the culmination of National Party policy towards black people; the final denial of any rights of citizenship. This act gave the government the power to expel any black person from any of the towns or the white farming areas at any time, abolishing labour tenancy through evictions.
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In the early 1980s, the Surplus People Project researched the number of forced removals that had taken place across the country from 1960 to 1983. They found that in the 23 years to 1983, the government had forcibly removed 3.5 million people. Of these, 1.1 million people were moved from white farms, making up “the largest category of removals” in South Africa during that period.
The Association for Rural Advancement (Afra) estimated that from 1948 to 1982, at least 300 000 farm workers and labour tenants were evicted from white farms in the Natal region. According to Afra’s findings, “the main thrust of the evictions process took place between late 1960s and 1970s with the massive state sponsored removal of labour tenants in Central and Northern Natal”, where fears about “die beswarting van die platteland” were expressed.
Evictions persist in the democratic era
A 2005 study by Nkuzi Development Association in conjunction with Social Surveys, titled “Still Searching for Security: The reality of farm dweller evictions in South Africa”, reported on farm evictions from 1984 to 2004, two decades that included the end of apartheid and the transition to an electoral democracy. This report found that around 1.7 million farm workers had been evicted. The highest incidences of eviction took place in 1984, 1992, 1994 to 1997 and 2003.
More than half of these evictions occurred after 1994. It was argued that the general insecurity some farmers felt concerning their land rights and political future was a key driver of evictions. The peak in the rate of evictions seems to have coincided with the enactment of the Labour Tenant Act and the Extension of Security of Tenure Act.
In 2003, the Department of Labour introduced a sectoral determination to regulate employment conditions in South African agriculture. This imposed a minimum wage. The determination also specified other conditions of employment, such as maximum working hours and minimum safety standards. The percentage of people evicted from farms in 2003 was more than double that of the previous three years. During this period, a high proportion of evictions from farms were for employment-related reasons.
There have been no quantitative surveys since 2005. However, research by the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies from 2008 in Limpopo found that evictions were still continuing, based on interviews on case study farms. Moreover, the Western Cape Winelands District 2010 survey of 50 farms did not find evidence of evictions but reported “displacement” between 2005 and 2010.
Evictions and the land expropriation debate
The Drakenstein Municipality in the Western Cape has a caseload of 1 127 pending farm eviction matters. At an indaba on farm evictions hosted by the South African Human Rights Commission in April 2018, Drakenstein municipal manager Lauren Waring acknowledged that the municipality had become “a hotspot for evictions” with an estimated 20 000 people threatened by this round of evictions.
There is a real risk that a large number of people awaiting the possibility of eviction in fear, uncertainty and bitterness will be forced to move and start building a shack, a place, a community from scratch all over again.
The motion passed in the National Assembly in February 2018 to review section 25 of the Constitution and other clauses necessary to make it possible for the state to expropriate land in the public interest without compensation, has spurred the current wave of evictions.
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President Cyril Ramaphosa’s responses to questions about his State of the Nation address, in which he said farm dwellers and labour tenants would be “one of three categories targeted for expropriation without compensation”, are understood to have exacerbated the new push to evict.
This reflects historical continuity. Whenever there is an announcement about the possibility of restructuring the skewed agricultural sector, landholding and labour relations, farmers and landowners respond by evicting people.
Evictions are an instrument used by landowners to defend their property as they seek to maintain private ownership. Evictions are, therefore, a strategy used to preserve racialised inequality and capitalist social relations.
At the same time, escalating land occupations in the cities are an assault on the interests of private property and capitalist social relations more broadly. The battle lines that will shape the drama to come have been clearly demarcated.
Sobantu Mzwakali is a writer and activist. He is also the advocacy and campaign officer for Tshintsha Amakhaya, an alliance for land and food justice in South Africa.