A special kind of stupidity

RW Johnson on govt's draft Land Tenure Security Bill

It is with a tremendous sense of déjà vu that I read the documents on PoliticsWeb on Land tenure Security. It is just over twelve years ago that Lawrie Schlemmer and I carried out the first - and as far as I know, the only - full-scale survey of farmer and farmworker attitudes in KwaZulu-Natal. (Those were the days, now sadly long gone, when the Helen Suzman Foundation was doing research projects.)

The extraordinary truth was that although a great deal was written about the rights and wrongs of the rural situation, no one had ever interviewed a properly representative sample of farmworkers. Typically the agrarian radicals who produced most of the literature had not spent time on farms (which they regarded as enemy territory) and the farmworkers they interviewed were, literally, sacked or evicted or ex-farmworkers whom they found at rural bus stops and taxi ranks - by definition an atypical and biased sample.

The people who did such research had hardly entered a farm or met a farmer but they got awards for their research. Welcome to the wonderful and dysfunctional world of academic South Africa. Have a look sometime at what passes for research into rural South Africa. It's often just straightforwardly embarrassing, with agrarian radicals pressing hard for land reform which never actually works.

Even more remarkably, such folk would often organize conferences about "rural livelihoods" and the like - omitting farmers. When the farmers asked if they could attend they were treated almost as if they didn't legitimately exist. Conference resolutions would be drawn up without taking them into account and would be pushed through by large, whipped majorities, usually insisting on all manner of ideological objectives which the farmers thought either impossible, fantastical or objectionable and often all three.

Judging by AgriSA's walk out from a recent such conference, such tactics continue. The key to all such research and all such politicking was a workerist approach which simply assumed that the employers were, so to speak, foreign devils and then assumed, against all empirical evidence, that if you removed the farmers you got something called land reform. What you actually got was chaos and starvation. At very best, the farmers were regarded as a necessary evil.

What this disregarded was the simple fact which Ministers of Agriculture round the world have all realised long ago, which is that you can only bring about change in commercial agriculture by working with and through farmers. Even if the Minister sends in farm inspectors, the farmers are, after all, the people in charge on the farm for at least 99% of the time. The farms are their property and the workers their employees. They are driven, very powerfully, by the exigencies of the climate, the seasons and the market. Those are forces that they absolutely have to obey and reckon with. It is extremely difficult for any outside agency to make much of a dent in that.

The KZN Agricultural Union - KwaNalu - was the only fully integrated, multiracial farming organization in South Africa. Mandela had regarded its formation as so important that he personally attended its inauguration (and danced at it). It had a majority of small black farmers and a large number of Indian sugar farmers as well as the province's main white commercial farmers.

Nonetheless, KwaNalu felt frustrated by the current situation and invited us to do the research. They were model clients - fascinated by what we had to tell them but utterly non-interfering in our research or analysis. We published our full results in a publication doubtless still available from the HSF: RW Johnson and Lawrence Schlemmer: Farmers and Farmworkers in KwaZulu-Natal. Employment Conditions, Labour Tenancy, Land reform, attitudes and relationships (HSF, December 1998, 98pp plus questionnaires).

We actually went onto all the farms and to ensure we got truthful responses we made sure that farmers and workers were interviewed out of sight and earshot of one another and by someone from their own language group. The results were then tabulated and analyzed by us, out of the reach of either farmers or farmworkers.

The results were extremely interesting and showed a far more harmonious situation than one might have divined from any of the radical agrarians' publications. On the whole farmers and farmworkers got on pretty well with one another and working conditions and wages were also much better than generally believed.

One reason this was so was that many farms were examples of what one might call working paternalism. For the farmer was first port of call for workers in need. Many received extra food from the farmer, or were provided with TV rooms on the farm, or had their children's school fees paid or were given interest-free loans or got lifts from the farmer into and out of the nearest town.

Once you added in all these small payments in kind, you realised that overall, farm wages were not uncompetitive and that farmworkers on a flourishing farm, where they had often worked all their lives, often had a greater sense of job security than most industrial workers.

Quite often the workers' schoolchildren, back on the farm during vacations, would ask for and get small farm jobs - painting a fence, washing a car, mowing a lawn - which provided them with pocket money. We were careful to ask the workers very closely about farmers who hit or abused them but the results were vanishingly small.

