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Date: Wed, 15 Dec 1999 16:45:47 -0600 (CST)
From: IGC News Desk <newsdesk@igc.apc.org>
Subject: RIGHTS-SOUTH AFRICA: Forced Evictions Of Farmworkers Underway
Article: 84728
Message-ID: <bulk.6238.19991216181510@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

Copyright 1999 InterPress Service, all rights reserved.
Worldwide distribution via the APC networks.

Forced Evictions of Farmworkers Underway

By Danielle Owen, IPS
14 December 1999

JOHANNESBURG, Dec 14 (IPS) - The season of forced farm evictions began this week on a South African farm near the Zimbabwe border. In the week before Christmas, more than 700 people - 366 farmworkers and their families - will be forced to leave the white- owned citrus farm they have worked on for decades.

Most of the farmworkers have lived on the land now known as the Maswiri Boerdery since they were born. Many, like Azwitamisi Kwinda (40) began their poorly-paid working lives as children.

"I started working when I was not even able to carry five litres of water, packing boxes for oranges. Our average salary was R335 per month and sometimes (our employer) would only pay after six weeks. We worked from 7am to 5pm Monday to Saturday. Now we have nothing," says Kwinda.

One US Dollar is equal to 6.1 Rand.

Kwinda and her colleagues have been unemployed since February 1998, when farmer Andries Fourie sacked them after they joined a labour union in a bid to improve their working conditions. In a bitter irony, they now face eviction from their homes on Dec 18 after their union signed away their legal rights to the land in a settlement agreement ending their 22-month "unfair" labour case against Fourie.

Last month, the Trade Union of South African Authorities (TUSAA), the tiny labour union on which the Maswiri workers had pinned their hopes for justice, heralded the agreement as a "victory for labour relations".

But on closer examination "the workers discovered that they had been completely betrayed by the trade union in which they had put their trust," says the Nkuzi Development Association, a local land rights non-governmental organisation which is assisting the workers.

"In return for the right to reapply for their former jobs, the union signed away all rights of workers to reside on the farm. Workers who were not re-appointed had until 18 December to leave the farm. It comes as no great surprise that only seven of the (373) dismissed employees have now been rehired," Nkuzi adds.

This leaves 366 workers and their 290 families - including more than 400 children and many elderly people - facing a holiday season amongst South Africa's growing masses of the homeless, jobless and destitute. If they agree to be evicted, each worker will receive a paltry R96 in compensation.

Worse still, says Nkuzi, the agreement was sanctioned by South Africa's Labour Court even though it flies in the face of the 1997 Extension of Security of Tenure Act (Esta) that is aimed at preventing forced evictions.

Esta lays down strict requirements, including the issuing of a court order and arrangements for alternative accommodation, before an eviction can take place.

"It is truly shocking that a so-called trade union and the labour court should lend their authority to what amounts to the forced removal of workers and their families," Nkuzi adds.

Farm evictions on the eve of the holiday season were common under apartheid. But these days, progressive land reform laws adopted since South Africa's transition to democracy began in 1994 are supposed to prevent this from happening.

Unfortunately, says Nkuzi, "apartheid is alive and well on the farms of (South Africa's) Northern Province".

In the Messina/Tshepise district where the Maswiri Boerdery is located, widespread reports of farmworkers being abused by their employers and the local criminal justice system attracted the attention of South Africa's Human Rights Commission earlier this year.

The commission found that at least 45 percent of Messina's mainly black population of 27,000 is unemployed, while the only work available to the others is found on the large white-owned farms that produce oranges and tomatoes for export.

Despite the high unemployment figures, many local farmers prefer to hire Zimbabwean migrant workers because they will work for as little as R5 a day, and this has led to rising xenophobic tensions between the two groups.

The proximity to Zimbabwe's border made it easy for Fourie to sack his South African workers, and keep his farm going by employing 500 Zimbabweans for lower wages and housing them in old produce sheds.

So when Kwinda and her colleagues joined TUSAA, "Fourie simply called in the immigration authorities and had 11 workers arrested by falsely claiming they were Zimbabweans", they claimed. TUSAA led the other workers in a strike to protest Fourie's actions, and Fourie dismissed them and ordered them to leave the property.

This first eviction attempt was clearly illegal, and the workers remained in the homes to wage a long battle against Fourie. They also applied to South Africa's land restitution committee to have the land rights they enjoyed as far back as the 1930s' before the apartheid government gave the land to the Fouries and other white farmers restored to them.

The workers have endured a long and arduous battle over the past two years in their bid to remain on the land while they waited for the new laws to take their course.

Nkuzi says Fourie enlisted the help of the local courts to obtain a court order restricting the workers' movement on the disputed property, and then had 192 workers arrested on trespassing charges. The charges were later dropped for lack of evidence, but the workers have faced ongoing harassment by farm security and the (police), says Nkuzi.

The workers are planning a mass meeting on the day they are scheduled to leave the property to decide on their response. Meanwhile, Nkuzi has petitioned South Africa's national and provincial governments to intervene in time to stop the evictions and is seeking legal assistance for the workers, warning that the eviction could have widespread implications for other farmworkers across the country.

"If this eviction goes ahead, it will be a signal to all land owners that they can disregard the provisions of Esta with impunity and that the reforms of the past five years count for nothing," says Nkuzi.(END/IPS/do/mn/99)


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