WSF (1998): “Land and Freedom: The struggle for the land: ‘Farm killings’: The real criminals”

WSF (1998): “Land and Freedom: The struggle for the land: ‘Farm killings’: The real criminals”

From Workers Solidarity, magazine of the Workers Solidarity Federation, volume 4, number 2, fourth quarter 1998. Complete PDF is here

The real violence on the land is not criminal attacks on farmers- it is the farmers’ exploitation and oppression of workers and labour tenants.

CONSERVATIVE

According to the conservative Citizen newspaper, there were 114 farm attacks in the between March and May 1998. White farmers and right-wing groups have used this situation to demand more government protection, and have promised to set up private armies with helicopters and assault troops for self-defence. The Freedom Front has warned of race war on the land. The Conservative Party as usual thinks there is a “communist plot” and has produced obviously false documents to prove it. However, there is little evidence that there is a secret armed struggle movement on the land.

In the face of these right-wing threats, the ANC government has fallen over itself to reassure farmers that 90% of all crimes have been solved.

WRONG

What is wrong with this picture? For one thing, very few “farm attacks” involve murders, despite what the media claims. Even the Citizen admits only 6 people were killed in over 30 “attacks” in May 1998.

Second, the real violence on the land is NOT the farm attacks- it is the reign of crime against workers and labour tenants and their families by the FARMERS.

CRIME ON WORKERS

The media has systematically ignored mass evictions of farm tenants and farmworkers, particularly in KwaZulu Natal and the Northern Province- here farmers, fearing land reform, and introducing new labour-saving machinery, have thrown tens of thousands of workers out of employment.

UNION BASHING

Violent and repressive labour relations remain the norm on the farms. Before the 1995 Labour Relations Act, farmworkers had no rights to form trade unions and organise for better conditions. But little has changed since. COSATU has established a farmworkers’ union, which claims 30,000 members- the South African Agricultural Plantation and Allied Workers’ Union (SAAPAWU) is. But SAAPAWU is mainly based on the plantations, particularly in forestry which plantations linked to paper companies.

WHAT IS VIOLENCE?

If we talk about violence on the land, we must talk not just about a tiny number of farmers falling victim to crime. We must talk about brutal incidents such as the farmer and his sons who were recently charged for dragging a worker behind a tractor for several hundred meters, or the shooting of six month old Thobile Angeline Zwane near Benoni in April this year. These are the tip of the iceberg. These cases are also unusual- because these cases were actually prosecuted- most such violence goes unreported.

RICH VERSUS POOR

We must also talk about the violence of oppression and exploitation. When tens of thousands of people are thrown off the land into destitution, when millions of workers and tenants receive incomes of under R300 a month, are we not talking about a crime? Are we not talking about the crime of rich versus poor? Who are the worst criminals in the countryside? Robbers with guns, or robbers with farms? 68% of the rural population lives in extreme poverty, yet about 87% of all land is owned by about 100,000 farmers.

The worst crimes in the rural areas are not attacks on farms but attacks on millions of farmworkers and labour tenants. Although some actions like actual murder are illegal, it is NOT illegal to evict farmworkers or to pay low wages or for a tiny minority to own all the land and to exploit the millions who live on it. In fact, this is bosses’ justice- you can be arrested for refusing to be evicted from the farm you have lived on all your life- you can be arrested for squatting on unused land if you have no place to go.

Attacks on farmers are the product of rural poverty. People with no way of surviving through honest work are often forced into crime.

WORKERS JUSTICE

The real way to end rural crime – the real way in fact to remove crime more generally- is to create the basis for a better life for all. The way to fight back for justice for workers is to fight for better conditions and land redistribution. This will NEVER come through politicians. ANC land reform policy is based on the idea that workers must buy land back from farmers. How can we buy it if we have no money?

The only way forward here is MASS ACTION and TRADE UNIONISM by the workers. ONLY THE WORKERS CAN FREE THE WORKERS. Fight for LAND AND FREEDOM.

FARMERS BASHING UNIONS, EVICTING WORKERS

The majority of the estimated 5 million farmworkers remain unorganised. This is partly due to the problems of organising small groups of workers scattered over large areas. More importantly, farmers have been strongly opposed to unions. In May 1998, for example, nine SAAPAWU members were evicted from “Alpha Farm” for “drunkenness and laziness”. According to COSATU, the eviction was enforced by seven armed men in paramilitary uniforms. The men, who claimed that “evicting farm workers was their job”, threatened the workers, and assaulted one. Overall, fifty workers were evicted. This is clearly union bashing. Farmers -both the old White agricultural unions and the National African Farmers Union- have opposed even the mild and flawed laws to protect tenants.

