- A two-year inquiry into the human rights situation on South Africa's farms, released today, reveals disappointingly little progress in the post-apartheid era. Farm dwellers, mostly black, are denied basic rights and live under miserable conditions. The mostly white farmers, meanwhile, live under increased fear of racially motivated attacks.
The South African Human Rights Commission has conducted a thorough study of the situation in the country's agricultural areas, including interviews and public hearings in all seven provinces. The resulting report, of over 200 pages, reveals that the gains of South Africa's showcase constitution mostly have not reached farming communities.
In recent years reports of farmers brutality towards their workers, shocking employment and living conditions on farms, child labour and the ongoing murders of farmers have dominated South African media, giving a clear message that all is not well in the farming and agricultural sector, the Commission noted.
The inquiry concluded that - although media reports often had been exaggerated and unfounded - all these evils indeed existed in various degrees. The report revealed a pattern of human rights abuses on south African farms without claiming that these problems were universal.
Safety and security turned out to be one of the main concerns for farm workers and farm owners. Unacceptable levels of violence and crime were now experienced in farming communities, the inquiry found. The nature of this violence was found to be different from urban crime.
Violence was perpetrated against farm dwellers by a range of actors, including farmers, private security companies and public security forces. "There is a general lack of confidence in the criminal justice system being able to assist farm dwellers, which is perceived as biased in favour of farm owners," the report concluded.
So-called 'farm attacks' - attacks on farm owners or their farms - continued "at an unacceptable rate although a number of measures have been put in place to address this issue," the Commission found. Although statistics showed 'farm attacks' were increasing, the murder rate of white farmers was stable. While farmers' organisations claim 'farm attacks' are racially based, police and other sources found them to be "ordinary" violence crimes (robbery, murder, etc).
The notion of increased violence in South Africa's farms has led the press to talk about a "race battlefield" (the British broadcaster BBC) and claiming that it is now "much more dangerous to be a white farmer in South Africa than in neighbouring Zimbabwe." Careful reading of the inquiry however shows that racial hate crimes have yet to be documented and that it is far more dangerous to be a black farm worker than a white farm owner.
The ordinary farm worker experienced limitations in his or her constitutionally guaranteed labour rights, social rights, economic rights and right to freely associate.
- There is general and widespread lack of compliance with labour legislation despite many efforts undertaken by organised agriculture to train their members, the Commission's inquiry concludes. Farm workers, for the most part, remain un-unionised and the farming workplace remains non-conducive to the organisation of labour due to trade union's lack of access to the farms and the environment of intolerance and hostility towards unions.
- Women workers, seasonal workers and illegal foreign workers are more vulnerable and are greatly discriminated against in the farming workplace, the report says, and there were still incidents of child labour occurring. Workers were mostly denied their right to paid overtime, vacations, paid sick leave and maternity leave.
There further was found to be a "general lack of access to service delivery from the state and lack of knowledge of economic and social rights." Little had been done to promote access to housing in farming communities and "the challenges facing the delivery of health services are enormous."
- Social security is not always accessed because farm dwellers do not have ID documents, are unaware of these rights, do not know how to go about accessing them or do not have the resources to access them, the report concludes.
The enormous social differences between farm owners and farm workers lead to an unbalanced power relation, where farm workers easily are victimised. Farm workers are often unaware of their rights, have little confidence in public authorities, lack resources and fear the consequences of a conflict with their employers. After all, low-paid work and basic housing are a better alternative than eviction from the farm and unemployment.
Agri South Africa - the mouthpiece of commercial agriculture in South Africa - participated in the Commission's hearings and defended its mostly white membership. The organisation maintained that most of the Commission's findings were exaggerations based on non-representative single cases. Agri SA was sensitising its members on labour and other rights.
South Africa's ruling ANC party today reacted to the Commission's report, saying it "did not reveal anything new," but had "served as a stark reminder of the challenges we have to deal with as a nation."
ANC spokesman Smuts Ngonyama added that report highlighted a stark disparity between sections of society: "The one obsessed with crime as though white affluent people are the only victims of crime. The other, a people trapped in poverty and treated as second-class citizens in a democratic country." He promised enhanced government efforts to address the outlined problems.
- It needs to be acknowledged that the [Commission's] report also highlights progress in certain areas, the ANC statement says. "We do similarly acknowledge that a significant number of white farmers have embraced our democracy and have actively contributed to improving the lives of their labourers, and they need to be commended for this."
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