One hundred years ago, the enactment of South Africa’s Natives Land Act of 1913 meant that the majority of South Africans were suddenly prohibited from buying or occupying land outside “scheduled native areas”. The native South African woke up to find he had become, in the words of Sol Plaatje, “not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth”.
Natives were warned that if they were found occupying restricted land they would face fines or imprisonment – unless, that is, they were a farm labourer. Cheap and accessible farm labour, apparently, was not to be messed with.
A century later, colonialism is gone and apartheid has ended, but their imprints remain. Land ownership in South Africa is deeply unequal, and farm labourers are frequently exploited. In the countryside, violence against farm owners and workers is common, as is food insecurity and a lack of necessary services. Rural life is punctuated by conflicts over land and labour – the two being closely and inextricably interlinked. Some see land reform as the panacea for all South Africa’s agricultural problems, but the reality will be much more complex and uncertain.
In South Africa, the need for land reform involves three separate measures: land restitution, land redistribution, and improvements to land tenure security. But so far, although some land has been transferred, measures have fallen short. In response to this, President Jacob Zuma admitted last year that the government’s ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ method is “not working”, and proposed a new principle of ‘just and equitable’ compensations. Details remain vague, but the government appears to calculate ‘just and equitable’ as meaning roughly 50% of land’s market value.
Interestingly, at about the same time these proposed changes to land reform were being announced, change was also occurring around farmworkers’ labour. Strikes and protests arose in the Western Cape over pay, eventually forcing the government to raise the farmworker minimum wage by over 50%. In recommending this raise, the Employment Conditions Commission noted that the new minimum wage still wouldn’t sufficiently meet the basic needs of many workers, but any further increases in wages might trigger massive lay-offs. The Commission proposed an urgent review of structural issues in the agricultural sector.
In South African agriculture, land and labour are closely entwined – they are bound together in the tumultuous agrarian landscape made up of large numbers of small subsistence farms and small numbers of large commercial farms. This close relationship begs the question of how land reform might affect labour rights in commercial agriculture.
In theory, land restitution and distribution should improve the bargaining power (and thus wages and conditions) of farmworkers – in a number of ways. In terms of the supply of rural labour, workers who have greater access to land should offer themselves less frequently as waged labourers, reducing the overall supply of workers. In terms of demand for rural labour, small farms are generally more labour intensive and less likely to mechanise, meaning more small farms should lead to an increase in demand for workers. Additionally, big farms that lose land will also lose some of their bargaining power. Taken together, these factors should change the rural labour market in ways that lead to more bargaining power and higher wages for remaining farmworkers.
Indeed, economist Mark Rosenzweig has noted that the “wage rates of men, women, and children are lower and market employment higher where the distribution of land is most unequal”. Although the “wage impact of a partial land reform was found to be theoretically indeterminate”, primarily because of the unknown effect of family labour, data from India that Rosenzweig cites suggests that redistributing land significantly increases agricultural wages and benefits landless households.
Improved tenure security, another facet of land reform, could also alter labour relations. Some farmworkers are currently particularly vulnerable to exploitation because they depend on their employer for housing. A worker is much less likely to demand better working conditions if doing so could leave him and his children without a home. In theory therefore, improved tenure security for farmworkers and farm dwellers should also make it easier for farmworkers to demand better wages or improved working conditions.
However, theory is not always neatly predictive of what will happen in reality. The real world is a messy place, and the impact of South Africa’s land reform will hinge on the government’s policy goals, the implementation of programmes, the perception among stakeholders, and a host of other factors.
Take, for example, the South African government’s well-intentioned previous efforts to strengthen tenure security for farmworkers. In 1997, it passed the Extension of Security of Tenure Act (ESTA), which attempted to provide tenure protection to individuals living on farms. ESTA created a narrow class of protected farm dwellers who could only be evicted in limited circumstances, and required that farmers follow a certain legal process for evicting farm dwellers, including providing notice, obtaining a court order, and refraining from procedures such as cutting off the water supply.
In theory, this law should have lessened farm dwellers’ vulnerabilities. In practice, however, farm evictions continued – both legally and illegally. The government did not have the capacity to ensure that farmers followed legal procedures, and a general lack of clarity meant that both owners and dwellers were often unsure about their rights and obligations. Some people even argue that ESTA led to the pre-emptive evictions of farm dwellers. A law that in theory should have improved the lot of farm dwellers failed to do so – and perhaps made it worse.
Similarly, despite theories that suggest more equitable land ownership should lead to improvements in wages, South Africa’s experience reveals the importance of other factors also at play. In case studies from Limpopo, for example, researchers from the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) examined what happened when commercial farming land was transferred to communities through a restitution programme. They found that to maintain productivity, the recipient communities entered into joint ventures with ‘strategic partners’ so that the restitution land could continue to be used for large commercial farming. During the transition process, “farm workers were particularly vulnerable”. And even after transition was over, anecdotal evidence suggested the there was a lower employment level, “recurring non-payment of wages”, and “a considerable shift from permanent to seasonal contracts, implying a diminution of overall benefits”. While the researchers hopefully suggested that farming operations on the restitution land might have provided “a somewhat more humane labour regime”, they concluded that there was no evidence of significant improvements in wages or conditions.
Perhaps the result for workers would have been different if more land had been transferred – i.e. if the restitution in question had been more disruptive to land ownership patterns. But at the very least, the joint ventures in Limpopo show that land transferred through land reform efforts will not necessarily be used any differently than it was pre-transfer, and that labour conditions will not automatically improve.
There is also no guarantee that, had the land in Limpopo been subdivided for smaller-scale commercial agriculture, the conditions for workers would have been any different. Indeed, anecdotal evidence from around the world suggests that small farmers may treat their workers less well than large commercial farmers. To begin with, small farmers are often exempted from certain labour laws. In South Africa, for example, small farms that employ fewer than five workers do not have to pay minimum wage.
In addition, other factors may temper land reform’s potential benefits for workers: for example, the steady supply of workers from neighbouring countries willing to work for low wages, and obstacles to farmworkers’ union formation.
So will South Africa’s land reform lead to better conditions for farmworkers? Possibly, but not certainly, which is why the government should be wary of viewing land reform as a panacea for addressing all the ills of agriculture. Righting today’s wrongs requires more than fixing yesterday’s.
Of course, land reform – and, more importantly, agrarian reform – offers other valuable benefits for South Africa, and for rural workers. Depending on how it is undertaken, agrarian reform can promote social justice, reduce inequalities, and improve rural life. And the provision of any land – be it through restitution, redistribution, or simply a more secure plot on which to grow vegetables – along with proper support, can provide individuals with a valuable asset that enables them to grow food for themselves and their families.
Apart from the potential impacts on wages or labour conditions, agrarian reform could thus help address one of the great ironies of our global food system: the deep level of food insecurity that exists among those who produce food, including farmworkers. Farmers’ lobbies in South Africa warn ominously about the impact of land reform or labour reform on national food security. But food security means more than harvesting enough food for everyone to have enough to eat. True food security requires that individuals are able to access food as well. Done carefully, agrarian reform in South Africa could improve the chances that those who grow South Africa’s food will be able to eat it too.
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For further reading around the subject see:
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