‘He was angry. He bought the land and did not want us there’

2011-01-15 16:19

Moses Systerfontein had no idea that his employer of eight years had sold his plot. He found out the hard way.

In the dead of night a man armed with a gun broke down the door to the little room he shared with his wife and teenage daughter.

“He was angry. He wanted to know why we were still ­occupying the room because he had bought the land and he did not want us there,” said the 61-year-old.

Fearing for his life, Systerfontein fled through the window ­after the man allegedly pistol-whipped his terrified wife.

He ran through the deserted streets of Vleikop, a semi-rural ­settlement near Randfontein on the West Rand, screaming for help.

The family spent the next ­couple of weeks in hiding at a relative’s lodgings in the area, not knowing what to do.

Systerfontein never laid charges against his alleged tormentor.

“It is not going to help me,” he says in a tired voice.

“All I want is my money and to go on with my life.”

But through word of mouth, his case reached land rights ­organisation Nkuzi Development Association, which helps farm dwellers and workers with cases ranging from unfair dismissal to illegal eviction.

Nkuzi project officer Moses ­Sekobane said yearly there were an estimated 3 000 illegal farm evictions countrywide.

Recently the department of rural development and land ­reform ­published the draft Land Tenure Security Bill, which is aimed at ­addressing some of the problems related to farm ­evictions.

The proposed bill includes the establishment of agri-villages for farm workers on municipal land in rural areas as a way of addressing the housing challenges facing the agricultural sector.

The bill covers people residing on farms and their families, farm workers and their families and farm owners and their ­families.

In 1997 government passed the Extension of Security of Tenure Act to protect the rights of farm owners and farm workers. Although the act was ­welcomed as a step in the right direction towards the upholding of farm workers’ and dwellers’ rights, it was criticised by land owners and farmers’ organisations.

In written submissions to ­Parliament two years ago agricultural trade association AgriSA argued that the act had made the eviction process drawn-out and expensive.

It also highlighted the fact that unemployed, adult children of occupiers who lived on farms or those who moved back to live with their parents often caused problems on farms.

AgriSA also criticised the act, saying that it had a negative ­effect on the monetary value of farming land because farms with a large number of people living on them were worth far less than farms with few or no ­tenants.

AgriSA’s legal adviser, Annelize Crosby, said they would only comment on the draft Land Tenure Security Bill after discussing the matter this week.

But land rights activists remained sceptical that the bill would bring any improvements to the tenure rights of farm workers and dwellers.

Mike Cowling of the Association for Rural Advancement said the bill failed to address the fundamental issue of real tenure security in respect of farm dwellers and occupants.

Cowling slammed the bill as “a step backwards”, saying that it raised false hopes while merely paying lip service to fundamental rights such as access to electricity and clean water, since it did not specify how these rights were to be ­implemented.

He said one of the main weaknesses of the Bill was that it attempted to regulate certain entities without defining them.

“For example, extensive reference is made to the term ‘farm’, ‘persons residing on farms’ and ‘persons working on farms’. Since these terms are not defined it is bound to be the subject of endless and fruitless litigation in future ­because there will always be disputes over whether or not particular situations are covered by the Bill.

“One of the criticisms of ­previous legislation was the complicated procedures – particularly pertaining to eviction. The procedures set out in the bill are more complicated and seem to favour land owners,” said Cowling.

He cited section 25 of the bill which required the ­submission of a joint plan concerning the provision of suitable ­alternative land for an evicted ­person.

“Such plan need only be drawn up by the municipal manager of the local municipality, the Land Rights Management Board (established in terms of the act) and the land owner.

“This means that the opinion and input of the evicted person is completely excluded,” he said.

Sekobane said the success or failure of the act depended on the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform’s efficiency on the ground.

“People end up in the streets because of these evictions, and then we have squatter camps mushrooming because people have nowhere else to go. So maybe the idea of agri-villages will work, but there needs to be consultation of all stakeholders including non-governmental ­organisations,” said Sekobane.

He said the old act needed to be scrapped because it had failed to protect the rights of long-term land occupiers and general tenure rights of farm dwellers.

Like many other farm dwellers and workers whom the laws were aimed at assisting, ­Systerfontein was unaware of the draft Bill or the existence of the act.

He has lived in the farming areas of the West Rand all his life and has been evicted twice without compensation.

He said he didn’t know how government could help.

He hoped, however, that ­perhaps one day the law would finally protect farm dwellers and workers from the indignity of ­illegal evictions.

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