[SPEECH] Lucien van der Walt, 1998, “The Silent War on the Land against Black Workers”

Lucien van der Walt, 1998, “The Silent War on the Land against Black Workers,” talk given at a public meeting hosted by the Workers Solidarity Federation (WSF), at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. 27 May 1998.

In recent months, the rural areas have come into focus in the media.

Farm killings

The bulk of media reporting has been focussed on high levels of rural crime­: according to some sources there have been 114 farm attacks in the last two months (The Citizen, 15 May 1998). These are attacks directed at farm-owners, as opposed to ordinary crimes in the rural areas affecting farm-workers.

Contrary to the picture presented in the media, where a real hype has been built around this issue, only a few of these attacks have involved murder: 6 people were killed in the over 30 attacks that took place in May 1998 (The Citizen, 20 May 1998).  However, other attacks have involved violence, and white farmers have responded by promising to form paramilitary organisations, private armies with helicopters, assault troops etc. to defend themselves.    Meanwhile, the post-apartheid government has done its best to reassure farmers, and has claimed to be solving up to 90% of farm attacks (The Citizen, 20 May 1998).

The state insists that the farm attacks are purely criminal, whereas a vocal section of the white farmers — obvious beneficiaries of apartheid, and a bloc still not reconciled to the “new South Africa” — claims there is some sort of coordinated armed struggle going on. Well, there is not any real evidence for this imagined bush war.

Crimes Against Workers

We do not, of course, support violent crime. But what we do oppose is the deeply skewed picture that the media is presenting, and that the organised white farmers have presented. In this picture, farm attacks mean attacks on white farmers, and rural crime is presented as farm attacks.

What the media has systematically ignored are equally criminal incidents like the ongoing mass evictions of black farm tenants and farm-workers, particularly in KwaZulu Natal and the Northern Province, as white farmers, fearing land reform, have undertaken. Using labour­-saving machinery, and making every effort to ensure farm-tenants and farm-workers are no longer resident on the farms. In the apartheid days, the cheap black labour system (centred on coloured and back African labour) in the rural areas involved white farmers having access to the labour of whole families of dependent workers, living on the farms, generation after generation, closely regulated and systematically under-paid.

Now that post-apartheid land reform seems set to allow tenants and workers resident on farms protection against eviction, and, possibly, a basis for land claims where the tenants and workers can show a serious claim to the land that was violated after 1913, farmers have thrown tens of thousands of workers out of employment, and evicted, by some figures, over a million people — tenants, workers, their families — in the 1990s.

This massive assault has led to counter-mobilisation, and about two weeks ago in Bethal a mass rally of labour tenants threatened serious disturbances if evictions were not halted.

Meanwhile, repressive, and even violent, labour relations remain the norm on the farms. Before 1995, that is, before the new labour Relations Act, farm-workers had no rights to form trade unions and organise for better conditions. They were completely out the ambit of even the labour law reforms of 1979-1981, which finally gave black African workers the same union rights as other races. And it is also often forgotten that the 1913 Land Act banned most tenant farming, which placed farm tenants involved in systems like share-cropping outside the law.

Efforts to Organise

Far too little, however, has changed. COSATU [Congress of SA Trade Unions] has established a farm-workers’ union, which claims 30,000 members. The union is called SA Farm and Agricultural Workers Union (SAFAWU), but it has no real role in most farms, as its main base seems to be amongst workers on large forestry plantations linked to big paper companies. This is a tiny part of the farm labour force.

Much of the struggle in the rural areas centres, not on unions, but on NGOs, notably the National Land Committee (NLC) coalition of NGOs and research groups that has been active in trying to rally labour tenants and farm-workers against conditions. But it is very difficult for structures like the NLC to form serious and sustained farm-tenant and -worker structures.

The vast bulk of the estimated 5 millions of farm-workers and their families remain unorganised, a situation that is partly due to the basic problems involved in organising small groups of workers scattered over large areas — but as important, I would say actually much more important, is continuing repression and harassment by farmers against organising efforts. With no real union base in much of the countryside, organising efforts are new compared to other sectors where there are long traditions.

