ANALYSIS | Sithandiwe Yeni: Former labour tenants want land back, compensation for material losses

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Agricultural land in Piketberg, Western Cape.
Agricultural land in Piketberg, Western Cape.
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Former labour tenants argue that as people who were forcibly dispossessed of land, and continue to experience socioeconomic exclusion, they must get their land back and receive compensation for their material losses and suffering, writes Sithandiwe Yeni.


“This is not only about getting our land back, what about the many years I worked from the age of 13 as a domestic worker at the white farmers’ house, cleaning the house, looking after their children, doing their laundry, and working in their garden for six months every year, mostly without pay unless the white farmer was in a good mood, and he would pay me R10 at the end of six months?”

This question has been asked several times by former labour tenants, and most recently by an elderly woman (I shall call her Mama K) at the convening of former labour tenants by the Special Master who was appointed following the Constitutional Court ruling in August 2019, to oversee the processing of about 11 000 land claims which remain incomplete. 

Who are former labour tenants and on what basis are they claiming compensation?

The origin of the labour tenancy system was a consequence of land dispossession and forced removals attributed to colonial conquest, capitalist development and law and the state. As such, a labour tenant was a black person who was dispossessed of their land and to survive, they were forced to work for white farmers who had acquired the swindled land. This was done for six months per year with little or no pay, in return for the right to use a small portion of the land for their own purposes such as grazing, growing crops and residential.

This system depended on the ability of heads of households (men) to commit the labour of their wives, daughters and sons to work in response to the demands of white (men) landowners. Hence Mama K was forced to provide free and cheap labour from the age of 13. 

Polarised debate

Two years ago, I facilitated several focus groups discussions with former labour tenants land claimants from uMgungundlovu district on their views on the highly contested and polarised debate on land expropriation without compensation.

The former labour tenants argued that as people who were forcibly dispossessed of land, and continue to experience socioeconomic exclusion, they must get their land back and receive compensation for their material losses and suffering. They do not want a mere upgrade of tenure rights on the marginal land in which they currently live, they want significant portions of arable land on which they can derive livelihoods for themselves and future generations.

READ | Thoko Didiza says land restitution continues to be a matter of concern for her dept

Simply put, the former labour tenants want to be compensated for shattered dreams, material losses, cattle impounded and never returned, goats shot and killed, homes burnt to ashes, furniture destroyed and their stripped dignity at various times that they were forcibly removed from their homes by white farmers, and for forced, free and cheap labour that built white commercial agriculture. As one former labour tenant land claimant put it:

"As a young boy it was very painful to see my father cry as the white man confiscated about 30 of his cattle; we never saw those cattle again, in fact if you need a cow for umsebenzi [traditional ceremony] today, you buy it from a white man."

While some of the former labour tenants drew on their childhood memories and experiences to support their argument, others reminded us of violations that they continue to endure on farms as their land claims remain unresolved, stating that: 

"We can’t live like we are in prison. There are many South Africans who travel on the N3 over there, all they see are large farms with high fencing, they do not know these are actually prisons to us. We want our land back because we belong here and have every right to live freely, with our dogs, goats, cats or whoever we like".

They unequivocally reject the idea of the state paying compensation to white farmers who are beneficiaries of their dispossession.

The question above from Mama K about forced and unpaid labour invites us to unpack land dispossession from the perspective of former labour tenants so that we don’t lose sight of the depth and nature of injustices, violations and dehumanization they suffered under colonial and apartheid regimes.

READ | Analysis: Section 25: While political parties battle it out, poor get short end of the stick

Today, the former labour tenants continue to live under similar inhumane conditions on white commercial farms under this democratic government.

Their current concerns and historical experiences have featured minimally in debates about land redistribution and land expropriation without compensation. Instead, emphasis has been on whether or not the current private farm owners should be compensated and on agricultural production, thus centring commercial farmers and silencing the questions of historical dispossession and redress.

Mama K’s insistence that we centre them in redress needs to be reckoned with by those making decisions about transformation through land redistribution. The former labour tenants land claimants are not asking for favours from the government but justice. 

- Sithandiwe Yeni is a PhD candidate in the SARChI Chair in Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape

 * This article is a short version of the full chapter published by MISTRA in February 2021, in the edited book titled : Land in South Africa; Contested Meanings and Nation Formation.


Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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