A complicated reality on SA’s farms

Terence Corrigan says commercial farmers – white, black or any other hue – are a necessity to provide for country, and will remain so

A complicated reality on South Africa’s farms

3 April 2023

I doubt that Yvonne Busisiwe Phyllis would find much common ground with me. She is a director of The Forge, which describes itself as ‘a mixed-use space for Pan-African Culture and Thought from the Left’, which suggests a rather different orientation from that of the Institute of Race Relations.

But an interesting and passionately eloquent argument attracts attention: this is the case with a recent piece carried by the Daily Maverick entitled ‘Cecil John Rhodes’s vision is alive on white-owned farms in South Africa.’ (It links to and reflects a longer piece she published through Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.)

Rural Africans, she argues, remain trapped in lives of despair and misery, arising from the dispossession of their forebears in the past. In describing this, mining magnate and politician Cecil John Rhodes looms large. Poignantly (and angrily) she quotes his words in 1894: ‘Every black man cannot have three acres and a cow, or four morgen and a commonage right. We have to face the question, and it must be brought home to them that in the future nine-tenths of them will have to spend their lives in daily labour, in physical work, in manual labour.’

She argues that this is the enduring reality: effectively, that nothing has changed.

Farms – and farmers, specifically white-owned farms – perpetuate this. To quote her: ‘Most White-owned farms have maintained the racial, paternalistic and abusive worker-employer relationships that were characteristic of colonialism.’ In her paper, she contends that ‘labour and living conditions on farms are appalling’, ‘slave wages’ are paid and evictions are rife. And much more besides. Her remarks reflect an extensive and long-standing narrative about (white) farmers and the farming economy, one defined by labour patterns that are little better than slavery, pervasive racism and by domination, psychological if not physical. In this, she echoes former agriculture and land affairs minister, Lulu Xingwana, who claimed that farmers routinely ‘rape and assault’ farmworkers, or Luke Jordan of the non-governmental body Grassroots, who wrote in a Daily Maverick column that ‘farmers retain a grip on the few profits through intimidation if not outright violence.’

Something personal

Looking at her publication on the Tricontinental website, there is clearly something personal here. Ms Phyllis describes her own experience of growing up on a farm, fearful of the farm owner. She describes the deference which her elders showed to the farmer, and the sense of humiliation that this conveyed. (A note on the piece comments: ‘This dossier is written in the first person by the author, Yvonne Phyllis, a descendant of farmworkers. The use of the first person has been retained to reflect the intimate nature of politics surrounding the issue of land in South Africa.’)

I have written on and referred on a few occasions to what I’ve termed the ‘brutal farmer’ stereotype. This is the use of the ‘farmer’ or ‘Boer’ as a caricature of rural (or more accurately, non-urban) racism and race-motivated violence. It has its roots in nationalist politics: the idea that rural populations represent a purer and unadulterated ideal than the urban counterpart, and that ‘the land’ denotes what Nomboniso Gasa called ‘a metaphor for freedom, belonging and security.’ And there have indeed been instances of real and justified grievances against farming practices: one of the successful early mass mobilisation campaigns in South Africa and abroad centred on conditions on potato farms in the Bethal area in the 1940s and 1950s. But even taking this background into account, it’s striking how this appellation is often now applied to people with no connection to agriculture. 

My own experience is that there is a great deal of sensitivity on the part of farmers about the way they are portrayed. This is a multifaceted issue. There are no doubt cases of criminality and brutality. Given that the farming community – white, black or anything else – comprises tens of thousands of people, it’s statistically inevitable that some dreadful characters will be found among them. The same could be said for ministers of religion, police officers, taxi drivers, factory owners, government officials, Eskom employees, even left-wing and pan-Africanist intellectuals.

Broad ethical rules

Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that most people act according to broad ethical rules: it’s not apparent why farmers should be so base that they would be an exception. A few years ago, I reported on a case of alleged assault by the owner of a game farm on some trespassing children. Agri-SA’s then president, Dan Kriek, commented to me: ‘Agri-SA will not defend the indefensible.’

Whatever the merits of that case – or any others – it is grossly misplaced to denounce the entire farming community as likewise culpable.

There is also simple self-interest to consider. If ever violence or intimidation was a strategy to maintain to control over a workforce (and it’s doubtful that it ever was), it’s fairly certain that that time is long past. Acerbic academic and commentator, RW Johnson – who, together with the late Lawrence Schlemmer, conducted one of the very few hands-on, on-farm studies of farmer-farmworker relations and working conditions – reflected a few years ago on the controversy his research into the matter generated: ‘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.’

And if this provides no check on bad behaviour, it might also be remembered that farms are subject to labour inspections, as are any other business premises. More than that, South African agricultural exports are linked to the maintenance of environmental and labour standards.

