Farm-living during covid-19: ‘We’ve always been in lockdown’

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On the Genadeshoop farm, just outside Piketberg in the Western Cape, cattle farmer Whernit Dirks, his father, Galant Toontjies, and six of their farm workers are huddled up next to a fire. It is just after 20:30 on Thursday, 23 April 2020 and they are anxiously waiting for pres. Cyril Ramaphosa to start his address on their battery-powered radio.

It is day 28 of South Africa’s unprecedented covid-19 lockdown. The president is running late. At the Union Buildings in Pretoria – nearly 1 500km away – Ramaphosa is concluding a video meeting with leaders of political parties ahead of his address on government’s ongoing efforts to contain the spread of covid-19. Earlier he also met with the national command council where they focused on a risk-adjusted strategy to kickstart the economy despite the lockdown.

A few days later Dirks, who transitioned from being a fourth generation labourer to award-winning farmer, tells Food For Mzansi, “We try to (really) listen when the president speak.”

To him and his workers Ramaphosa’s weekly covid-19 updates have become part of their routine. They listen to every word, says the 50-year-old Mias Waggenstroom who has been working on Genadeshoop for 15 years. Often he finds the updates confusing, but he trusts government to act in the best interest of the nation.

“It has been really hard for us to understand. We cannot move freely anymore because law enforcement will stop you in your tracks if you try to go to the shop to get some supplies,” Waggenstroom explains.

The Genadeshoop farm family sit huddled over a fire listening to pres. Cyril Ramaphosa’s address.

“We are fortunate however, that we can move freely on the farm and are not confined to our homes like people in the suburbs. When the president speaks over the radio, it is my duty to listen. So, I make sure that I am well informed about his decisions to lockdown the country,” Waggenstroom further elaborates.

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Dirks believes that the agricultural community is often far removed from the reality of SARS-CoV-2, the scientific name of the coronavirus causing the current pandemic. “If you go to the bigger farms, I think there is a bit of a problem…”

Like other farmers in Mzansi, Dirks and his workers are exempted from the lockdown because they deliver what is described as an essential service. They are keeping the nation fed, and it is business as usual on his 100-hectare grain and cattle farm. To them, social distancing is pretty much an everyday activity. Living in isolation is part of a farmer’s normal characteristics, he says. “It really isn’t a difficult thing for us. We are farmers and we (have been in) lockdown our whole lives. We are currently continuing with the farming stuff.”

His day-to-day duties on the farm now includes gathering supplies for his workers and family to ensure that they are well taken care of during this pandemic. “I am the only one going to town to get food and supplies for everyone, so everyone gives me a list and I go and purchase it.”

“As much they miss cigarettes, the farmworkers also feel the distance between them and their families.” – WHERNIT DIRKS

While many South Africans are in a frenzy because alcohol-sales are forbidden during the lockdown, Dirks and his workers aren’t fazed. Some of them do miss their cigarettes though… “Ninety percent of the guys don’t drink. Some of them are, however, struggling without their smokes, but (being) without alcohol is (also) just normal farm living for us.”

As much they miss cigarettes, the farmworkers also feel the distance between them and their families, says Piet Smit (37). Smit has been working with Dirks since 2015 and says the lockdown has been a barrier between himself and his family, who live in another town. “I can’t see my daughter or my granddaughter because the law prohibits this. I am fortunate to be employed but this is also problematic because I miss my family,” Smit adds.

An ever-prevalent challenge of living under lockdown is the prejudice from some officials, though. Dirks says the red tape involved in traveling to the shops has been exhausting, and he is now convinced that this is due to the colour of his skin.

Genadeshoop farm workers Piet Smit and Mias Waggenstroom.

“It is a bit difficult because everywhere we go, we have to show our proof of residences. We need (confirmation on) a letterhead that says you are authorised to go to town; that you are authorised to get stuff at the co-op. For us, as black farmers, it is a bit difficult because when you enter the co-op guys want to fight. They tell us what we can and cannot purchase, only to later on find out that we are farmers (and therefore legally buying inputs).“

This does not keep him down. As it stands, Dirks and his family have already overcome the odds. He was just two years old when he accompanied his former labourer father on a tractor. Tough circumstances forced him to drop out of high school in grade 10 until years later a local farmer, Stephanus Richter, and Kaap Agri, an agricultural enterprise, honed his craft. The rest is history.

Two years ago, Dirks was named emerging farmer of the year in the New Harvest of the Year competition.

Most of their time during this lockdown is focused on planting crops. He says, “At this stage it is our planting season, so we are quite busy. We will not recognize or remember the lockdown because of the planting season.”

Like many South Africans, the covid-19 pandemic has caused financial distress for Dirks. Before the lockdown he also sold wood to local shops and supermarkets. Without this, he is unable to gain his much-needed extra income.

“We had other money coming in through wood just to survive or to continue and make sure that we don’t put heavy stress on the farm. Now those markets are closed because no one is going out to buy some wood, or the shops are closed. Now we are sitting with the wood. People cannot drive from Cape Town to come and get wood, so this is a bit of a financial challenge for us,” he adds.

The 30-year-old could never imagine a time like this. “Really, this is something else. It is an historic thing for us, and we are trying to live with it.” His sons, Whernit jr. and Ewald, cannot wait for the lockdown to come to an end. “The kids don’t understand that they can’t go to town. They are really frustrated because they only have to be on the farm.”

But on the farm there’s much to do… Dirks says, “We are freer than those living in the town because there is a huge place for the children to play and do some odd jobs on the farm. So, they keep themselves busy. But they are frustrated. They want to go out. They want to drive into town.”

  • Pres. Cyril Ramaphosa has prolonged South Africa’s covid-19 lockdown indefinitely. The country will move from the maximum disease-alert level 5 to a national level 4 on 1 May 2020, allowing the phased reopening of some businesses and industries subject to strict precautions.
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