Less than three weeks ago, an attempt to organise a SAFAWU branch was broken by the farmer simply dismissing all the workers. Although COSATU protested this action in the media, little progress has since been made. And there has been little in the way of anything beyond media statements by the big battalions of the unions.

Now, when these farmers act this way, they are continuing a long tradition of repression and violence against black workers, a tradition which, eventually, goes all the way back to the conquest of the land, and the entrenchment of a system of cheap black (primarily coloured and black African) rural labour, a tradition which helped break the back of the last major organising offensive on the land. This was the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union, or ICU, of the 1920s which sought to organise the rural poor. Although the ICU fell partly because of internal problems, not least a serious lack of internal democracy and the absence of any real programme of action  beyond speeches, there is no doubt that violence by white farmers splayed an important role, including attacks on ICU offices, evictions and beatings.

What do we Mean by Repression on the Farms?

Now when we are talking about repression on the farms against the farm-tenants and -workers, we mean two things

First, we mean the naked violence of farmers against the poor. For an idea of the depths this thuggery and brutality can reach, we can think of shocking, horrific  incidents such as the farmer and his sons who were recently charged for
dragging a worker behind a tractor for several hundred meters — or, of course, we can all recall the shooting of six month old Thobile Angeline Zwane near Benoni in April by a white landowner this year.

What is remarkable about this killing is not its brutality, but the fact that it got so much attention. Almost no cases of rural violence against black workers by white farmers are reported, let alone reach court. This sounds like something out of the old Cape Colony, where in the 1800s Masters and Servants Laws supposedly protected servants, but where masters in reality often got away with murder. By contrast, every killing of a white farmer today receives national coverage, as I have noted — a double standard for the value of life that we need to think about very carefully.

But the second kind of repression on the land is the violence of domination and exploitation, the less visible, less dramatic, and of course, completely legal, yet horrific, attacks on freedom, life, health and dignity involved in the cheap labour system —  both in its classic apartheid form, the closed farm and all who live on it ruled by the farmer, and its emerging post-apartheid form, based on flexible labour and displacement.

Yes, violent crime is wrong. But is it not a crime, is it not violence, to oppress, immiserate, exploit, and cast away, millions of people, millions of tenants and workers? Is it is not a crime, is it not violence, to build a rural society on the basis of poverty, oppression and misery? And when we consider the violent roots of that rural society — through colonial conquest, and through processes of class formation that also, contrary to Afrikaner nationalist myths, also forced hundreds of thousands of poor white tenant farmers into the slums of the cities — is there not a crime, is there not violence, at the roots of that rural society?

When tens of thousands of people are thrown off the land into destitution, when millions of workers and tenants receive incomes of under R300 a month [1998 figures], are we not talking about a crime? Are we not talking about the crime of rich white capitalist farmers versus the largely black rural working class? Who are the worst criminals in the countryside? Robbers with guns, or robbers with farms? 68% of the rural population lives in extreme poverty, yet farm land in the “white” South Africa (that is, outside the homelands) was, by the end of apartheid, in the hands of between 60-100,000 white farmers. A tiny elite, a tiny minority within the white minority of 5 or so million.

Context: Class and National Oppression

What we are saying is that we need to see farm killings and farm attacks in context.

Firstly, the largest crime in the rural areas is not attacks on white farmers, but an unjust system oppressing farm-tenants and -workers. The suffering of millions of people, this is the main crime. It is a crime that combines class exploitation and national oppression, because it links race and class so closely.

Not all rural whites are wealthy farmers, and there is a small rural white working class and layer of tenants, and not all white land-holders in the rural areas are wealthy farmers either.

But the big owners are white, the great bulk of the tenants and workers — and certainly the most oppressed ones — are black, and this system is closely linked to colonialism and apartheid. So the land question is not just a question of unequal land ownership, and an extreme concentration of land, but it’s also part of the national question, of the issue of the still-not-complete national liberation of the black working class and poor.

This inequality and suffering is not however a crime in the law books. You can’t be charged for evicting tenants and workers, so long as you follow the right procedures, you can’t be charged for low wages, you can’t be charged for throwing people out of work. Yet you can be charged for refusing to be evicted, you can be charged for trying to live on land that you don’t have a legal document for, even if you have lived there all your life, you can be charged for striking without going through the proper procedures as laid out by the 1995 Labour Relations Act.