Following dispute-related violence in De Doorns in 2012, Sweden’s state liquor monopoly indicated that it was considering making certification by the Wine and Agricultural Ethical Trade Association – its name is self-explanatory – mandatory for wine sales in the Swedish market.

Rapid impact

This had a rapid impact, with producers requesting the relevant audits. Agri-SA and its provincial affiliates have called repeatedly for evidence of abuses to be reported to enable action to be taken. So, the idea of freewheeling abuse – ‘unchecked by the government’, or indeed by anyone else – is difficult to support.

A 2015 report for the International Labour Organisation looked at a range of issues relating to labour relations in farming. The picture it painted is far from perfect, but as a summary of its investigation into labour conditions noted, ‘compliance with key labour and health and safety rights is generally high across case studies for permanent as well as seasonal workers.’

The report noted: ‘In the Nkomazi, Levubu and the Eston case study, smaller black-owned farms appeared to be less legally compliant than bigger, white-owned farms.’ The point of noting this is not to draw any ‘racial’ conclusions, but rather to note that ‘racial’ interpretations are flawed. Non-compliance would seem to arise less from indifference towards employees’ wellbeing – an expression of the ‘racial capitalism’ that is described by Ms Phyllis as holding sway – than by the cost and intrusiveness of regulatory demands. This is something that businesses across the country have to contend with, multiplied in its impact by the frequent ineptitude of the State that administers these systems.

Most important comment

Perhaps the most important comment made by the ILO report is in its introduction:

The tendency to assume that most farm workers live on the farm, dependent on the employer for all their needs is one example, as is the stereotype of the white-owned, owner-operated family farm as the norm. In reality, employers in agriculture are increasingly diverse, as ownership patterns shift with farm consolidation, land reform and encroachment by agribusiness, as well as a growing reliance on contractors and labour brokers. Likewise, feudal relationships between farmers and farm workers are increasingly breaking down through movement off farms (for various reasons, including, but not only, evictions) and a shift away from use of permanent workers towards the use of indirect labour and short-term employment contracts. There are a number of other important shifts taking place that have a direct bearing on farm labour working and living conditions, as well as considerable diversity and complexity in employer-worker relationships. There is a strong need for research that highlights the ways in which the landscape has changed, and seeks to build consensus amongst the central role-players about the nature of trends and their root causes.

In other words, this is a complicated matter that does not lend itself to easy description, nor its problems to easy resolution.

Reading Ms Phyllis’s writings, though, I wonder whether the conduct or misdeeds of individual white farmers is of prime importance to her argument. Rather than distinct abuses, her intention seems to be to an indictment of the entire ‘system’. Although she uses the term ‘racial capitalism’, I think I would be on safe ground to say that her issue is with capitalism, period.

As she writes: ‘The commercial farm reproduces what the economist Clara E Mattei calls the two pillars of capital: “private property and wage relations”.’

‘Exploitative labour practices’

And: ‘Many of these farms operate via exploitative labour practices, where African people continue to work long hours of manual labour/physical labour while earning slave wages. They are also part of the capitalist machinery which ensures workers are producers on land, never owners of the land. They are a typical example of private land ownership along racial lines and the privileges enjoyed by those who have it in abundance.’

This raises an important issue – what is to be done about (or perhaps, where does she stand on) private property in land?

If private ownership of land as a concept is part of the problem – this seems to me a logical conclusion from her argument – then the solutions would seem to be some form of state ownership or custodianship. This is in fact what redistribution policy has largely come down to. Titled ownership is not on the table, at least not until a considerable period has elapsed and production has proceeded to the satisfaction of officials, who will typically not have much experience of farming themselves, and who have often not acquitted themselves well in the past.

Incidentally, the 2013 State Land Lease and Disposal Policy, for example, set out official thinking on land redistribution. Professor Ruth Hall of the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies – no fan of the Institute, and possibly not too far in her thinking from that of Ms Phyllis – described it as ‘a policy that says that black people are not to be trusted with land.’ Or, as the state’s court papers said in the case of David Rakgase, redistribution proceeded from the ‘principle that black farming households and communities may obtain 30-year leases, renewable for a further 20 years, before the state will consider transferring ownership to them.’ (The periods have reportedly been revised, but not the overall approach.)

Strong vein of continuity

Actually, in this sense Ms Phyllis may well be correct. There is a strong vein of continuity between the colonial or apartheid conception of property rights for Africans and that prevailing now in areas under customary tenure and among classes of land reform beneficiaries. In the former case, Africans remained effectively unable to own their holdings, while the latter beneficiaries are purposely deprived of that right.

