The Bloodbath – Horror stories from SA’s farm workers    


 “Moenie die hoender ruk nie.”

This is an idiom repeated frequently throughout the Baviaanskloof, a canyon inset in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.

Roughly it means “don’t shake the chicken”. The more direct interpretation is “don’t overdo it”, though.

With those words in mind, consider a place most South Africans consider to be remote.

At the same time, it is teeming with gritty authenticity that any social realist would find inviting.

Because, as in most parts of the South African bush, the picturesque settings and latent mysticism of the place belie untold years of violence.

And not all of those are shrouded in the dark days of apartheid.

Throughout my research on climate change adaptation issues in the Baviaans, I encountered coloured people who worked and or lived on white-owned farms in more or less the same way as many of their relatives have over the years.

While minimum wage laws and worker health and safety laws have changed for the better, the average coloured farmworker ekes out a living in slightly better than feudal conditions.

This often includes mis or poor treatment, and in one case a form of abuse and neglect that led to a farm worker’s death in the last decade.

I was repeatedly told of physical abuse against the coloured farm worker population, carried out by white farmers and landowners.

Numerous coloured people have told me that violence is commonly apportioned against a diverse set of farm workers and farm dwellers, often with the same tools and methods of the colonial past.

One story involves Harry Classen, who eyewitnesses reported being beaten to death by a farmer in 1997.

The case went before a South African Magistrate Court, but ultimately ended on the basis of insufficient evidence. The court-appointed pathologist claimed Classen died of peritonitis, a disease that includes an abnormal swelling of the abdomen, which can in some cases be set on spontaneously.

Classen’s family, including his son, claim that his death was anything but a spontaneous collapse.

Another case includes a woman named Spaas Mapoe who lived on a farm as a dweller in the east of the Baviaans – classified in South African differently and similarly entitled to a different slew of rights than a mere worker.

Spaas was often beaten by the madam of the house, and to this day claims that she cannot move her arms properly as a result of one beating.

Many report that she was forced off the farm she worked on just at the before land reform laws took effect in the late ‘90s, in part so that the farm owners could avoid providing her the living conditions that were then required for farm dwellers.

Why belabour the past? Shake this particular chicken? The Baviaans is, after all, a remote corner of the country and not demonstrative of the types of issues felt by most South Africans.

Except that it is.

In 2011 Human Rights Watch reported on some grotesque and often sophisticated forms of intimidation and abuse on the part of some white farmers, including purposeful exposure to harmful chemicals in the sprawling wine lands of the Western Cape, as well as the use of older implements, like whips.

This report has been roundly criticised by white farmers’ groups in the last few years, but the report is well -documented and has been supported by other claims in other agricultural sectors, including the larger fruit orchards that extend between the Western and Eastern Capes.

Other works on the rights of farm workers and dwellers have systematically charted forms of law breaking and bending, but rarely have they attracted a large audience.

Lali Naidoo of the Eastern Cape Agricultural Research Project (ECARP) has worked extensively in the area of farm worker justice throughout her career.

Writing in a book on land rights she concluded that almost 20 years after the end of apartheid, the lot for most farm workers is only “marginally” better.

Most of the popular media attention in the country, however, focuses on the gruesome and often barbaric nature of farm attacks of a different nature: black on white.

The Eugène Terre'Blanche case being perhaps the most famous, in which the white supremacist leader was brutally murdered by two of his workers.

Initial reports were that they were driven by the anti-Boer fervour of Julius Malema, the fiery populist who has recently been exiled from the ruling ANC.

Most likely the crime was committed as a result of a wage dispute, however.

Fewer of these crimes appear to include violence between coloured farm workers, of the like who work in the Baviaans, and large white landholders, but then these numbers are notoriously difficult to entangle.

One NGO called Genocide Watch claims that more than 4 000 largely Afrikaans farmers have been murdered by young black men, most often employed by the victims.

Such acts give the impression (especially to many white South Africans) of a racial backlash, perhaps stemming from a sense of revenge felt by the black majority.

Without trivialising the heinousness of these crimes (one need only read the police blotter in a South African daily, or better yet the work of JM Coetzee, to get a sense of this), the injustice and brutality incurred by blacks and coloureds is far more common and inculcated in everyday life here.

It is also much harder for a farm dweller with little formal education and even less access to the news media to spread news that, if botched, might result in more abuse or expulsion from one of South Africa’s 33 000-plus white-owned farms.

There is an inherent information deficit about these crimes.

Space must be given to covering the perils of life as a white rural landowner, but not at the expense of historically marginalised farm workers.

Concerns over the targeting killing of white, predominantly Afrikaner farmers, should be balanced with an understanding that abuse is a common “sometimes daily” occurrence for black and coloured people.

There is little evidence of genocide against white farmers, as some NGO’s and at least one prominent scholar, Gregory Stanton, have argued, but neither is there a race-based killing spree on display by that demographic.

Scholars on the left have argued for years now that a class analysis is more appropriate.

Just as it has provided energy to appraisals of the stymied efforts at land reform in the country, class also illustrates how workers (who also happen to be coloured or black) are often heavily exploited, especially in remote conditions.

Without the time and resources, an investigative report of farm worker abuse in the Baviaans is not likely to arise any time soon.

There are likely more serious infringements in the larger wine, rooibos, and fruit fields farther to the west, just by virtue of greater farm size and farm density.

The individual accounts of mistreatment, however, should not be overlooked.

South Africa has made significant strides since democratisation, but the dynamic beauty of this landscape has the tendency to obscure social stasis.

The same can be said for the violence itself: blood-soaked, sensationalistic stories of farm attacks may elide the quotidian abuse many rural South Africans experience daily. – Pambazuka News

November 2013
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