Written by Shawn Hattingh
The series of strikes and protests that recently took place in and around farms in South Africa’s Western Cape Province was fuelled by the deep-seated anger and frustration that workers feel. On a daily basis, farm workers face not only appalling wages, bad living conditions and precarious work, but also widespread racism, intimidation and humiliation. The extent of the oppressive conditions run deep and it is not uncommon for workers to even be beaten by farm-owners and managers for perceived ‘transgressions’. Indeed, life for workers in the rural areas has always been harsh, but over the last two decades it has in many ways gotten even worse and poverty has in many cases grown.
In fact, since 1994 farm-owning capitalists have been on the attack. Approximately 2 million farm dwellers and workers have been evicted from farms since then in South Africa[i]. Many of these people have been forced into townships in the rural areas, where they have become either unemployed or casual or seasonal workers on farms. Services in these townships are also of an appalling standard with most people living in shacks or dilapidated Reconstruction and Development houses. Coupled to this, there has been a proliferation of labour brokers exploiting people’s desperate need for work, and piecework has been re-introduced on many farms. Farm owners obviously benefit from this situation: many no longer have to provide accommodation for workers, and hiring people on a casual basis or based on piecework keeps wage bills low. Thus, whether workers are seasonal, casual or permanent, life in South Africa’s rural areas is defined by exploitation and extreme oppression. It is no exaggeration to say that farm workers, who are mostly black, are viewed and treated as sub-humans by farm owners, managers and labour brokers. It is in this context that farm workers in the Western Cape rose up for the first time in decades. For once this saw farm owners and managers really reaping what they had sown