SOUTH AFRICA: Limpopo’s farm labourers yet to benefit from land reform


MUSINA, 15 November 2004 (IRIN) – Labourers from the fertile farms of South Africa’s northernmost province regularly bring their grievances to a modest office in Musina’s Nancefield township, just south of the Zimbabwe border.

John Mashaba and Dorah Ncupe, officials in the Legal Advice Centre, listen to workers’ accounts – in the hope of eventually mediating solutions with employers.

Most labourers tell of abuse by farm owners – from physical violence to illegal evictions. But behind every laborer’s dispute is a single issue: land.

“Land is what holds all the riches of the nation – oil, gold, diamonds,” said Mashaba, the assistant coordinator of the centre. “If you hold the land, you hold all the riches of the country. But if you hold no land, you have nothing at all.”

Mashaba and Ncupe are part of a growing land reform movement in South Africa, one that is targeting land ownership patterns which have changed little since the end of apartheid.

In the 10 years since the nation’s transition to democracy, the government has created multiple departments and passed numerous acts to both redistribute land to the landless, as well as provide restitution to communities and individuals previously dispossessed of property as a result of racially discriminatory laws and practices.

Yet, white landowners still own a majority of South African farmland, with little property having changed hands to black landowners. As a result, the nation’s landless farm workers remain beholden to landowners with significantly greater wealth and power.

In fact, in northern Limpopo province, where Musina is located, fewer than 10 communities have received land under the land reform programme since 1994, said Shirhami Shirinda, an attorney with the legal unit at the Nkuzi Development Association, a land-reform support organization.

In October, the South African Communist Party (SACP), part of the ruling tripartite alliance led by the African National Congress, launched a nationwide campaign to pressurise the government to accelerate land and agrarian reform. Through a series of community tribunals and coordinated protests, the SACP has asked the South African government to redouble efforts to redistribute land currently held by private and predominantly white landowners to landless workers and the poor.

Critics of land redistribution efforts in South Africa caution against replicating radical land distribution programmes, which has led to violence against farm owners in neighboring Zimbabwe.

In addition, many of South Africa’s commercial farmers claim that land reform efforts have been non-transparent and poorly planned.

The Transvaal Agricultural Union (TAU), a nationwide organisation representing about 7,000 farm owners, said South Africa should conduct more agricultural research before pursuing its national land reform strategy.

“Certain investigations still need to be done,” said Chris van Zyl, TAU’s manager of safety and security, underlining the need for research on the division of land plots for small-scale agricultural use. “Put the research on the table and then let’s take it from there.”

But claiming that landlessness is directly linked to poverty, land reform activists point out that the government must move faster to address the current unequal division of land, which remains dramatically skewed along racial lines.

“Our new government has good laws, but a good law that is not being implemented does not benefit the people it is supposed to help,” said Patrick Mojapelo, deputy director of the Landless People’s Movement in Limpopo Province.


In Limpopo province, the average wage for farmers is between R200 and R300 (between US $32 and $49) a month, according to the centre.

The province is also saturated with undocumented laborers from Zimbabwe and Mozambique, and Mashaba said farmers tend to disregard the minimum wage set by the government. Low wages often mean that farm workers – citizens and non-citizens alike – are vulnerable to employers’ whims.

“[A farm worker] will be living on the land for 20 years, but when a new farmer buys the land, they might say, ‘You must leave, you are not part of my plan here'”, Mashaba said.

Occasionally, the organisation will write letters to individual farmers seeking redress for a worker’s grievance.

“Most of the time, it is tough, because the attitude of the farmers is, ‘This is our own private property'”, he said. “That’s why we’re trying to engage the government. We are concentrating on trying to get people to adhere to the rule of law.”

The Legal Advice Centre seeks legal recourse for tenants who have lived on a particular piece of land for years.

“Our effort is to get people a piece of land to build their own plots,” and become more self-sustainable, Mashaba said.

Nkuzi’s Shirinda, who also runs outreach programmes for farm labourers, said land reform and land restitution are crucial in improving the lives of the nation’s poor.

“In the past, our forefathers, did not have to go to work for another person,” he said. “They were producing for their own and they did not have to go buy somewhere from someone. With the land, you can employ yourself.”

Self-employment and self-efficiency is the ultimate goal, but for many, it remains impossible.

In Limpopo’s southern Soutpansberg mountains, Elisa Como, 27, sat on the side of the N1 highway with her two daughters, selling a small selection of watermelons, squash and tomatoes.

“We buy this food from others and then resell it here,” said 16-year-old Nomsa Como. “We cannot plant anything because we don’t have any land.”

All reporting by Gretchen L. Wilson, © 2004

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