‘The reality is that farmworkers die with nothing’

A new documentary tells the harrowing story of Eastern Cape farmworkers who have committed their lives to the land, only to die with nothing. ‘Even in their death, they are not being taken seriously,’ says producer Yvonne Phyllis

Bonnie and her farmworker sister Mam’ Mpandla who says, “Not a single person comes to help us, not even the councillor yet we vote.” Photo: Andiswa Mkosi/Food For Mzansi

Bonnie and her farmworker sister Mam’ Mpandla say in the documentary, “Not a single person comes to help us, not even the councillor we voted for.” Photo: Andiswa Mkosi/Food For Mzansi

“The reality [is] that farmworkers can die with nothing. Their lives can end just like that while they spent their whole lives being known for hard work. Even in their death, they are not being taken seriously.”

These are the words of Yvonne Phyllis, co-director: operations at The Forge, which organises a range of programmes, including theatre and dance for working class and impoverished South Africans.

Recently, Phyllis turned the theatre at The Forge in Braamfontein, Johannesburg into an emotionally charged setting during the screening of the Nyarha Farmworkers documentary. 

“Nyarha Farmworkers” producer Yvonne Phyllis and Mam’ Ntlane, a farmworker. Photo: Andiswa Mkosi/Food For Mzansi

“It is my life story and it is a painful story. I can’t watch the documentary and not be emotionally charged. I think of how painful the life of living and working on the farm is,” she tells Food For Mzansi.

The screening was attended by human rights activists, progressive labour movements and farmworkers from Nyarha (in the southeast of Bedford) in the Eastern Cape, where the documentary takes shape from.

The documentary starts with Mam’Ntlane, a farmworker. 

“If we could get a plot of land, you will see the results. We would call you to come and see why we wanted land,” she asserts. “We do not want land to satisfy our egos. [We need] land for us to plant food and for us to live on. We can forget about the past, all the pain and trauma we endured on the farm.”

Trauma a part of life

Speaking about endured trauma is not a misplaced expression.

Farmworkers are often subjected to brute and inhumane working conditions.

“What really pains me is that my mother worked for 23 years at the farm owner’s compound as a domestic worker on the farm. Her deteriorating health is what really affected me the most,” Mam’ Nywabe, a farmworker, explains the pattern of servitude experienced by farmworkers. 

“I had to take from money we had in my [house] in order to take my mother to doctors and do everything. I even took from the money my family received as my lobola. I sold all the cows because I was assisting my mother.

“My mother died in their hands. [She’d] come and live here at home, and after just a minimal rest, we’d receive a phone call from them requesting for her to go back to [work]. She suffered from arthritis and her fingers [got] bent.”

Mam’ Nywabe, a farmworker, sold all her cows to care for her mother until she died. Photo: Andiswa Mkosi/Food For Mzansi

Amplifying farmworkers’ voices

Exploitation at the hand of farmers is not the only predicament. Many farmers choose to evict workers whenever government puts in place legislation that seek to address the racial history of discrimination. 

“I wanted to afford them the greatest level of dignity by affording them an opportunity to speak,” said Phyllis.

“Essentially, they speak about history, economics, politics and they analyse our society based on how they see themselves in what we call a free and democratic country. There were quite a number of things that I had hoped to achieve with the documentary. The first thing is the erasure of farmworkers’ voices – those who work the land must also contribute in the land debates.”

Advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, featured in the documentary, says, “One thing that is unique about that documentary is that it is in Xhosa, which shows that we need more of these in African languages. Those farmworkers are very clever. The only difference is language. Those farmworkers are the ones we should be asking [from] instead of reading books.”

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‘They want land for ukulima nokufuya‘

The land debate, in many ways, has become very elitist, added Phyllis.

“It is academics who go to do research and then they want to speak for the farmworkers and farm dwellers in their academic work. Sometimes it is lawyers. But we forget that the most important people who can talk about the farmworkers’ experiences are the farmworkers themselves.

“For me, the labour aspect was very crucial. They, themselves, are farmers in their own rights because they are the ones who work the land. They are the ones who shear the sheep, they look after the livestock, and some of them are farm managers.”

Phyllis believes that farmworkers are not visible in the statics of agrarian economy. Often, in the land debate, there are questions which distorts reality and are not empirically driven, she explains. This included questions like, “What are they going to do with the land? What do they know?”

