Cape farm workers a 'vulnerable' group
By Judith Soal, in Cape Times,
28 May 2000
The stench from the nearby pigsty is overwhelming as you walk into eight-year-old Mavuyi Asanti's
home. The walls are blackened from years of indoor fires without a chimney and in the corner
Mavuyi's baby sister struggles to breathe through the smoke.
The Asantis, who live on a farm in Philippi, just 20km from Cape Town, have no electricity, no running
water, no toilets and no municipal services.
Mavuyi said he wants to be a police officer when he gets older, but no one in his family had been to
school for more than a few years. Although it's 11am on a school day, Mavuyi and his friends are at
home, playing barefoot in the rain next to a rubbish dump.
The children are intrigued by the delegation of strangers who have come to inspect their homes and
smile happily for the cameras, but they're not sure what all the fuss is about.
They don't recognise former social services MEC Peter Marais, the city's Medical Officer of Health
Ivan Toms, Environment MEC Glen Adams or several national MPs, provincial MPLs and government
health and welfare workers, on a visit organised by the University of Cape Town's Child Health Unit
"We were shocked by the conditions around here when we started doing research," said the director
of the Child Health Policy Institute, Maylene Shung-King.
"So we decided to arrange this trip to bring the problems to the attention of those who can do
something about them."
The institute's research had shown the living conditions in the area are among the worst in the
country. A nutrition survey found commercial farmworkers' children are more likely to be malnourished
than those living in rural and tribal areas.
"This is ironic, given that they live on vegetable and fruit farms," said Shung-King.
Philippi also has one of the highest rates of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, caused by drinking during
pregnancy. Fifteen percent of the 160 children who attend the Philippi Children's Centre have Foetal
Alcohol Syndrome, compared to a worldwide rate of 0,4 percent.
Alcohol abuse and violence is rife on the farms, and many farmers still supply their workers with a
bottle of wine every evening. Because the "dop" system had been outlawed, the workers now have to
pay for the privilege.
"Workers become indebted to the farmers because they are given alcohol and food from the farm
store on credit and then the bill is deducted from their wages at the end of the week," said
"Even their meagre financial rewards are ploughed back into the farmers' pockets."
Clinic staff report high levels of illness, particularly respiratory problems, tuberculosis and other
"Although South Africa has introduced policies to protect children and workers, these policies make
very little difference on farms," said Shung-King.
"Farm workers are among the most vulnerable groups in our population because they are completely
dependent on the farmer for their homes and their jobs. It is very hard for them to assert their
It took months for Shung-King and her colleagues to co-ordinate the schedules of the busy
politicians to pull off the visit to Philippi, but by the end of the day their efforts were bearing fruit.
Local environmental health officer Hugo Urtel had served a health warning notice on the farmer who
owns the property where Mavuyi lives, ordering him to improve the hygiene conditions and install
Marais suggested the provincial school feeding scheme be extended to include schools in Philippi, and
Julinda Kruger of the Department of Social Services promised to investigate ways to help Philippi
families apply for welfare grants.