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February 07, 2011

Echoes of apartheid for evicted farm workers in South Africa

by Joshua Howat Berger

A group of farm workers traces a slow arc around the base of a towering water tank, following the only shade on the shantytown's main street as the sun makes its way across the sky.

The green drum, which holds 10,000 litres (quarts) and gets refilled three times a week, is the only municipal service in Plangene, an informal settlement for "coloured" or mixed-race families who have been evicted from their houses on white-owned vineyards in South Africa's arid Northern Cape province.

Plangene, which sits about 800 kilometres (500 miles) west of Johannesburg, is a scattering of some 50 tin-roof shacks with no electricity, sanitation, running water or school.

"When the farm owners evict us, the only place to go is here," says Katriena Brown, a petite 62-year-old widow who moved here in 2005, a month after her husband died. She had lived most of her adult life on the farm where he worked. "They told me I had to leave because my husband passed away and they didn't need me," she says.

Her story is common in rural South Africa, where an estimated one million non-white farm residents have been evicted since 1994 -- only one percent through legal processes. Their tenuous hold on the places they once lived and worked shows the challenges the country still faces in dealing with the legacies of apartheid land laws, 17 years after the fall of white-minority rule.

When apartheid ended in 1994, decades of discriminatory legislation had left 87 percent of South Africa's farm land in the hands of its 13 percent white population. The country's new government came to power promising to redistribute the land more equally. It launched a programme aimed at transferring 30 percent of white-owned farm land to black owners by 1999. That deadline was later extended to 2014, then scrapped altogether as Land Reform Minister Gugile Nkwinti admitted last year that his department was only one-fifth of the way to meeting its target.

The example of neighbouring Zimbabwe -- where violent seizures of white-owned farms devastated production and provoked a food crisis -- has loomed large in the South African land debate. The government has waffled uncertainly between the need to increase land ownership among the black majority and the fear of alienating the white middle-class or crippling commercial farming.

Today, about three million rural South Africans still live on land they do not own, often in houses their families have occupied for decades.

The constitution and various laws promise them the right to new land or to compensation in case of eviction. But in reality, as the agricultural sector has shed jobs -- employment on commercial farms fell more than 25 percent from 1993 to 2007 -- many farm workers have been evicted illegally from their long-time homes and left to build shacks in places like Plangene.

South Africa's parliament will this year debate a new law designed to give greater protection to farm residents, who are often unaware of their rights. The draft bill, published for public comment in December, would replace the existing laws on farm tenants' rights, which had little impact because so few evictions went to court. It proposes creating a land rights board to oversee all eviction cases and ensure that each one passes through the justice system.

Agri SA, the country's largest commercial farm owners' association, has already voiced its opposition to the law.

"Farmers would rather demolish the houses of workers because once you've got a worker in it, it's impossible to get them out again," said Theo de Jager, the chairman of Agri SA's land affairs committee. "Instead of assisting people with tenure security, it will do the opposite."

The only national study on the issue of farm evictions, conducted in 2005, shows that while 165,000 households gained access to property through land reform in the first decade of democracy, even more -- 200,000 -- were forced off of farms.

"While we're embarking on a very costly, highly publicised process of redistributing access to land from white to black people, in fact a far greater number of black people are losing their hold on a place to be in rural areas," said Ruth Hall, a researcher at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape. "I think that these evictions are very painful reminders how stark the racial divides still are."

Maria Magdelena Eusu, a 54-year-old former grape harvester, says the real problem is the imbalance of power on farms. Eusu came to live and work on a vineyard in the farming hamlet of Blaauwkamp at the age of 23, but quit her job there a year ago after suffering a stroke. She is now fighting to stay in the leaky one-room shack she shares with six relatives. They are one of 43 coloured families facing eviction by the farm's white owner.

"When the owner says something, that's the way it is. No one's going to tell him no. He makes his own choices whether you are happy with it or not," Eusu said. "Apartheid's not over yet. It's still the same," she added. "The owner's still the same. He still wants to own you as a human being. They never changed. Everything is still the same."


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