So, when she quotes the official 2017 Land Audit (‘Whites own 26,663,144 ha or 72% of the total 37,031,283 ha farms and agricultural holdings by individual landowners’), her figures skirt the reality that this – land held by ‘individual landowners’ – accounts for around a third of the country’s land. Two thirds are owned by the state, companies, trusts or is ‘unregistered state land’. Interestingly, focusing on the land in the hands of ‘individual landowners’ effectively takes no account of the land to which African people have historically had access to, and – remarkably – that which has been transferred through land reform projects.   

And so, it’s not clear what a solution would look like. Her Daily Maverick article concludes with these words: ‘Any land redistribution programme which does not disrupt Rhodes’s vision, that Black people should be subjected to manual/physical labour, to landlessness, to a racially unequal society, is insufficient. So is one which does not emphasise that those who work the land (including farmworkers) should be its primary beneficiary.’

Her extended paper expands with a little more detail, although still in very broad-brush terms. It is not apparent whether from her perspective titled land ownership should be encouraged (or even permissible) or not. She critiques (reasonably enough) the benefits of land reform endeavours accruing to a small elite – a common criticism of much of the government’s transformation efforts, and one from which established (call them ‘white’) interests have also been able to profit handsomely.

Peasant production

Whether there is a role for established commercial farmers – the ‘white-owned farms’ around which her article is written – is unclear. From the tenor of her writing, they seem a wholly parasitic imposition; does this imply that their contribution is to be made through a greatly reduced presence, if not through their complete absence? Should they be replaced (and once again, I am inferring, though I think reasonably so) by farmworkers settled on state-provided farms, or through peasant production, supported by state finance, expertise and so on?

The difficulty here is of course that the record of such interventions in South Africa has not been good. Even the most ardent advocate for land reform would concede that its outcomes have been disappointing (and, yes, I am aware that the ‘90% of projects have failed’ is a ‘thumbsuck’ figure, although it’s revealing that this was the figure the minister Gugile Nkwinti sucked from his thumb). The state, even at its most honest (a rarity), lacks the capacity to provide anything like the assistance that is often mooted for new farmers. And while no one should be dismissive of ‘physical/manual work’, or of the value of the skills that even the lowliest of workers acquire – I certainly can’t drive a tractor… – it’s a fact that there is a gulf between working on a farm and managing one. They are different skills.

South Africa is an urbanising country; already over two thirds of the population live in towns and cities. Agriculture, it is true, offers opportunities for the country and for some within it, although for better or worse, these are limited. As in any relatively advanced economy, better prospects exist in the urban centres – and that is where the population is moving. And it’s also why there is very little evidence from opinion polling that land or agrarian reform is viewed by most South Africans as a priority.

Steep costs

On the other hand, getting land reform wrong would impose steep costs on the country if doing so does disrupt the food production system – imperfect though it may be (and yes, food production is not the sum total of food security, the latter being a much more complex system). We dispense with the assets and expertise we have at our peril – as has regrettably been shown by numerous policy drives since 1994, in field such as electricity and water provision – however ideologically satisfying some may imagine it to be.

My own sense is that while there is a role for smallholders, as a source of production, they are not a viable alternative to large-scale commercial agriculture. Not only for food, but for inputs into various value chains in other industries. Commercial farmers – white, black or any other hue – are a necessity to provide for the country and its economy, and will remain so. They need to be encouraged and supported to remain in business.  And my fear in trying to encourage small-scale farming without extensive support (and possibly with it) is that it could well produce just the rural poverty trap that it intends to escape from. (A prominent journalist once asked me whether ‘the easiest way’ to deal with our horrendous unemployment problems would be simply to give people plots of land to work. There is no easy solution to this problem, but there is very little evidence indeed that this would be a popular option, nor one that many supposed beneficiaries would thrive in. I wonder whether my interlocutor could do so. I couldn’t.) Farming is, after all, a hard, low-profit undertaking subject to the vagaries of nature and vulnerable to the failings of the state.

Ms Phyllis writes with passion about dignity. Here one can only agree; this is inherent in all people and should be respected. Where living or working conditions betray this, improvement and rectification are overdue. But as the ILO report shows, the circumstances on the country’s farms are not reduceable to crass caricatures. Nor are farmers and farmworkers themselves.

Ultimately, though, dignity comes with employment, prospects for improvement and rising living standards. As destructive as Rhodes’ vision was, and however much it may have left an imprint on South Africa today, it does not describe the sum of our realities. We’d do well to bear that in mind.

Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy. A native of KwaZulu-Natal, he is a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg). He has held various positions at the IRR, South African Institute of International Affairs, SBP (formerly the Small Business Project) and the Gauteng Legislature – as well as having taught English in Taiwan. He is a regular commentator in the South African media and his interests include African governance, land and agrarian issues, political culture and political thought, corporate governance, enterprise and business policy.

*This article first appeared on the Daily Friend