not enough to make ends meet, some Western Cape farmworkers subsist on little else but black coffee during the last few days of each month.
This piece in the Mail and Guardian drew my attention because it resonates with another description of poverty in rural South Africa. During the early decades of the twentieth century, C. Louis Leipoldt – medical doctor, eugenicist, food anthropologist, proto-Afrikaner nationalist, writer, Buddhist, and poet – worked as the Medical Inspector for Schools in the Transvaal province of the newly created Union of South Africa. He described his experiences of working in the lowveld – the hot, humid and, formerly, malaria-infested region in present day Mpumalanga – in Bushveld Doctor (1937).
Much of the focus of this collection of essays is a description of the everyday life, beliefs, and struggles of a population of impoverished whites scratching a miserable existence in a disease-riddled area. He ascribed the poor health of the children to endemic malaria and bilharzia, and also malnutrition. Leipoldt described one nine year-old patient:
When he left home in the morning his father gave him an inch of twist tobacco which he put into his mouth and chewed on his way to school. That and a cup of coffee (made from the root of a Bushveld tree) constituted his breakfast. There were other lads in the school who did the same to stay the pangs of incipient hunger.
Leipoldt observed that these Bushveld children were shorter than their better-fed and altogether healthier urban contemporaries. The problem was that good, nutritious food was in short supply. These subsistence farmers simply could not afford to eat well:
Malnutrition is prevalent because food is scarce in the Bushveld, where fresh fruit and vegetables are difficult to obtain, and because the children exist on an unbalanced diet. Their staple food is mielie meal, which has a low nutritive value. Milk and fresh meat are scarce. Wheaten bread is common enough, and of fair quality when obtainable, but it is not a staple article of diet. Fats are rarely included in the diet, and fresh butter is a comparative rarity.
In today’s language, these families were food insecure. Indeed, as are the farm workers described by the Mail and Guardian:
many farmworkers … are dependent on on-the-farm stores for food. Many farmworkers and NGOs accuse farmers of pricing foodstuffs higher than commercial shops.
This, compounded with low wages, further promotes food insecurity. ‘Prices in rural areas are always slightly higher than they are in urban areas. So if farmers are charging more than the market price, which is already high, farmworkers just can’t afford food,’ says [Colette Solomon, of the NGO Women on Farms], and explains that average household income is R1 500 a month. ‘Many farmworkers buy on credit, but the prices are so high that … when they get paid, they have to pay their debts back and basically don’t have money left.’
As a result of this
Stunted growth is not unusual: a study done by the University of Cape Town in the 1990s showed that farmworkers in the province are, on average, an inch (2.5cm) shorter than city dwellers.
In November last year, grape pickers in the Hex River Valley went on strike. Demanding higher wages – R150 an hour, rather than the minimum wage of R70 – the strike spread from De Doorns to Robertson, Wolesley, Ceres, Prince Alfred Hamlet, and elsewhere. Hundreds of strikers marched, gathered, and erected barricades. In some townships, the stand-off between strikers and police turned violent, as protestors pelted cops with rocks, and the police used rubber bullets, tear gas, and water canons to disperse the crowds. Shops were looted, and vines set alight. Two people were killed. There were allegations of police brutality.
The strike was called off in December and then resumed in January this year. In the meanwhile, efforts to mediate between farm workers, farmers, and the Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries were not productive. The Department’s decision to raise the minimum wage to R105 – thus ending the strike – was met with a lukewarm reaction from nearly everyone connected to the strike, with some farmers arguing that higher wages will force them to retrench workers.
What was so surprising about the strike was that it happened at all. Alongside domestic workers, farm labourers have one of the lowest rates of union membership in South Africa. When the strike began, both the African National Congress and the Democratic Alliance – which controls the Western Cape – accused each other of organising the workers. The union alliance Cosatu was caught unwares and scrambled to take control of the strike, but with limited success. The strike in January was more formally organised by both Cosatu and the more radical Bawsi Agricultural Workers Union of South Africa led by Nosey Pieterse, but, even so, these two organisations’ mandate for representing the strikers is shaky. (Pieterse is currently under investigation for intimidating non-striking workers. He is also suing the Cape Times for describing him as a member of the ‘lumpenproletariat.’)
This is a very cursory overview of the strike. As Rebecca Davis’s excellent reporting for the Daily Maverick shows, workers went on strike for a range of reasons – from genuine anger at low wages, to disputes around municipal politics.