True, most farmers said there were a few bad cases in any large sample where such abuse might be expected, but virtually all of them professed abhorrence for such practices. The typical farmer spent most of every day in the company of his workers, knew them all by their first names, and joshed and joked with them - all in Zulu. This was, one realised, the way things had been for a long time.

At that time the government had recently introduced tough new labour laws and applied them to the farm situation and they were also in the process of introducing a new law on labour tenancy. The whole thrust of the new legislation was to increase job security for farmworkers, trying to make it far more difficult for farmers to evict them or sack them, and also to try to gift labour tenancy workers with plots of land on the farms where they worked.

Farmers viewed this last aim with complete alarm. They not only feared that their farms would be turned into a patchwork quilt of smallholdings owned by now un-evictable farm workers/tenants, but that those smallholders would inevitably overgraze their land and would allow their livestock to trespass onto the farmer's land with subsequent damage, but that they would also have the right to invite anyone they liked to come onto their land. This was 1998 and farm attacks were already horribly prevalent, so farmers tended to see strangers wandering on their land as probable rustlers in the first instance and a possible threat to the lives of their families on the other. So the proposed labour tenancy law instilled in them something close to panic.

They immediately sought by every means possible to disembarrass themselves of any workers able to claim labour tenancy rights. At the same time, adding insult to injury, as it were, the government passed a law against the use of child labour on farms. Since farmers had generally found jobs for farmworkers' children only as favours and because they were asked to, it was easy for them to desist. If a fence went unpainted or a lawn unmown, so what? The only real result was a diminution in the family income of farmworkers.

Since these laws were tabled as we were doing the research it was easy for us to see that they would be highly counter-productive and would merely result in large-scale evictions and a large net reduction in farm jobs. Accordingly, both in our report and in press conferences and broadcasts, we warned strongly against the impending legislation.

Our report also gained a certain amount of publicity on its own, the press fastening on our finding that farmer-farmworker relationships were actually pretty good. This was reported as if were near-miraculous, despite the fact that it is probably true for most countries in the world. Given that a farmer is all alone on a large expanse of land in the middle of nowhere, it is difficult to see how the business of farming can continue unless he has reached some sort of reasonable modus vivendi with his (far more numerous) farmworkers.

I was driving home a few days later when I heard Derek Hanekom, then the Minister of Agriculture, interviewed about our report. He was told its chief conclusions and said he had no comment on that but that he had not read the report and was pleased to announce that he had no intention of reading it. That was how the ANC received what we had to say.

It was completely idiotic, the politics of the playground. I must say, I had no sympathy at all for Hanekom when he was axed shortly thereafter. He was so stupid that he never seemed to realise that his job was to reconcile white farmers to what the government was doing. And there was no chance at all of that happening while he completely refused to see their point of view, proudly refused even to read a report warning him and the government that they were about to hit a brick wall and destroy a lot of jobs.

So now I read these reports on PoliticsWeb. A dozen years have passed and enormous numbers of jobs have been lost in agriculture. How much has changed? Not much, as far as I can see. The people designing the legislation still see farmers as the enemy and their aim is to change "the power relations in agriculture" to the disadvantage of the farmers.

This is very much in line with what the agrarian radicals want, though it should be noted that they hang out in places like the University of KZN (Durban) and the University of the Western Cape (Cape Town) - that is in comfortably urban environments. Apparently the new legislation is being brought in because it is now acknowledged that both the application of the urban labour laws to farming and the Labour Tenancy Act have merely caused a large loss of farm jobs. Interesting, that. Exactly what we warned about twelve years ago, things that Derek Hanekom was pleased to say he refused even to read, are now acknowledged as being true. Twelve years of childish stupidity and so many ruined lives as a result.

It's rather like Outcomes Based Education. Any number of educationists warned that OBE was bound to be a disaster but its promoters - particularly its main promoter, Graham Bloch - absolutely refused to listen. Just like Hanekom. So hundreds of thousands of young lives were ruined before, inevitably, this gross stupidity was overturned. What is wrong with these messianic whites that they hold black lives so cheap ?

