Two sides of the story

The furore between agricultural unions and land and agriculture minister Lulama Xingwana over her remarks on abuse of farmworkers has subsided – but not before relations ebbed to the point where farmer representatives walked out of a scheduled ministerial meeting. Stephan Hofstätter asked Xingwana and Agri SA president Lourie Bosman what lay behind the stand-off.
Issue date: 23 February 2007

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Lulama Xingwana

Do you believe allegations

of abuse of farmworkers and illegal evictions apply to the majority of white farmers in SA, a large minority, or are isolated incidents?
I have responded to the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC). Let us await its ruling since this responds to TAU SA’s complaint to the SAHRC.

Do you intend to take new steps to grapple with this problem?
I am not responsible for safety and security and can only engage the ministry concerned, but cannot dictate to them as to what they should do.

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What new steps are planned to curb the murder of farmworkers and farmers by criminals?
As I stated above, this is a matter for the Department of Safety and Security.

What is your response to the Agri SA/TAU SA walkout of their scheduled meeting with you?

It is a pity that not all who were invited attended the meeting.

Don’t they have a point that publicising
allegations, rather than hard facts, of farmworker abuse can tarnish the reputation of SA exporters abroad, increase racial tensions on farmers and perhaps even lead to farm attacks?
The reports in the media of the 2004 killing of a farmworker who was mistaken for a baboon by farmer Jewell Crossberg were not initiated by myself. Neither did I report to the media that farmer Mark Scott-­Crossley and his workers tossed a farmworker into a lion enclosure. The list is endless. You may also want to refer to the 2003 final report on the inquiry into human rights violations in farming communities by the SAHRC. I never had anything to do with the commissioning of this inquiry and neither did I have any influence on its findings.

Some would say your remarks serve short-sighted political goals, such as appealing to the farm dweller constituency,

rather than serving the broader interests of the sector and the country as a whole, such as ensuring food security, rural safety and stability, and creating jobs and prosperity. Your response?
It is a pity that people would think that. I have on several occasions condemned farm killings. All life is sacred and I have stated this a number of times. If people were not listening selectively, they would have known of my concerns where farm killings are concerned. On the other hand, when some farmers such as Scott-Crossley and Crossberg kill their farmworkers, the silence from some sections of our community is deafening. Is it because black lives are cheaper than those of white farmers? Should I also pretend nothing is happening?

The unions thought they were meeting you to discuss the allegations you made against farmers, and say you went back on your word by convening a broad-based meeting. Why did this change take place?
I am not sure about what you refer to as a broad-based meeting. However, I invited TAU SA, Agri SA, Fawu, Nafu and Ward (Women in Agriculture and Rural Development). These are organisations that have a stake in my so-called controversial pronouncements. Fawu represents farm-workers and Ward represents women in the rural areas who bear the brunt of abuses. So I do not understand TAU SA and Agri SA’s demand for exclusivity.

What do you expect from farmers’ unions to heal this rift, and what do you intend doing to find a constructive solution?
As far as I am concerned there has never been a rift but rather differences of opinion, and this happen in all spheres of life. It is not peculiar to the agriculture sector. The relationship between the farmers and the ministry is a symbiotic one. There can be no divorce. Much as we might disagree, as you stated above, our business is to ensure food security, create badly needed jobs and continue to contribute to the country’s GDP.

Lourie Bosman

Why did Agri SA walk out of the meeting with minister Lulama Xingwana?
We never entered the meeting, so it is wrong to say we walked out. Let me give you some background. We held talks with the minister on 27 November 2006, where she made allegations of human rights violations and violent crimes by farmers against their workers. We told her we were quite willing to look into these issues but requested her to provide information so we could follow up on it. Later she made damaging allegations in public, and we asked her again for proof, and for a private meeting to resolve the issue. Later the ministry requested that TAU SA [which had lodged complaints about Xingwana’s remarks with the Human Rights Commission] join the meeting, and we said we had no objection if people with the same complaints as ours attended. But when our CEO Hans van der Merwe went to the meeting, the minister was meeting with a lot of NGOs she invited who had previously come out in support of her statements. We told the agriculture director general Masiphula Mbongwa [who served as go-between] we were not prepared to attend the meeting and requested a private meeting. She was not prepared to do this, so we left.

Which remarks of the minister are you objecting to?
We received reports from the media that she deviated from her speech at a public appearance on 4 December. She said the agricultural sector is rife with violence against women and children, and that organised agriculture must step in when farmers rape and attack their workers. This appeared in the local press, was posted on the internet, and reprinted by Agence France Press, the BBC and in our neighbouring countries.

So it has tarnished the image of SA farmers abroad. Can you quantify the loss in earning this represents?
No, we will still wait and see. We will make a calculation at some stage in the future. Have there been any consumer boycotts launched or export contracts cancelled? Not to my knowledge. Although there have been some questions asked of our table grape and deciduous fruit producers.

Do you think the minister’s remarks had any impact on rural security?
It is difficult to say with certainty, but you can think what happened in the past few weeks [since early January there have been four prominent farm murders]. This points farmers out as targets and the results could be uncontrollable. We have informed the police it could have possible repercussions.

What do you want from the minister?

We want her to rectify the situation. She must say she was misunderstood and doesn’t think all farmers are rapists. It could be solved as easily as that. But she’s taken a hard line instead. We also want her to come up with specific evidence we can follow up on. But we cannot live with these accusations.

But NGOs, like Nkuzi, say they have provided you with plenty of evidence of abuses that you never followed up on.
We never get specific information, only allegations. The only thing we got from Nkuzi was their report on evictions, which said one million workers were evicted. That report has no credibility and has done a lot of damage to the reputation of farmers. It is not based on facts and doesn’t distinguish between legal and illegal evictions.

But Nkuzi argues most evicted workers
had no idea what their rights were, or access to legal representation.
That is nonsense. Every person can go to Legal Aid if they want to. There are offices in every town with people who can help them.

Are you saying there are no abuses or illegal evictions?
We are not saying it never happens. It does. But not on the scale the minister says.

Why doesn’t Agri SA become more proactive in preventing
and denouncing abuses?
We do that already. We’ve worked with the Department of Labour for many years, training farmers and workers in labour laws and Esta [the Extension of Security of Tenure Act, which regulates evictions], publicising their rights and obligations. That is why there are so few transgressions of labour legislation, as recorded by the Labour Department. We have labour committees at branch level, where members are constantly made aware of human rights issues. Look, it’s in our interest to treat workers humanely. If we don’t we’d face boycotts as we have before.

Where do you go from here?

We have always tried to work with the minister and will continue to do so. We will also carry on having a working relationship
with government. There are many other ministries we deal with. And we have asked the president to resolve the dispute.