Deputy Land Affairs and Agriculture minister Dirk du Toit has been accused by a broad spectrum of critics of indulging in cheap politicking to mask government failures, following remarks he made in parliament that farmers evicting workers illegally should face expropriation.
Du Toit was backed by his minister Lulama Xingwana and some provincial agriculture ministers following his outburst in the National Assembly on 12 September. But analysts pointed out his timing suggested he was engaging in damage control ahead of the ANC conference in December. This is when the party chooses a new leader and faces pressure from its alliance partners, the SA Communist Party and the Congress of SA Trade Unions, to deliver more pro-poor policies. Both have previously mobilised support around the cause of farmworker evictions.
Du Toit reportedly said farm evictions would stop “in mid-air” if farmers believed they risked losing their land. “To those [farmers] who are trying to dump people off their ground, we must send a message,” Sapa quoted him as saying. “And the only way they will understand is when the land is affected, and then it will stop.” The tirade came just three weeks after Du Toit’s department received a roasting in the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) from ANC MPs for doing nothing to improve the lot of farmworkers in 13 years.
This meeting was a follow-up to a public hearing in February, when the Human Rights Commission accused the department of failing to take initiative in securing farmworker rights. At the NCOP hearing in August, Land Affairs deputy director general Mdu Shabane announced the launch of a “presidential priority” project, which would see five million hectares of farmland bought to secure the tenure rights of farmworkers.
The move surprised farmers’ unions and NGOs. Nkuzi, the land rights group that produced a controversial report on evictions in 2005 now widely quoted by government officials, accused Land Affairs of constantly making announcements but failing to produce results. This was echoed by MPs across the political spectrum. N COP land affairs committee chairperson and ANC MP Peter Moatshe backed calls for a blanket freeze on evictions until Land Affairs got its house in order, calling on the department to seek new legal advice on the issue. Du Toit’s tirade could be the department’s answer to this injunction. He reportedly told the National Assembly recently that farmdwellers enjoyed protection under the Extension of Security of Tenure Act (Esta) and the Labour Tenants Act, but that another law, the Provision of Land and Assistance Act, should be used “for the purpose of working against these evictions” because it allowed for expropriation to secure land tenure rights.
It is not clear why Du Toit chose to focus on the Land and Assistance Act, which was promulgated in 1993 and does little more than empower the minister to use taxpayers’ funds to buy land for redistribution. The act does indeed allow the minister to “exercise equivalent powers” which other ministers “may exercise under the Expropriation Act” – but then so does Esta. “This strikes me as cheap politicking – nothing more,” said Prof Ben Cousins of the Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape. “There’s huffing and puffing against farmers on the one side, and reality on the other.”
He believes Du Toit is trying to cover up his department’s failure to deliver a concrete plan of action and commit time, budget and resources to secure farmdweller tenure rights. “You’d take the expropriation threat more seriously if [Land Affairs] were actually doing something – with expropriation as a last resort. But they never follow through with a serious programme of action.” Farmers’ unions and commodity groups reacted with outrage, demanding that President Thabo Mbeki repudiate the minister’s statements.
The presidency has since indicated that concerns should be addressed to Mbeki in writing and talks could be held to discuss the issue. Newly elected Grain SA chairperson Neels Ferreira called Du Toit’s remarks “thoughtless and emotional” and said allegations of misconduct and abuse by farmers must be handled by the criminal justice system. “If the laws of the country with regard to the eviction of farmworkers are violated by individuals, justice should take its course,” he said.
Agri Gauteng branded Du Toit a “lackey” who had failed to make a single positive contribution to safety and food security in the sector he represented. His remarks simply fuelled conflict on farms, the union said, pointing out in the last year farm attacks had risen by 94% in North West, 63% in the Free State and 57% in Gauteng. Meanwhile, reports Jasper Raats, Du Toit’s statements led to heated exchanges at the recent TAU SA congress on food security, with union leadership forced to calm delegates.
TAU SA president Paul van der Walt said Du Toit’s comments revealed government’s attitude was one of “saying and doing certain things to win the favour of voters, regardless of the consequences of one’s words or actions”. The union, “in solidarity with Agri SA”, rejected Du Toit’s unfounded statements, which were nothing more than “intimidation politics”. “As an organisation we will remain responsible, but the ministry of agriculture must get the message loud and clear. We are sick and tired of these wild statements. You are antagonising the whites while fuelling racial hatred among the blacks of this country.” He vowed farmers would tackle the government head-on to deal with the issue. “We have had enough – we are gatvol.” – Stephan Hofstätter