When farmers act this way, they are continuing a long tradition of repression and violence against Black workers- a pattern that helped break the last big union on the farms, the ICU (Industrial and Commercial Workers Union) in the 1920s.

There have been more than 763,000 jobs lost in the farming sector over the past four years, according to the Central Statistical Service’s figures released in August 1998. The figures showed a reduction in the number of employed down from 1,4-million to just 637,000. According to Graham Macintosh, chairman of the bosses’ Kwazulu-Natal Agricultural Union (Kwanalu) job losses will continue. This is because the farmers are competing on regional and international markets, and are therefore trying to cut costs.

BRAZILIAN LANDLESS SHOW THE WAY FORWARD!

Brazil is perhaps the only country in the world with a higher level of inequality than South Africa (not that any countries fare well). Today less than 3% of the population owns almost two thirds of all farmland. More than half of the farmland, however, lies unused.

In the last elections, the usual lying promises were made that there would be land redistribution. But nothing has been done by the government (no surprise there, all governments serve the rich).

Landless peasants and workers have taken the best step – they took matters into their own hands. The story starts in 1985, when a small group of desperate peasants squatted on unused plantation land. They managed to defend themselves against attacks by police and hired thugs for two years. The government then agreed to give this land to the peasants, who have set up a co-operative (worker controlled) farm employing 1,432 people.

If the politicians were hoping this would be the end of matters, they were dead wrong. The 1985 occupation helped spark a mass movement of landless peasants and workers. This is called the MST- the Movement of Landless Workers.

In 1997, 60,000 people marched for two months to the capital city Brasilia to demand land redistribution. They were also marching to commemorate the anniversary of a massacre at El Dorado dos Carajas. In this massacre 19 people occupying a farm were killed by military police. Since 1988, over 960 people have been killed in land disputes. However, there have been many successes. 200,000 landless families have successfully taken back 7 million hectares of land. At the moment, another 50,000 families are camped near empty land. Even the urban homeless have been inspired to squat unused city buildings.

The MST has even set up a national pirate radio station, calling on the poor to organise themselves, and not rely on the government’s promises.

Workers of South Africa! The road will be long and hard, but why don’t we learn from our Brazilian comrades? Don’t wait for the government! The poor must take back the land!

ONLY WORKERS’ REVOLUTION CAN SOLVE LAND QUESTION

In the end, however, full land redistribution will never take place while we live under the capitalist system. Under capitalism, all wealth (land and factories and mines and buildings) is held by the bosses. In other words, unequal land ownership is built into the system. And it is protected by all the power of the system: courts, government, political parties, big business. Government is a tool of the bosses and defends unequal land ownership.

Only when workers create a libertarian socialist society will land go the workers. In the early days of the Russian Revolution (1917), and also in the Spanish Revolution (1936), workers solved the land question by chasing the farmers away and running it through village committees. In the Spanish case, 7 million workers took the farms and ran them through worker collectives. Such change requires a revolutionary workers movement on the land.

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About Lucien van der Walt

I teach at Rhodes University, the Eastern Cape. I’m South African, born and bred. I am currently also involved in union education and have a background in social movement and left-wing activism, the Workers’ Library and Museum, the Anti-Privatisation Forum, and the National Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU). I’ve presented papers at more than 120 conferences and workshops, published in key journals like 'Capital and Class' and 'Labor History', have co-edited 3 journal specials (these on global labour history, African labour, and unions in the Global South), and written well over 130 other articles, papers and entries. I was Southern Africa editor for the 2009 'International Encyclopaedia of Revolution and Protest' (Blackwell). My focus has been on South Africa, but I have also done research in Zambia and Zimbabwe. I won the 2008 international 'Labor History' thesis prize, and the 2008/2009 Council for the Development of Social Science Research prize for best African dissertation, for my PhD thesis on South African anarchism, syndicalism and black militants. I have several books, including 'Negro e Vermelho: anarquismo, sindicalismo revolucionário e pessoas de cor na África Meridional nas décadas de 1880-1920,' 'Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1880-1940: the praxis of national liberation, internationalism, and social revolution' (co-edited with Steve Hirsch, Brill, 2010/ 2014) and 'Black Flame: the revolutionary class politics of anarchism and syndicalism' (co-written with Michael Schmidt, AK Press 2009).