Strikes, Spookytown, and a traumatic exit from feudalism: Women on Farms in South Africa

March 26, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

Managed to squeeze at least one day away from offices and lecture theatres in South Africa last week. In this case a road trip with Women

credit: Rehana Dada

credit: Rehana Dada

on Farms, an Oxfam partner led by the charismatic Colette Solomon (right), IDS PhD turned grassroots activist. In the Western Cape, scenic is an understatement: lush vineyards festooned with bougainvillea at the feet of colossal bare rock escarpments; dinky, opulent colonial towns – all church spires and verandahs and 4x4s. Perfectly asphalted roads, the infrastructure of modern ag – sprinklers, trucks, tourism (wine tasting, restaurants), a vision of plenty.

But where are the people? We go looking for them, and find women farmers living in the interstices of all this wealth. Crammed onto remaining pieces of ‘commonage land’, where they struggle with markets and theft; dumped in shacks in unlit, dangerous ‘Spookytown’ (left) on the edge of one of those nice colonial outposts (Rawsonville) after mass evictions from the commercial farms (too old, too rebellious, or just surplus to requirements). Black, coloured, marginal – at first it feels like apartheid  hasn’t gone away.

But it’s more messy than that. We end up in a lovely little cul de sac of coloured (mixed race) workers’ houses on Die Eike, a giant fruit farm supplying Tescos, among others. The houses are comfortable, with all mod cons, and gardens bursting with flowers. If the Spookytown inhabitants’ pre-eviction homes were anything like this, I feel their current pain. The Die Eike women took part in the first farmworkers’ strike in South Africa, an apparently spontaneous eruption last November, timed perfectly to hit the start of the harvest, earning them a big hike in the minimum wage (SAR 69 to 105) and global headlines. ‘It was like a bomb exploded, we said ‘we can do this’. Even though we’d known our rights all these years, we’d never had the guts.’


As they recount the story, their Afrikaans is peppered with English words – ‘labour rights’, ‘sisters’, ‘government’, ‘power’. Politics, it seems, is conducted in English. But paternalism is undoubtedly Afrikaans. Like their peers in Spookytown, these women are shocked at the change that has come
over the farmers (‘the boers’) since the strike. ‘Farmers don’t trust the workers like they did.’ Stories abound of threats of eviction, rent increases, swathes of new, unintelligible deductions wiping out the advances on their new pay cheques (the new wage came in at the beginning of March).

Much of the harassment feels like a petty war of attrition: ‘we’re not allowed to take fruit home any more; we can’t eat food on the job. They’ve cancelled the morning and afternoon breaks’. The kids are no longer allowed in the orchards. The estate drags its feet in repairs when things break in strike leaders’ homes.

What seems to be going on is a high speed transition away from a semi-feudal paternalist system in which many ‘boers’ paid over the minimum wage, and were happy to give advances on wages, or help out ‘loyal’ employees (we met one old woman living rent free in the middle of a commercial vineyard, growing vegetables – as a young domestic worker, she raised the present owner, and he didn’t hesitate to help her when she subsequently fell on hard times). No rights, but some consideration.

The strike seems to have triggered a shift away from that to purely monetary relationships, and workers (and probably farmers, but I didn’t talk toAuntie Rosathem) are finding it traumatic. In one Spookytown shack devoid of electricity or running water, ‘Auntie Rosa’ (left) explains how she looks after her extended family of 10, relying largely on her monthly pension of SAR 1200. She pays out SAR 240 for the family funeral policy, SAR 210 for school fees for 3 kids and then SAR 540 for the washing machine. Eh? She takes us inside and shows us the power-less washing machine, fridge and sound system, all brought here on eviction from her nice farm house. She struggles to explain why she keeps up the payments at such personal cost, but I think it’s because they connect her to that better life back on the farm.

That farm-supplied housing leaves workers extremely vulnerable to harassment, and may well decline if the transition to monetarised relationships continues. But also missing are the institutions that can defend the workers in this new savage capitalist era. A strike can win a one-off victory, but how to defend against the war of attrition that follows? Farmworkers will need some institution to call when the harassment starts, but who? Trade unions exist but find it hard to organize, often in the face of massive farmer hostility (‘why should my workers need a union?’). And while a wonderful organization, Women on Farms is too small and under-resourced to play the necessary role.

I really hope someone is documenting this transition as it happens, and before it becomes the stuff of myth.

March 26, 2013
Duncan Green