My life as a young farm labourer

2012-11-17 16:23

I was almost 12 when I started working as a seasonal labourer on farms in the Boland which exported table grapes.

You could say, though, that the idea of this type of work was familiar to me from a much younger age.

My mom was a seasonal labourer, and her mom before that.

My grandfather was well into his seventies when eventually he retired from it. What lay behind him – how we got here – I don’t know.

On Friday evenings I would play in the dirt road running past our house, waiting until the truck dropping him off came around the corner.

First, the red kist containing his belongings would be tossed from the back, and then he would climb off the lorry, carefully because of his rheumatic limbs.

He didn’t seem cross that his five-year-old granddaughter had braided all the “hair” on the mealies in his own vegetable garden while he was gone.

When you grow up in the rural areas, you sometimes remember life as idyllic, like a painting or a psalm.

Some of my memories about working on those farms are like that.

But mostly, I hated it.

At around six o’ clock in the morning you get on the back of a crowded truck that transports you from the village to the farm.

It only takes a few days for your lips and cheeks to get dry and cracked from exposure to the sharp morning air while traveling in the back of an open vehicle.

Lunch is usually an hour.

You eat whatever’s been brooding in your lunch box in the December heat and try to take a nap on the dry pine tree needles underneath the trees planted on the edges of these vineyards.

The trees also served as toilets back then.

At six o’clock in the evening you return home, body sore from standing all day with your legs slightly apart and your arms stretched skywards because 11-year-old hands can’t quite comfortably reach the clusters of grapes hanging from the vines just yet.

Clip-clip-clip. Rotten berries, undersized ones, perfectly formed berries that have to be removed purely for the sake of another’s growth.

At home, not even a bath helps to ease aching muscles. Nor sleep. Sometimes I managed to read a few pages over my plate of food before crawling into bed.

As children we were exuberant when it rained. It brought relief from the work and the sun. But for the adults doing so-called “stukwerk” it meant losing a few hours’ wages.

Come Friday, many didn’t take home much anyway after the cost of bread and other living essentials bought from the expensive farm shop during the week were deducted.

Of course I did this work only for up to two months of the year, during school holidays, to earn pocket money.

My mom and some of her sisters eventually made it as teachers so I was quite secure in the knowledge that it wasn’t forever – unlike some of the people I met on those farms.

In my last year, my co-workers were happy I passed matric and was accepted into a journalism programme.

I didn’t give a hoot about journalism, but I couldn’t wait to start my life in the big city.


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