HUMAN RIGHTS DAY FEATURE: Sowing seeds of change for farmworkers

2018-03-21 09:48
Billy Claasen with retired farmworker Klaas Fredericks from Redelinghuys. (Supplied)

Billy Claasen with retired farmworker Klaas Fredericks from Redelinghuys. (Supplied)

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2018-03-21 08:41

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Cape Town - He remembers living in a converted pig sty, and seeing people being paid in alcohol or being abused by their employers without repercussion.

The son of farmworkers, Billy Claasen, has made it his mission to fight for the rights of those he believes society has forgotten.

In the 21 years, he has advocated for the rights of marginalised labourers, Claasen believes he has seen it all.

"The stories I can tell are horrifying. The conditions my people are forced to live in, the pittance they are paid, the abuse they face at the hands of their employers… But these stories are never told. Not enough people care."

One of seven children of general labourers on a farm in Redelinghuys, in the Bergrivier Local Municipality, Claasen says he knows the difficulties of growing up dirt poor.

"And I know the realities of living in a home where alcohol is abused. The dop system is real – in the Mitzikama, people working on some farms are still paid with alcohol. This is one of the biggest curses – on the disadvantaged child and on our farmworkers. It's a problem that has been passed down for generations and will not be eradicated anytime soon."

Claasen is a teetotaller and proudly says that his father also gave up alcohol 24 years ago.

"Alcohol destroys families, marriages, communities. Lives are ruined. I know what I am talking about. I come from that."

He dropped out of school in Grade 10 and joined the army to help his parents financially.

He returned home years later, finding employment as a driver on a farm in Matroosfontein.

Speaking out against injustice

"I was one of the workers, so I had first-hand experience on what being a farm labourer was like. I took up the baton and spoke out when I saw injustice, telling and teaching others what their rights were in terms of the law. It didn't make me popular with the white foremen and farmers, but that's a small price to pay."

He became involved in human rights organisations and unions, travelling to farms when workers called on him for assistance.

"Farmers saw me as a troublemaker and wouldn't allow me on their farms. I would be physically attacked, but I fought back. I was seen as defiant and I suppose that is what I was. I stood up and carried through, even when faced with the most difficult situations."


Billy Claasen with retired farmworker Klaas Fredericks from Redelinghuys. (Supplied)

 

After working with a range of organisations for 21 years, he started the Rural and Farmworkers' Development Organisation, which operates across the Northern and Western Cape.

"My focus is on labour issues, but also about restoring the dignity of those who have always been looked down on. I have seen good farmers, but also the nastiest of employers. My job is to get justice for workers who suffer at the hands of those who abuse, because every citizen of this country has rights."

The organisation is an NGO, which means it doesn't get government funding.

"I would be called to assist across these provinces, and many times I didn't have money to get there. But I found a way, even if I had to hike with R5 in my pocket, given to me by my mother.

"I always look at my retired parents with gratitude because they helped me do what I needed to. My actions don't often make me very popular with people, but my mother especially would motivate me to keep going, to do what needs to [be] done. And it's for people like them that I do this."

'Farm attacks aren't just about the farmer'

The stories he tells are harrowing, such as the story of two farmworkers' children, who fell into a man-made drain outside their shoddy farmhouse and drowned in the rainwater, and a farmworker being killed, allegedly by a farmer, and buried in a shallow grave.

"And that's not even the worst. I know of someone walking around without testicles because years ago, the farmer punished him by using a tool to castrate him.

"The wheels of justice turn very slowly when you are poor and isolated. So many cases don't get the attention it deserves because the complainant is a poor farmworker. Farm attacks aren't just about the farmer. What about the people who keep that farm going? The life of a farmer is not more valuable than a farmworker."

Last year, Claasen contested Ward 5 as an ANC candidate in the Bergrivier municipality, unseating the DA by winning 53.91% of the vote.

He insists he doesn't allow politics to get in the way of his fight for farmworkers or the poor.

"I don't care who you vote for. I won't let that get in the way of doing what is right."

Claasen says he will always doggedly pursue any case of injustice reported to him, no matter how difficult the circumstances.

"People try all sorts of methods to keep me away, even bribes. But I know what it's like to live without food and in poverty. I would rather live with nothing than be bought off."

Read more on:    cape town  |  agriculture  |  human rights  |  good news

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