‘WHAT WE’RE seeing is really a naked brutal form of capitalism where people’s lives are expendable,’ says University of Western Cape Professor Ruth Hall in relation to the fact that nearly a million South African farm dwellers have been forcibly evicted in a decade.
Sophia Maqubela, 35, gathers wood every day between the rows of crops that grow around her house.
She keeps an eye out for snakes and once she’s gathered as much as she can carry she stores it outside her front door.
The electricity to the house was cut off by the landowner a few months ago and the only way to heat bathwater, or make a hot meal for the children, is to burn sticks and logs on an old wood stove in the kitchen.
Maqubela lives with her sister, Shireen, and their children on Bestwyk Farm in Prince Alfred’s Hamlet near Ceres in the Western Cape.
Sophia and Shireen’s father died in August 2017; he worked on the farm for 46 years as a mechanic, builder and driver.
Their mother died six months after that; she used to work as a domestic worker for the farmowner, Johan van Wyk. After the deaths of their parents, Van Wyk has told Sophia and Shireen they must leave the house.
‘He said he doesn’t know why we’re on the farm, he didn’t give us permission to stay here, he said we are spoilt and he wants to get a prosecutor to get us out of the house,’ says Sophia Maqubela as she sits on a bed in the lounge.
Half burnt candles shoved into empty beer bottles are scattered around the house, ready to be lit once darkness falls.
‘My mother and my father, if they were here, they would not let us leave the farm because where must we go? My mother worked for (Van Wyk) for 30 years as a domestic worker. She raised his two children. His oldest daughter is just as old as I am, and now he says he knows nothing about us.’
Under the Extension of Security of Tenure Act (ESTA), Maqubela’s parents were legally entitled to stay in the house, but their tenure rights were not transferable after their death and their two daughters face eviction despite growing up on the farm.
‘We feel hurt because we don’t want to go; we don’t because our whole lives are here, this is where our children grew up. It doesn’t feel like we should move from here,’ says Sophia Maqubela.
Naomi Betana, a paralegal for the Witzenberg Rural Development Centre, is helping the Maqubela sisters fight their eviction.
Betana says there are more farm eviction cases than her organisation can manage.
She said that families who are evicted often end up living in informal settlements in environments with shared ablution facilities, no running water in their homes, poor access to public transport, overcrowding, little access to employment, education and healthcare, and rife with gangsterism and drug abuse.
‘The biggest concern is when the court has approved eviction orders without alternative housing, that shows us that the courts are no longer on the side of the poor. Where are people supposed to go?’ says Betana.
Ruth Hall, a professor at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape, estimates that in the first decade of democracy almost 940,000 people were forcibly evicted from farms.
Removals coincided with the withdrawal of apartheid-era subsidies for white-owned farms.
Hall says that in the early days of democracy white farmers who used to rely on government support had to fend for themselves financially and reducing their labour force was a desperate attempt to drive down costs.
‘What we’re seeing is really a naked brutal form of capitalism where people’s lives are expendable in the context of squeezed commercial businesses, where farmers are facing the global market, they’re squeezing labour costs and pushing people off their farms,’ says Hall.
‘I think we must be realistic, it’s an economic reality. But to change that requires real political will and a vision from our politicians which I don’t think we’ve seen up to now.’
President Cyril Ramaphosa’s national election campaign targeted farmworkers extensively even though repeated calls by activists for a moratorium on evictions have fallen on deaf ears.
In the farming community of Citrusdal in the Western Cape on 23 March 2019 Ramaphosa promised that his party would support the fight against evictions.
During a National Women’s Day address in Paarl on 9 August 2018, Ramaphosa praised the women of South Africa and acknowledged that women are predominantly ‘burdened’ by poverty, and prejudice.
But when a group of women disrupted his speech, singing and carrying placards that read ‘Stop farm evictions’ and ‘We want our land back,’ Ramaphosa responded, ‘I have seen the posters. We will talk about it later.’
The women were then escorted from the hall by then rural development and land reform minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane and former minister of women in the presidency Bathabile Dlamini.
Ramaphosa attempted to tackle the issue by pleading with farmowners to end evictions during a meeting at Beyerskloof wine farm in Stellenbosch before the national elections on 8 May 2019.
‘The land reform process is something we should never fear. It is going to be done in terms of the Constitution,’ he said. News 24 reported at the time that Ramaphosa asked farmowners to treat their workers with humanity.
‘We face a serious challenge of evictions where farmworkers are evicted from farms,’ he said. There’s been a lot of talk, but so far, very little action.
On 22 March 2019, the day before Human Rights Day, farmworkers and farm dwellers from across the province marched to Parliament and handed over a memorandum for the attention of Nkoana-Mashabane.
Thozama Diamond, from the department of rural development and land reform, signed the memorandum and assured protesters that a response to their demands would be forthcoming.
The Presidency representative Charles Ford said it would take up to eight weeks to get a response but thus far, three months later, no response has been received, according to the main organisers of the march, Women on Farms Project, a non-profit organisation that helps female farmworkers in the Western Cape.
Carmen Louw, co-director of Women on Farms Project, places a large portion of the blame on a law which is easily abused by landowners.
The intention of the 1997 Extension of Tenure Security Act (ESTA) was to protect the rights of farmworkers and farm dwellers.
This law states that an eviction can only take place if an eviction order has been issued by the Land Claims Court, but this legal process of eviction has also harmed farmworkers and dwellers.
Louw says illegal and legal evictions destroy the lives of farmworkers and farm dwellers by uprooting them from social structures.
She’s been involved in many situations where farmowners make conditions on the farm so unbearable that residents have no option but to leave the property.
Water is turned off, electricity is cut, curfews are imposed and once the house is evacuated, land is rezoned and handed over to a developer.
Louw says ESTA regulates the eviction process rather than protecting residents.
‘ESTA is a new form of forced removals,’ says Louw.
Phuti Mabelebele, spokesperson for the department of rural development and land reform, agrees that there is ‘a real housing problem’, especially as evictions put additional pressure on municipalities, who are tasked with providing housing to communities in need.
According to the Land Claims Court, 1,157 cases have been heard nationally since 2002, including 17 so far in 2019. This excludes illegal evictions, data for which is hard to come by.
Hall says evictions have reached a point of crisis and farm evictions are on such a scale that ‘more black people are forced off the land by farm evictions than are getting land through the government’s land reform programme’.
‘In terms of trying to undo racial inequalities in access to land we’re moving backwards,’ says Hall. ‘People are not going to wait for another two decades to see if government is going to act.’