This is the topsy-turvy “justice” that protects the few at the expense of the many.

And rural crime, including attacks on farms but also robberies and murders and rapes targeted at farm-tenants and workers, need to be seen as a response­ — yes, obviously not the ideal response — to the endemic poverty and suffering that curses the land. People with no way of surviving through honest work are often forced into crime, and in a world where life is cheap,it is cheap to those who prey on the working class and poor: the farmers as well as gangs and thugs.

Towards a Better Life for All

The real way to end rural crime — the real way in fact to remove crime more generally — and to create justice and end suffering and oppression — is to create the basis for a better life for all.

Now, we know that slogan, A Better Life for All, we heard it in the elections of 1994, and again in 1995,and no doubt we will hear it again in the future, in 1999. But the fact of the matter is that very little has changed on the land, and in many cases the rural areas are, despite the addition of a few black politicians to the farmer-capitalists, not very different from what they were in the height of apartheid. They seem frozen in time, in a horrible time.

In fact, it is noticeable that the emergent black commercial farming group­ — yes, still a small minority, but a growing one — has not, in many ways, differed from the white farmers in its actions. In particular, members of the National African Farmers Union have been at the forefront of evictions in a number of areas, and the National African Farmers Union has, more recently, stated its intention to join the conservative SA Agricultural Union, itself a stronghold of right-wing groups run by big white farmers.

We don’t see the problem here as one of “selling out”: the fact of the matter is that all commercial farmers are forced to exploit their workers, and therefore all oppress their workers, it doesn’t matter if those farmers are black or white. And the long-entrenched system of cheap black labour in the countryside will exist, no matter the colour of the exploiter, so long as core features of rural society remain in place.

Land Reform?

Now, what is the post-apartheid government doing about this situation? Well, there is some improvement, but it’s not enough.

The 1995 labour laws finally included farm-workers, but organising remains, as seen above, very difficult.

As for current land reform policy, it is based on proposals in the RDP, or Reconstruction and Development Programme, which was the platform that the ANC [African National Congress] was elected in 1994.

But while the RDP has some good features, its land reform section is very, very weak.

This land reform policy has three main elements.

The first is the establishment of the land claims court to allow people dispossessed of their land by racist laws or “corrupt policies” after 1913 to try claim back their land.

The problem with this plan is that the basic pattern of race-based land divisions was largely in place by the time of this Act. It consolidated what had already taken place by this point, and it added a bunch of measures designed to smash tenant farmers. Even without this problem, many people dispossessed from 1913 are scattered across the country and lack documents to prove their claims. Meanwhile, the government has promised to compensate farmers who do lose out the Land Claims Court anyway. How this will be funded is not clear. The state, in any case, refuses to increase taxes on the rich, and is actually cutting them, so it lacks the money to carry out this scheme on a large-scale.

The second element of the land reform program is misleadingly named “land redistribution”. It is based on the so- called “willing-buyer-willing-seller” approach. This means that land must be bought through the market when it is available. The state will provide households with a R15,000 subsidy to help buy land.

R 15 000! What farm costs less than a million rand! What this means is that only the small black capitalist elite will get land because only they have the money — or that people will buy land by joining together, to pool their money, and experience so far shows that this usually reviving chiefly rule, something that is closely associated with the old homelands, and is generally undemocratic, elitist and anti-woman.

So, the rural masses will probably not get much land — and sometimes they will have to buy it! But white farmers, many of them open racists and all of them beneficiaries of the old order, will be compensated where they lose land!

In any case, given limited government funds, and the politics of patronage that is already evident in the new post-apartheid government — just as it was evident in the apartheid government — will almost certainly mean that it will be the politically well-connected who will get the R 15,000 subsidy will be the elite. And because the stated aim of the state is to have a profitable farming sector, and not disrupt production, the elite will also be in the front row of beneficiaries on the basis that effective farming is, in South Africa, taken to mean large-scale capitalist commercial farming.

The third, and last, aspect of the land reform program is “tenure reform”. Basically, what this means is that labour tenants and traditional communities will have more secure rights to stay on the land.

