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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 overtime.

"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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