It’s partly because of the complexity of the strike that I’ve avoided writing about it. Also, I’ve been concerned that I am too close to the issue to view it dispassionately. I grew up in Paarl and Stellenbosch, two towns in the Boland’s wine-producing area. I went to school with the daughters of farmers and, later, farm workers. (Our primary school opened to all races in 1992.) On Saturday mornings in the early- and mid-1990s, my father used to take my sister and I around local wine estates. We fed oak leaves to the goats at Fairview, and chatted to old Mrs Back in the cheese shop.
As daughters of politically aware and active parents, we knew how to identify ‘good’ from ‘bad’ farmers. We could spot which farms allowed labourers to live in damp, tumbledown cottages without running water and electricity. We saw which farms had legions of children not in school. It’s likely that those farmers may still have paid their workers in the form of alcohol, usually cheap brandy. The ‘dop’ (or ‘tot’) system originated during the nineteenth century on wine farms in the Boland as a means both of paying workers, as well as ensuring their dependency on farmers: alcoholic labourers would be less likely to move to Cape Town in search of better-paid work in the Cape Colony’s burgeoning industry.
Since 1994, the dop system has been banned, legislation restricting child labour introduced, and a minimum wage – now raised as a result of the strike – enforced. But these new laws have had a limited impact on farm workers: they have not reduced astronomically high rates of alcoholism which have caused the region to have one of the highest incidences of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) in the world; they have not compensated families for the loss of income brought in by children; they have not ended the cycle of domestic violence which disproportionately effects women on farms; many workers still live in appalling conditions, often with no access to electricity and running water. NGOs like Women on Farms have collected horrific testimony of women raped by their employers; of families being turned out of houses without warning and for, apparently, no reason; and of labourers overworked and maimed by machinery.
I began by drawing attention to two examples of South African rural poverty – one from the beginning of the twentieth century, another a hundred years later – to demonstrate the relative usefulness of understanding contemporary events in historical context. I don’t pretend to know enough about the wine and fruit industries in the Western Cape to be able to account for the strike itself, but I was struck by how often journalists, strikers, politicians, and others referred to slavery and apartheid when trying to understand the strike and the unique relationship between farmers and their labourers in this region.
The South African wine industry was profitable during the twentieth century partly because it could rely on a steady supply of cheap – even free – labour. Farmers could justify labourers’ exceptionally low wages on the grounds of the paternalistic system of employment which existed – and still exists, to some extent – on the farms:
The relationships between farm-owners and workers have not been simply exploitative, but were shaped by the discourses of paternalism. The notion of themselves as benevolent but firm protectors and disciplinarians of a grateful and appreciative population of on-farm servants has been an important part of the self-conception of farmers in the Western Cape and elsewhere in South Africa since the eighteenth century. Ultimately, however, it was a hierarchical relationship, marginalising and silencing the voices of those whose labour helped create the wealth of the sector.
Although it’s debatable if the Cape Colony’s system of slavery could accurately be described as ‘paternalistic’ (and this is still the subject of some debate among historians), it was certainly the case that an inherently unequal, dependent relationship developed over time between farmers and farmworkers. Although paid and treated appallingly badly, farmworkers were usually provided with (rudimentary) housing, some food, and other basics.
My point is that however terrible the circumstances in which farmers may work and live – and Human Rights Watch released a damning report into them in 2011 – to argue that we need to understand the relationship between farmers and their workers in the context of nineteenth- or, even, early twentieth-century labour politics is mistaken. We need to look at the more recent past.
The South African wine industry has changed significantly since the mid-90s, from selling what was, often, so-so plonk to the locals, to a massive tourism concern and export business. As Joachim Ewert and Andries du Toit have demonstrated, since the beginning of the deregulation of the industry in the early 1980s, South African producers have become subject to the vagaries of the international export market, new estates have emerged as new wine growing regions have been planted, yields have increased, and previously powerful co-operatives have amalgamated and disappeared.
Although there were efforts to reform labour relations during the 1980s, led largely by the Rural Foundation, and in response to changes in the wine industry, it was only after 1994 that there was adequate political will radically to do away with the old paternalism:
A paternalist state has stepped in to push back the paternalist authority of the farmer, and has created new limits to farmers’ control over workers’ lives. These changes seriously challenge the legal and formal underpinnings of traditional farm paternalism.
But challenging paternalism is not the same as replacing it. There is considerable evidence that many farmers are reluctant to comply with labour legislation, if not downright hostile to it.
There has been a major change in how wine, and also fruit, farmers employ labour since the end of the 1990s. This is partly the result of mechanisation and more efficient farming methods, but it is also the product of farmers’ resistance to legislation which raises the wages and living standards of workers:
Facing a sustained challenge to their power as employers and feeling increasing competitive pressures, many farmers seem to be opting for the one measure sill within their power: restructuring their businesses. Many are resorting to casualization, externalisation, and contractualisation, deepening an already segmented labour market and further deepening the divide between ‘winners’ and ‘losers.’
even while output has increased by 1.4% annually over the entire period …, employment has fallen from more than 120 000 jobs to fewer than 50 000 today.