More protection for tenants against the constant threat of evictions is a good thing. But this kind of reform does nothing to deal with basic problems of land redistribution, poverty and oppression. And it has been met with a massive rash of evictions, as farmers try avoid any such claims being made on “their” land.

Only the Workers …

Clearly, the land reform program of the ANC-led government will do little to really redistribute land — and less to change rural society. While white capitalist farmers, black chiefs and the emerging black bourgeoisie elite all stand to benefit from what is happening, rural workers and the rural poor will not.

We should not be surprised. While it was a massive advance to replace the racist regime with a parliament, the state is always an organisation of the ruling class: the capitalists, and the people at the top of the state itself, generals, top politicians and top bureaucrats and directors. It will never act in the fundamental interests of  the broad working class.

Politicians, in general, cannot be trusted, they say one thing at elections, but while they are in power they do whatever they like. It is all very well for politicians to talk tough for the cameras at events like Thobile Zwane’s funeral, but the fact of the matter is that these self-same politicians are the ones who have implemented a policy directly against the basic interests of the workers and the poor. We do recognise that not all politicians are crooked, but we do insist that the state apparatus will force even the best and most honest politician to act in ways aligned to the ruling class — and therefore biased against the working class.

We think that only the workers CAN FREE THE WORKERS, there are no saviours from above, there are no solutions from above.

Therefore we need to rely on our own strength, our own fighting spirit, to win. We must come together in our millions and force the bosses and the rulers to return the land directly to the workers and the poor, and without compensation!

Revolutionary Unionism

An immediate step must be to develop and strengthen the tiny farm-workers unions. These unions should include all categories of the exploited: waged workers, labour tenants and the unemployed.

In the short run, these unions should fight for better conditions and wages, and against dismissals, evictions and violence against the poor. This fight should be extended throughout the countryside, on the farms and in the homelands, or bantustans. They need confront the rural social order, its injustices and repression and violence and misery and fight for better conditions and more rights.

But built right, built with clear vision and ideas, in the long-term, these self-same revolutionary unions can sweep aside the capitalist white and black farmers and the homeland chiefs and seize back the land.

In this way, we can establish free agricultural collectives made up of working-class and poor people, producing for need and closely linked to the urban working class communities, where similar processes of occupation and collectivisation are needed.

No new boss class, black or white, would be permitted to emerge. Everyone would do their fair share of work, and everyone would receive what they need to lead a decent life. The collectives would obviously be mainly made up of  coloured and black African and Coloured workers, but obviously Indian and white workers could join.

The agricultural collectives would be federated with each other, and with the city workers’ organisations and unions. This will allow us to plan the economy from below in the interests of the masses and to organise the military defence of the revolution. In this way we can establish libertarian socialism (anarcho­-syndicalism).

And only in such a system can the fight for national liberation for the WORKING CLASS be completed, the apartheid and colonial legacy abolished by a new order of justice and equality.

 

Don’t wait for the government! The poor must seize the land!!!!

About Lucien van der Walt
I teach at Rhodes University, the Eastern Cape. I’m South African, born and bred. I am currently also involved in union education and have a background in social movement and left-wing activism, the Workers’ Library and Museum, the Anti-Privatisation Forum, and the National Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU). I’ve presented papers at more than 120 conferences and workshops, published in key journals like 'Capital and Class' and 'Labor History', have co-edited 3 journal specials (these on global labour history, African labour, and unions in the Global South), and written well over 130 other articles, papers and entries. I was Southern Africa editor for the 2009 'International Encyclopaedia of Revolution and Protest' (Blackwell). My focus has been on South Africa, but I have also done research in Zambia and Zimbabwe. I won the 2008 international 'Labor History' thesis prize, and the 2008/2009 Council for the Development of Social Science Research prize for best African dissertation, for my PhD thesis on South African anarchism, syndicalism and black militants. I have several books, including 'Negro e Vermelho: anarquismo, sindicalismo revolucionário e pessoas de cor na África Meridional nas décadas de 1880-1920,' 'Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1880-1940: the praxis of national liberation, internationalism, and social revolution' (co-edited with Steve Hirsch, Brill, 2010/ 2014) and 'Black Flame: the revolutionary class politics of anarchism and syndicalism' (co-written with Michael Schmidt, AK Press 2009).

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