Farm workers to begin to build union, ANC
By Vana Knap and Gred McCartan, in the Militant,
14 January 1995
LYDENBURG, South Africa - Until the African National
Congress won a majority in the April 1994 elections, farm
workers remained largely unorganized in this country. Large
landowners barred unions from farms, and many denied the ANC
access to rural workers. Despite these obstacles, the big
majority of farm workers and other rural working people cast
their ballots for the ANC.
The ANC's victory, along with recent changes in labor
legislation, have given farm workers an opportunity to
reverse this situation. Here in the fertile farming region
of the Eastern Transvaal in the northeastern part of South
Africa, farm workers have begun organizing a union, joining
the Food and Allied Workers Union, an affiliate of the
Congress of South African Trade Unions. These workers are
forming an ANC chapter for the first time as well.
Lucas Tau and Jerry Makgata live and work on a huge
estate farm Coromandel, owned by multimillionaire S.A.
Price. The landlord lives in Johannesburg, a three-hour
drive away. Some 800 workers are employed on the farm, which
is made up of four subdivisions: a fruit orchard, a nursery,
a dairy, and fields raising peas and maize and other grains.
Makgata is a laborer who works on planting and harvesting
crops. Tau prunes trees in the orchard.
Militant correspondents were taken to the farm by two
young ANC activists who live in a nearby township. They have
been collaborating with the farm workers' efforts to win
union recognition and build the ANC. Translation into
English was provided by one of the ANC activists.
Makgata, who has been working on the farm five years,
showed the visitors his pay stub. He makes 275 rand a month,
the equivalent of under $20 week. "Our normal workweek is
Monday through Friday, nine hours a day, but sometimes we
work seven days a week," he said. "Overtime is supposed to
be optional, but some of us have been fired for not working
"Health care services are not free," he explained. "If I
get hurt, they will take me to the doctor, but I will have
to pay for the services. If you are seriously injured, you
are simply fired. One worker who was injured on the job
received no assistance at all."
Purchases at the company store, where prices are high,
are subtracted from each paycheck. Each month workers
receive food rations of "a packet of beans and meat bones,"
for which 55 rand is deducted from their pay.
Housing is one of the issues spurring union organization.
After the elections, Price increased workers' pay by 100
rand per month, but at the same time began deducting 100
rand for rent. The workers point out they never paid rent
before, and argue that the owner is simply padding their
check for public relations, in order to show he is providing
housing under a new government law.
When workers are fired, Makgata said, they must move out
of the housing. They are demanding that anyone dismissed
have the right to stay in his home, since workers are now
paying for their housing. In response, Makgata explained,
"The farmer argues this deduction is only a fee and cannot
be legally called rent."
Union representatives have been trying to meet with the
owner, but "presently there is no agreement with the
landowner," Makgata said. "He keeps putting off meetings
with the union organizers."
"The landowner is not in favor of the ANC coming on this
farm," said Tau. In an attempt to divide farm workers from
the ANC, he said, "The landowner asks us, `Why would you
workers associate with the unemployed and students?'"
Tau reported that the boss's efforts have deterred few
workers, and that many have joined the ANC, paying the 12
rand yearly membership fee. "People from nearby farms are
coming here to join the ANC as well," he added.
The ANC representatives explain there is regular contact
between the farm workers and activists who live in the
township on the other side of Lydenburg, where many
residents work at a local chrome mill owned by the corporate
giant CMI. The farm workers join them for social gatherings
and ANC mass meetings.
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