'I am going to vote but my heart is still sore' - mom living in tent in Paarl after eviction

2019-04-30 14:37
Nomabongo Sweetness May
Nomabongo Sweetness May. (Jenni Evans, News24)

"I am going to vote but my heart is still sore," Nomabongo Sweetness May says as she stands inside the tent on the side of the road in Paarl that her family now calls home.

She and her family have been living there after they were evicted from a wine farm last month.

After sweeping aside the tarpaulin that is her "door", May stands back to allow for a glimpse into her tidy tent. There is a neat row of pink coffee mugs in a kitchen dresser and a row of butterfly prints on her fridge.

Trucks and cars roar through the thin "walls" metres away. They are heading through the famous wine and tourism route which promises leisurely cheese and wine pairings, a braai picnic, or a visit to an olive farm for those who can afford them.

For the Mays, these luxuries are not high on their wish list as they sit on the ground outside and share a bowl of dry home-made vetkoek and a small bag of oranges.

What they want is to be able to move back into their house at Windmeul Cellars over the road.

'Sore heart'

May said she has voted since the advent of the first democratic election in 1994.

"It was wonderful," she said of the 1994 election. "The time I came here it was the time of the pass [law]," she says. 

Movement was severely restricted for black people and she celebrated the scrapping of pass laws as one of the changes that the 1994 election brought.

"I don't know now," she says, explaining that their current predicament reminds them of apartheid days when people could suddenly find themselves out on the street.

But she makes a point of voting in every election, albeit "with a sore heart" this year. 

The 'wash line' outside the Mays home in Paarl.
The 'wash line' outside the Mays home in Paarl. (Jenni Evans, News24)

However, instead of debating which party to choose, the Mays will be on tenterhooks for a big court case just a day before the main elections.

On May 7, the Land Claims Court will hear an application to have their eviction rescinded.

She explains that the complex case has its roots in an accusation that they were "smokkeling" (running a shebeen) from their cottage on the farm, because her husband's friend was seen taking two bottles of beer back home with him after a visit. 

'They broke people's things'

Her husband was fired and after 10 years of stop-start negotiations as they refused to leave, on March 26, the winery owners' order that they be evicted, was carried out by the sheriff of the court as private security officials monitored.

"We had to just stand still and watch," said May.

"They broke people's things. They threw our things in black bags. I asked them: 'Where are my things going?' They said: 'There - on the street.' I asked them: ' Which street?' They said: 'There by the crossing.'

"I asked them: 'Is it right that we live there?' They said: 'Yes.'"

The Mays have been from pillar to post at the local municipality in the hope of being allocated a house and are now exhausted and want their old house at the farm back.

They have been told they can live at a camp site, but have heard that thugs climb the wall and slash people's tents to steal things.

They don't want to live on the side of the road forever with the old wheel rims hanging off the side of the tent to help stabilise it when the Western Cape winds blow.

At night, the larger tent which is laid out like an open plan lounge and living room, turns into a dormitory as almost everybody beds down for the night on the floor.

'Where must farmworkers go to?'

In a second smaller tent, a mug contains the family's toothbrushes, a plastic wash basin, a mirror perched in a corner, and school books neatly squared off on a chair.

May lifts a sleeping bag to reveal black refuse bags packed with clothing that is used as bedding for some of the adults to have privacy. There are 10 people living in the tents and they rely on the goodwill of friends and supporters for food, water, and to charge their phones.

Sitting on an old speaker, Billy Claasen, a director of the Rural and Farmworkers Development Organisation and the son of a farmworker himself, told News24 that farmworkers' families have it tough when an employee is fired or when the person employed by the farm dies. 

He says some farm owners provide nice alternative accommodation, but it is linked to the person they used to employ. If the husband who worked on the farm dies, his wife loses the accommodation. 

"Where the hell must farmworkers go to? A night shelter?" he asks. "That is totally wrong."

He said that there are farmers who do their best for workers, but others who do not. 

WATCH: Farmer hands over state-of-the-art R30m village to his 150 workers

Claasen has also reiterated a call by Women on Farms who startled President Cyril Ramaphosa at a Women's Day function in Paarl last year with a picket calling for a moratorium on farm evictions. 

Trust breakdown

Women on Farms also marched to Parliament in March, before the Mays' eviction, to boost their demand, saying the eviction of farmworkers was reaching a crisis point.

The owners of the farm issued a statement the following day to tell their side of the story.

In their view, they have been patient and have consulted extensively, and extended deadlines over the 10 years they have tried to resolve the Mays' situation.

They said the relationship of trust had broken down completely with their employee. The family had refused to move and in the interim, sales of liquor and drugs were allegedly emanating from the dismissed employee's home.

The farm owners also alleged destruction of property. 

They submitted that the residents only engaged a lawyer in 2018 and then agreed to leave on or before January 15, 2019. 

They also agreed that if they did not leave, they could be evicted, according to the wine farm owner. 

When they did not leave in January, they were given two more months to find somewhere to live, but eventually on March 26, an eviction order was carried out. 

Protests followed.

Their lawyer Martin Oosthuisen confirmed that the farmworkers were being represented by another lawyer and were going to challenge the eviction order on May 7.

'...so why should I vote?'

Until then, May's son Zola sits on a water container, clearly disillusioned.

His father Alfred arrives from an errand clutching a plastic shopping bag rolled up and greets politely, leaving the talking to his wife and son.

"I have never voted," says the unemployed Zola, who is 33. 

He says he has no intention of starting on May 8.

"Hayi, he says, shaking his head. "I see what's happening. There are small differences, but nothing big, so why should I vote?

"You vote, and at the very same time you are going to continue living the same life you are living."

He says that at one point in the drawn-out negotiations to get the family to leave the farm, he asked where the family would go if they simply packed up and left as the owners wanted.

"They said to me: 'Go and ask for a house from Zuma'", he said referring to former president Jacob Zuma.

"I  think to vote is right, but I am very bedonnerd [angry].

"My dad worked there for 28 years. We lived there for 38. And we came out with niks [nothing]."

Find everything you need to know about the 2019 National and Provincial Government Elections at our News24 Elections site, including the latest news and detailed, interactive maps for how South Africa has voted over the past 3 elections. Make sure your News24 app is updated to access all our elections coverage in one place.

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