As I flip through I see more crass stupidity. The latest fad is agri-towns. This will, we are told, greatly reduce the power of farmers over their workers since workers will now live in their own homes in these agri-villages. Fantastically, the farmers are expected to "donate" the land on which such villages are to be built. Can one imagine a government white paper which suggested that, for example, trade unionists might like to donate their salaries?

One notes too that paternalism is here quite openly proclaimed as something which needs to be attacked. It might be sensible to allow for the fact that many workers rather like paternalism and might prefer to live on the farms where they can extract all manner of favours from the farmer rather than in agri-towns where they can't. There is also the odd fact that farmers are enjoined to help many of the proposed changes to happen even though their announced objective is to change power relations against the farmer. Surely any Marxist would tell you that that is asking for the impossible?

Meanwhile, of course, the question of the land security of small farmers in the old homelands is never examined. The old, ruinous system of communal land tenure continues. Anyone who drives through the Transkei can easily see that this area could on its own easily feed the whole of South Africa. It is green, with good soil and well watered. Yet all one sees are dongas, the most awful soil erosion, a few scattered crops and a few scraggy animals. This region doesn't even feed itself.

Yet the ANC has done nothing to increase the security on the land of farmers and farmworkers there. Since land rights are communal, no farmer dares put up a fence to prevent his animals straying onto the road (hence the horrific road accident rate in the Transkei). And since no one can claim to own any particular piece of land, no one feels responsible for soil erosion and no one does anything about it. And since land is communal anyone who tries to farm is subject to the constant theft of the animals he grows or the livestock he grazes. By definition, there is no security of tenure. Yet government is wholly unconcerned and this rich farming area is allowed to go to rack and ruin now, just as under apartheid.

The trade unions who demonstrate against high food prices outside supermarkets should really be demonstrating outside government offices for not allowing secure individual land tenure in the old homelands, without which black commercial farming can never grow. The extra production of the Transkei alone could have a wondrous effect on food prices. Yet nothing is done; year after year, nothing is done. It is almost unbelievable. Yet the whole thrust of ANC policy is aimed not at improving such areas but at trying to make life more difficult for the relative handful of white commercial farmers who produce almost all our food.

In 1945 the British Labour party won a parliamentary majority much the same size as the ANC's. After decades of opposition at last it had its chance to transform society. Nye Bevan, as Health Minister, had the job of setting up a national health service. He and his fellow socialists tended to see doctors as part of the class enemy - relatively privileged folk who operated a private health system which most Labour voters could not afford. Bevan strove mightily to force the doctors to do as he wished but realised, in the end, that he could not make the NHS work unless he worked with the doctors and won their support.

Much the same happened in agriculture. Britain after the war desperately needed to increase agricultural production so as to cut import bills. The new Minister of Agriculture, Tom Williams, a trade unionist with zero knowledge of the countryside, saw the farmers as so many Tory opponents but quickly realised that he either had to work with them or fail. He worked with them and was soon celebrated as one of the most successful ministers of agriculture that Britain had ever seen. Agricultural production soared and the modernisation of the countryside took a large step forward. By 1950 many farmers, for the first time in their lives, began to wonder if they should not vote Labour because they had been completely won over by Williams.

I must admit that, with this model at the back of my mind, I tended to assume ANC ministers of health and agriculture would rapidly learn the same lessons after 1994.But I was wrong. Seventeen years later we are still stuck in the same rut. I didn't reckon with stupidity at such a sustained level. Doctors and farmers are still viewed as enemy groups who have to be forced to do things. Naturally, in both cases, large numbers simply emigrate.

The result is that on the ANC's watch we have seen huge acreages taken out of production and returned to subsistence farming, we have seen South Africa become a net food importer, we have seen the collapse of the public health service and the steady deterioration in the welfare and life expectancy of the black majority.

None of these things are necessary. To produce such results and to refuse to change the policies which produce them, you have to be very deeply stupid. I knew, from my own experience as an ANC supporter in the 1960s that it was not exactly a brainy organization but I have to admit that I grossly underestimated the situation.

It was always said that no one ever lost money by under-estimating the low level of public taste in Britain or America. True enough. It may be that one also cannot easily underestimate the intelligence of government. I had thought we had plumbed the depths of stupidity under apartheid. Now, it seems, we have merely replaced one stupidity by another.

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