Reflections on De Doorns

There is a great need for change in a society where the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider. Luke Metelerkamp looks at possible reasons behind the recent destructive, angry outburst in De Doorns in the Western Cape.

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I’m alone on a farm in the beautiful night, surrounded by the silhouettes of the red rock Hex Valley mountains. The approaching sound of a diesel engine and gravel against spinning rubber cuts through the silence and brings a rising fear. My adrenaline surges; I’m not expecting anyone and there is no reason for this late night driver on the dead-end farm track.

Is it my turn to die tonight? My response surprises me; I await fate by the front door. Headlights pierce the darkness and sweep across the house. We see each other, two young white men on a farm at night, both relieved by the unexpected misunderstanding. While he unloads shotgun shells back into his pocket, we exchange stories. “I’m house-sitting for the owners,” I explain.

He leaves his number. “If you need anything just call – it’s that time of year.” Winter in this valley of seasonal labour; no work, no food, no future. “They have been targeting homes specifically when people are in them this year.” The gory stories of recent farm attacks hang heavy in the air without more needing to be said. He leaves. I go inside, lock the doors, stoke the fire and turn the lights off. Lying awake, for the first time in my life, I seriously contemplate the merits of owning a gun.

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Two months later, De Doorns erupts in violent protests, friends describe their losses on the radio. The same farm is in flames, labourers are beaten up, and the company which paid for my university education informally reports almost R20 million in losses. It makes little difference that they pay above minimum wage or that most of this farm’s labour force were at work during the strikes. The violence is a symptom of the systemic social rot, and violence is seldom logical.

The strikes are about inequality
It’s a long accepted fact in circles of psychology that our (dis)satisfaction is not determined by how much we have, but by what we have relative to those around us. The argument for a living wage is a temporary patch, because although low wages and inequality are connected, they are not the same thing.

To paraphrase a response from one of the strikers; “We are tired of hearing that the farms cannot afford better wages when they send their children to the best schools outside the valley and drive around in new double cabs.” The statement is as much about injustice as it is about poverty. This does not excuse vandalism or violence, just as creating employment does not justify turning a blind eye to foetal alcohol syndrome or rural schools that fail abysmally to educate farm children.

We are all complicit in this state of low intensity civil war. Our farm lands are armed, afraid and angry. Our country is armed, afraid and angry. Lines are being drawn and blood is flowing on both sides – pain does not discriminate. The collateral damage is immense: imagine the lives of children raised in dirty, corrugated iron dust-bowls while their counterparts grow up behind the bars of gilded slamlock cages, with mothers wearing panic buttons around their necks, growing numb to the cancer of fear, mistrust and hatred.

Where to from here?
If De Doorns is anything to go by, it’s clear that removing labour from farms, upscaling security and operating more or less business-as-usual, ranges from being simply short-sighted and ineffective, to being outright suicidal in the most literal sense.
There is a desperate need to come to terms with the personal and social implications of the fact that South Africa is one of the most socially unequal countries in the world, and that Boland agricultural towns rank as the most unequal within South Africa.
In other words, the Hex River Valley and a handful of other towns in the region are some of the most unequal places on earth.

This inequality is the rot. It breeds dissatisfaction and resentment, it strips the poor of their dignity and the rich of their humanity. Both sides lose. Such dramatic inequality also removes any possibility of the establishment of meaningful common ground and shared experiences between co-dependent members of the farming community. Without common ground there can be no empathy, and without empathy and respect we will never achieve stable, prosperous communities.

Transition to improved equality 
What would reduced inequality look like and how can such transitions be successfully achieved? Only a decade ago the notion of agri-ecological farming was regarded as far out hippie talk, ideas fit only for the ignorant urban idealist. Yet today many of the practices advocated by agri-ecological farming such as legume rotations, mulching and minimum tillage have become the norm.
I’ve lost track of the number of ‘conventional’ farmers I’ve come across who use compost tea.

This technological transformation took place as a result of the farming community identifying a problem, innovating new solutions, testing and then applying them. What it required of the farmer was a re-conceptualisation of the way soil operates and the courage to accept that the way they had been managing their soils was not the best way. In a profession that demands vasbyt, letting go can be hard.

However, the time has come for the re-invention of the way we manage the social components of our farm systems. Dramatic inequality and power imbalances are problems that need to be addressed. Solutions have been developed and tested. As the agri-ecological transition had a common set of themes which applied to every farm such as the increased use of crop rotations, a focus on soil biological functions and a reduction in chemical intensity, there is a core set of social solutions.

These include worker ownership and profit sharing, security of tenure to all who are connected to the land, and a committed investment in the development and education of farm labour, particularly their children. Application naturally varies significantly from farm to farm. Meerlust is a leading example of such transformation and has recognised the need to increase ownership, land tenure and education within its business.

This has included the development of Compagnies Drift, a BEE-based bottling, labelling and wine storage facility in the Lynedoch Valley, of which all Meerlust’s workers are beneficiaries. In addition, the farm operates on a profit share basis which incentivises productivity and encourages greater care of farm assets. On the educational front, Meerlust actively promotes continual staff training for which the Western Cape Department of Agriculture routinely pays between 50% and 100%.

“We fund the babies’ crèche and school aftercare, but parents are still responsible for school fees,” explains Corrie Ireland who has been the financial manager at Meerlust for more than 10 years. “The focus is really to empower people in their working and private lives.” These social technologies increase the overall productivity and long-term stability not only of the farm, but of the whole valley. They also help protect the value of its international brands and trademarks. When pushed on its initial motivation behind the changes, Corrie says, “It just felt like the right thing to do.”

Courage to change
The question that now remains is whether enough leaders from farms and farm communities will grasp the fact that we are desperately in need of a dramatic departure from the way things have been done in the past, if we are to live peacefully in the future. There is no longer an excuse for failure to act; we understand enough about the problems and solutions (examples exist of both). It’s clear the future could be far better than the present; I pray we find the courage to act in time.

Luke Metelerkamp is a food systems researcher at the Sustainability Institute in Stellenbosch.
The views expressed in our weekly opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Farmer’s Weekly.