Loss of permanent jobs on farms also means eviction, and over the past decade or so, the numbers of employed former farm workers living in desperate poverty in shacks or overcrowded homes on the fringes of picturesque winelands towns and villages, have swelled. They are dependent on seasonal work and on social grants. Alcoholism, drug addiction, domestic violence, and child abuse are rife.
There are many progressive wine farmers who have established crèches and primary schools, founded organisations to eradicate FAS, provided transport and bursaries to get farm children to school, and attempted to find ways of reducing alcoholism and domestic violence.
For instance, the Fair Valley Association was founded by Fairview workers in 1997, with the assistance of Charles Back, the owner of the wine farm. It helps labourers to buy land and build houses, and includes these workers in the day-to-day running of the estate. Similarly, at Solms Delta in Franschhoek, neuroscientist Mark Solms
organise[d] a loan, with his land as collateral, that allowed the 180 workers connected to his farm to buy 30 hectares connected to Solms’s land. Solms, along with his neighbour Richard Astor, joined forces with the farm workers, each a one-third partner in the Solms-Delta wine venture.
Through the Wijn de Caab Trust established in the workers’ names, Solms-Delta provides comfortable housing, health and dental benefits, plus Internet access, a full-time social worker and an afterschool teacher to help kids with their homework. One of Solms-Delta’s most successful ventures beyond the vines has been their music program: There are four bands on the farm, including an 80-person marching band. ‘A friend of mine likes to joke,’ says Solms, ‘that we don’t only farm wine, we farm music.’
The single biggest allocation from the workers’ trust has gone towards improving education.
Solms Delta is, truly, a beacon for other wine farms in the region. Its transformation is grounded in Solms’s realisation that he had no more claim to owning the farm than the generations of workers who have lived on it. The estate has acknowledged its slave past in an excellent museum, and workers’ pride in their involvement in the farm is palpable. (Do go, if you can.)
But the trouble with these – and other – laudable efforts is that they are aimed largely at those workers who remain on farms – and not the legion of unemployed, and potentially unemployable, labourers who have been pushed off farms since the late 1990s. These casual labourers constituted a significant portion of the strikers in November and January.
This returns to my original point about using the past to illuminate the present. Although slave pasts don’t really help to understand contemporary systems of employment, I think it’s worth thinking about rural poverty in the twenty-first century to that a hundred years earlier.
The emergence of a substantial population of ‘poor whites’ – like the people documented by Leipoldt – occurred as a result of many factors, including the transformation of agriculture into a capitalist enterprise. Poor white tenant and small farmers moved into towns and cities in search of work, while others lived in poverty in the countryside.
By the end of the 1920s, it was estimated that out of a total of 1,800,000 whites, 300,000 were ‘very poor’, and nearly all of these were Afrikaans. The Carnegie Commission of Investigation on the Poor White Question (1929-1932) concluded that an inability to adapt to a changing economic climate, outdated farming methods, and poor education were to blame for the existence of such a large population of impoverished whites.
In 1929, the South African government devoted 13 per cent of its budget to the eradication of white poverty. Much of this went to education, social welfare, and housing. The introduction of more stringent segregationist legislation progressively disenfranchised blacks, and reserved skilled work for whites.
I don’t want to draw glib parallels between the 1920s and 1930s and the 2010s – after all, white poverty was eliminated by the 1960s because of the systematic marginalisation of black workers. But I think that it’s worth noting that South Africa managed to eradicate one form of rural poverty during the twentieth century. By historicising poverty, we understand that it is not the fault of the impoverished – that poverty is the product of massive social, political, and economic change. More importantly, we see that with political will, it is not impossible to do away with it. It is eminently possible to stop people from having to live on black coffee.
Joachim Ewert and Andries du Toit, ‘A Deepening Divide in the Countryside: Restructuring and Rural Livelihoods in the South African Wine Industry,’ Journal of Southern African Studies, vol. 31, no. 2 (June 2005), pp. 315-332.
Bill Freund, ‘The Poor Whites: A Social Force and a Social Problem in South Africa,’ in White but Poor: Essays on the History of Poor Whites in Southern Africa 1880-1940, ed. Robert Morrell (Pretoria: Unisa Press, 1992), pp. xiii-xxiii.
C. Louis Leipoldt, Bushveld Doctor (Cape Town: Human & Rousseau,  1980).
Robert Ross, ‘Paternalism, Patriarchy, and Afrikaans,’ South African Historical Journal, vol. 32 (May 1995), pp. 34-47.
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