“They [farmworkers] debunk the argument that land redistribution will cause a food crisis, because people are already hungry.

“They are not saying we want land from the already operating farms, they are saying there is enough land to be redistributed and they want land for ukulima nokufuya. It is for self-sufficiency and for food sovereignty.”

What you find, are two parallels, Phyllis adds.

“For the landless black working class, there is reproduction of inter-generational poverty. And for the land owning, mainly whites, there is reproduction of wealth.”

Arguably, the state of landlessness aggravates inter-generational poverty of farmworkers and farm dwellers. Through the searing narratives, the element of eviction comes to the fore in the documentary.

A new documentary, “Nyarha Farmworkers”, tells the harrowing story of labourers from Nyarha in the southeast of Bedford in the Eastern Cape. Photo: Andiswa Mkosi/Food For Mzansi

Soaring eviction cases 

“Farmers use access to basic services as a way to push people out. Once you start to have a problem with them, the [farm owner] disconnects your water, they disconnect your electricity as a way to push you out,” explains Nomzamo Zondo, executive director of the Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI).

Such unlawful and vicious forms of evictions disregards farmworkers and farm dwellers’ cultural and spiritual roots to land. In the documentary, this is vividly captured by Sukwini, who works as a farm manager. 

“This is a very painful thing, my child,” Sukwini explains. “My grandfathers and grandmothers, their graves are where I was born and grew up. We, as black people, who live in farms and rural villages, our lives do not get disjointed from our parents, even after they have passed on.”

The documentary depicts the broken constitutional promise enshrined in the Freedom Charter, that the land shall be shared by those who work it. The lived experiences of eNyarha farmworkers, which is consistent with tales of other farmworkers and farm dwellers across the country, reveal some of the promises made in the constitution are merely rhetoric.

Unlawful and criminal

And, of course, the judiciary is not exempted. One of the greatest forms of protection against evictions has been the implementation of policies such as the Extension of Security Tenure Act and Labour Tenants Act, which states that every eviction must go through the courts, particularly the Land Claims Court. 

Yet most of the evictions carried out against farmworkers and farm dwellers are not processed by the courts. They are unlawful.

“Because of their vulnerability as they depend on the farmer for income and sometimes for accommodation, they don’t know that if they are evicted unlawfully and they can report that to the court. 

“What I suggested, I think about a year or two ago, is that an eviction that is outside the court process should be a criminal offence. If you make it a criminal offence, a lot of people will start thinking twice before they evict people, because the farmers know that they must follow the law – but they don’t,” says Ngcukaitobi.

Failure of magistrates to protect farmworkers

In the event that the eviction goes through the courts, comes another dilemma. “You will find that the magistrates who are sitting in these courts are not aware of what the law is and they are not even interested. They have a very traditional and conservative approach to property law,” explains Zondo.

Ngcukaitobi resonates with Zondo, saying, “The problem is that magistrates are not really trained to apply the provisions of Extension of Security of Tenure Act. Also, the work of magistrates is criminal work. They just try people that are accused of crime.

“So, you do find that a lot of them are not aware of what their obligations are under ESTA. You also find that others don’t care. I’ve seen most evictions – it is just like a formality.”

Given the apparent failure of magistrates in safeguarding the interests of the impoverished, Ngcukaitobi emphasises the importance of critically examining the role which magistrates occupy in society.

“Historically, the role of magistrates tended to be part of the elites in small society. You find that the magistrate knows the station commander of the police station, he also knows the big farmers in the area, he knows the mayor of the town because they are all part of the social elites,” says Ngcukaitobi.

“Their orientation when a case comes, which is brought by someone they are familiar with, is that they will agree with them because there’s some kind of a social structure that develops. We’ve completely marginalised poor people that are outside of that social structure, we completely overlook the dynamics around the issues of evictions,” he adds.

Once farm dwellers have been evicted, they have nowhere else to go to. Instead, they are forced to reside in informal settlements.This disparity is articulated by farmworker Mam’ Mpandla, who weeps saying, “Not a single person comes to help us, not even the councillor we voted for. We live in this house, the one that you are seeing, we are all gathered here. Some sleep on the floor… Our living conditions are very painful mntasekhaya.”

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