Evictions – the row rages on

The controversy over abuses on farms was taken to parliament when the Human Rights Commission presented a briefing to the land and environment committee on evictions. Stephan Hofstätter attended the hearing.
Issue Date 16 March 2007

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The controversy over abuses on farms was taken to parliament when the Human Rights Commission presented a briefing to the land and environment committee on evictions. Stephan Hofstätter attended the hearing.

The Human Rights Commission (HRC) has painted a devastating picture to parliament of constitutional rights of workers being violated on farms due to illegal evictions. These included the right to human dignity, equality before the law, freedom from racial discrimination, violence and being deprived of property. “There is no dignity for the parent in having to be forced to leave the home and explain this to their children. Or for the children to witness their parents being forcefully removed,” the Judith Cohen told parliament.

The law designed to protect workers from illegal eviction – the Extension of Security of Tenure Act (Esta) – had proved ineffectual, she said. “The research has indicated only 1% of evictions that occur in South Africa are in terms of the Esta legislation,” she said. Despite being criminalised, illegal eviction had resulted in only “a handful of prosecutions to date. It is questionable whether a two-year sentence or a fine is a deterrent,” she said, suggesting parliament should look into why so few offenders are prosecuted. That racial slurs were often part of the eviction process suggested “discrimination on the grounds of race” contributed to evictions, she said. Reports of workers forced to leave after being assaulted by landowners violated their constitutional right to security of person, she added. Because workers usually had no transport, evictions usually resulted in the destruction or theft of their property, thereby violating Section 25 of the constitution, which protects property rights.

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The HRC’s findings were largely based on an evictions survey published in December 2005 by land rights NGO Nkuzi, supplemented by the own extensive 2003 report on human rights abuses in farming communities and more recent complaints from its satellite offices throughout SA. The survey has been attacked by farmers’ union Agri SA for doing enormous damage to the reputation of the commercial farming community despite lacking credibility because it was based on hearsay. Cohen defended the research but conceded no accurate recorded statistics of evictions, legal or not, existed. “What Nkuzi is saying is backed up by our own anecdotal information,” she said. “But it’s time we stopped playing the numbers game and moved beyond the good farmer, bad farmer debate. One illegal eviction is one too many.”

The survey methodology was developed by independent research company Social Surveys, with sampling methods and statistical analysis checked by academics from Wits University and Tshwane of Technology. The Nkuzi survey found 940 000 people were evicted from farms since 1994, and concluded the vast majority were done so illegally. It is unclear how the latter conclusion was arrived at. N kuzi found 1,15% of 1,68 million people evicted from farms since 1983 were done so legally “by means of a court order”.

Yet the law that makes a court order mandatory for evictions, Esta, was only passed in 1997. Further doubt is cast on the survey’s dramatic conclusions by its own results. It found almost 70% of farm dwellers were evicted as a direct result of family members losing their jobs on the farm, but the courts have ruled that resignation or dismissal by following procedures laid down by the Labour Relations Act are grounds for eviction if a worker’s right to live on a farm is considered dependent on being employed there. evertheless, other indicators and reliable anecdotal evidence supports Nkuzi’s and the HRC’s conclusion that the majority of farmworkers are not protected from evictions by the law, usually because they are ignorant of their rights or unable to get legal assistance to enforce them. Cohen told parliament a sample study at Worcester court revealed six out of seven eviction orders granted in 2005 were default judgments because the workers were not present in court and had no legal representation. She said two-thirds of evicted families had wanted help when facing eviction but 75% didn’t know where to get it.

The HRC recommends a more vigorous effort to inform farmworkers of their rights by chapter 9 institutions (such as the HRC), civil society groups and churches. However, the state must meet its obligation to ensure workers know where to find help when facing eviction. The HRC found the Legal Aid Board (LAB) had established a number of satellite stations and mobile clinics in rural areas, but that people were not accessing these services and the LAB was poorly resourced. The HRC strongly urged the Department of Land Affairs (DLA) to implement a dispute resolution mechanism “spoken about for years” as a constructive alternative to adversarial legal proceedings. “Other organisations have done it and shown it can work, but [with the DLA] it appears to be going nowhere. “The Department of Land Affairs should start taking more initiative and have a catalytic effect so that all other departments come on board.”

Evicted workers were invited to provide parliamentarians with a first-hand account of their experiences. Many were from Rawsonville in the Western Cape (see sidebar). Parliamentarians, including chairperson Peter Moatshe, expressed shock that such “totally inhumane” practices still occurred in SA. “My father was a farmworker, and so was I for a time, so this matter lies close to my heart,” said Moatshe, pledging to investigate the allegations. IFP MP Madala Mzizi said their testimony refuted claims by agricultural unions that Xingwana’s remarks on worker abuse were “a thumbsuck”.

On a recent oversight visit to the Eastern Cape he was approached by someone whose father had been illegally evicted and was now living in the bush with his cattle. “I informed the minister of this case,” he said. Another MP believed Esta should be overhauled. “Farmers have found a way around this law and, with gay abandon, just evict people,” he said. Other parliamentarians wanted positive stories from farms given more airplay. “The minister was deliberately misinterpreted – not all farmers are bad,” said ANC MP RJ Tau. “There are those who are making an effort and we want the HRC to present these positive experiences.” Cohen said the HRC had engaged in close talks with farmer unions over evictions last month, but they had declined to provide any input during the parliamentary hearing.

In their own words
Hermina van Rooi, 48, Rawsonville: Van Rooi says she’d worked on a grape farm for 31 years but was retrenched in 1999. “The farmer told us we had the right to stay on the farm, so we stayed. My husband had worked on the farm for 41 years. He is 56 now. We had nowhere to go.”
In 2004, ownership of the farm changed hands. “The new owner didn’t want us there. told him we were given the right to stay, but the whites just chase people from farms if they don’t want you there. He told us to go and when we refused he shot our dog. We made a case with the police, but they did nothing. They are terrible, and just do what the farmers want them to. When we make cases, they fall through the cracks.
There are many farms here where farmers beat workers. Not most of the farmers, only a few. But what they do is terrible. When people want to talk about their rights the police beat you or spray tear gas in your face.” Now they’ve been told to stay in a windowless chicken coop. “It’s hot in summer, but we must go. Where else must we live?”
Sarah Beukes, 47, Rawsonville:
Beukes was a grape farmworker in Rawsonville like her parents, grandparents and their parents. Her husband died of Aids and she found out she was HIV positive. “was too sick to work in the vineyard so went to tell the farmer. He told me must go away and die.” Beukes says she was forced to move with her five children to a chicken coop on the edge of a rubbish dump. “It’s not right that someone like me who has worked on a farm all my life should die in a hok,” she says.

Discredited rape case that sparked an uproar
Rawsonville hit headlines last year when a farmworker alleged she’d been gang-raped by four farmers. The accusation sparked a row between agricultural unions and land and agriculture minister Lulama Xingwana on the subject of evictions and worker abuse, but has since been thoroughly discredited. Following an investigation, police watchdog the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) recommended the accuser be charged with perjury and defeating the ends of justice. “It is clear that [allegations] were published without any factual or substantial proof or evidence,” the ICD said. t urged the findings to be made public without delay because the incident was causing tensions between the worker community and police. For some reason this was not done, although it was reported in the Western Cape media. The accuser later apologised on national television to the farmers she’d fingered and reportedly made another statement to police retracting her allegation.