The Con Magazine

The farmworkers’ cottages outside Robertson, when viewed from a moving vehicle and a vantage point of sufficient privilege, are easy surfaces on which to project fantasies of rural idyll. Wooden doors open onto small, tended gardens with bougainvillea shrubs climbing the whitewashed walls. The sun is out; laundry hangs drying on wire fences. Barelegged children wave at cars cruising by. A month before harvest season begins the vineyards are mostly empty, stretched out in neat green rows across the landscape. Here and there, labourers in blue overalls punctuate the fields, tending to the vines.

The billboards selling wine tasting and à la carte dining experiences bear the insignias of some of South Africa’s most prestigious estates. Smaller signs advertise guesthouses, boutique hotels, countryside bed-and-breakfasts. At the padstals, which are retrofitted farm cottages decorated with scarecrows and dried pumpkin gourds, you order filter coffee and buy cheap dried fruit to eat in the car. Life feels easy, unencumbered. But for the vast majority of its residents this experience of the Cape Winelands does not exist.

Human Rights Watch report published in 2011 detailed a range of human rights abuses in the Western Cape agricultural sector, classifying its workers as “among the most vulnerable people in South African society”. The following year violent strikes broke out across the province, during which three farmworkers were killed and damage amounted to an estimated R160 million. Now, almost two years after the strikes reached their apex, an explosive music video by local hip hop collective Dookoom has thrust media focus back on to the Winelands, where a status quo established centuries ago — by force and in accordance with white supremacist laws — remains troublingly intact.

Christiaan*, a CSAAWU shop steward (Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union), was the first person we met while visiting the Breede River Valley last week. Dusk had fallen by the time we arrived at his cottage, situated some 200 metres down a gravel road from the main farmhouse, which was hemmed in by an electric gate and spiked metal fence. We sat on the lawn, in a large circle, with 16 of the farm’s resident workers, who spoke little, if at all. Christiaan, who has a thin moustache and small, calloused hands, led the conversation.

“They don’t want us here anymore,” he said, speaking Afrikaans. “It suits the farmers better if we live in town. They say they’d rather collect us on the bakkie every morning than give us houses.”

He pointed at the small building behind him, a cream-coloured structure that housed two of the farm’s six families. Plastered white cracks curled up the walls.

“The windows are broken. When the wind blows there’s dust in the kitchen, dust in your food. The farmer doesn’t want to fix anything. He says we must pay for repairs ourselves.”

Hy bou sy pomphuise beter as ons huise,” a younger man added, standing a short distance back from the circle. (“He builds his pumphouses better than our houses.”)

“Most of the workers on this farm live in town,” Christiaan explained. “There’s a coloured settlement and a Bantu settlement — sorry for that word; it’s how we speak — but this is where we live. We don’t want to leave.”

“It’s also difficult to get houses in town,” a man on the opposite side said. “Three of us have been on the waiting list for 14 years. The government says we already have a place to stay. We’re not a priority.”

The women in the circle — there were eight, ranging in age from a young mother with a child at her breast to two deeply wrinkled matriarchs — murmured when they heard this, which is as about as much as they participated in the conversation, choosing instead to remain silent.

According to Human Rights Watch, housing problems are among the most pressing issues facing Western Cape farmworkers today, frequently trapping them in positions of extreme vulnerability. “Farmworkers who live on farms, as well as other farm dwellers, are often relegated to substandard, unsafe housing,” the authors wrote. “In extreme cases, farmworkers live in places not designed to shelter humans … (They) endure this because they do not have the means to move into suitable alternative housing, or because they have a strong emotional attachment to the land.”

With farmers increasingly reluctant to provide accommodation for their workers — commonly cited reasons include fears of long-term liability, uncertainty about future labour regulations, and, within the context of a tightening agricultural economy, cost — evictions also remain a constant threat on many Western Cape farms. The South African constitution prohibits evictions without a court order and the Extension of Security of Tenure Act lays out clear terms for legal eviction procedures, yet across the farming sector these have been repeatedly ignored, leaving thousands of workers landless. Illegal evictions can be overt, with families simply being told, in some cases at extremely short notice, to leave; but evictions can also be enacted in less direct ways, for example through farmers cutting off basic services or allowing their workers’ accommodation to run to ruin. While this does not take place across the board — and has not, to date, on the farm Christiaan works on — it remains a lingering source of worry for farmworkers across the province, whose security of tenure is precarious.

I asked Christiaan whether his family purchased electricity, food, water. (Their wages are R112 a day.) “We buy electricity from the farmer,” he said. “But he adds a levy. It’s cheaper to buy in town. We get a lift to the shops twice a week to do our groceries. Water comes with the house.”

Medical bills were the workers’ own responsibility, he explained, with time off for medical appointments deducted from their annual leave. Curious about the legality of this, I asked what had been agreed upon in their contracts. Some people laughed.

“I haven’t seen mine since I signed it five years ago,” said the youth who’d spoken earlier.

“Me neither,” said Christiaan, while the other men in the circle mumbled assent. “Farmers don’t want to talk about contracts. They make excuses if we ask.”

Behind us, near a haphazard system of wire cages, a gang of geese had been making a racket, and when the noise got particularly loud someone shouted, “Hou op!”

“You keep animals in there?” I asked in the silence that followed.

“It’s our home,” the oldest man in the group answered. He stood with his arms at his side, slightly stooped. “Me and her,” he said, pointing to his wife, who sat on an upturned crate and said nothing. “The other families needed more space a few years ago, so we moved out. ”

For a short time after that nobody had anything to say.

 

*

 

The Graham and Rhona Beck Skills Centre occupies a sleek brick and glass building just off the R60 road, which runs between Robertson and Worcester. Trimmed hedges and rose bushes flank the brick pathway that leads to the entrance. Inside, paintings and tapestries hang from wood-panelled walls. “In proud partnership with our community,” reads the banner at reception, its logo a pale green man with his arms unfurling upwards, like a flower. Manager Myra Hoffman, a middle-aged woman in a blouse and a short bob, invited us into her office.

“There’s a very negative perception of the agricultural sector,” she said. “But a lot has changed, especially around here, and the situation isn’t as bad as people sometimes think.”

The centre, she explained, had been set up by Graham Beck and his wife in 2008 — two years before the billionaire wine magnate, who made his fortune in coal, died of lung cancer — to address systemic skills shortages among Cape farmworkers. (“The Graham & Rhona Beck Skills Centre seeks to be a catalyst for poverty eradication, enhance employability and sustainable growth in the Langeberg Municipal Area,” the non-profit’s Vision & Mission states.)

“We offer all sorts of courses: firefighting, forklift driving, life-skills, cellar operator training — whatever our clients need,” she said.

“Who are your clients?” I asked.

“Farmers. It’s important to be accredited these days; there’s a lot of focus on compliance. There are so many standards! Labour laws, environmental laws, BEE laws … a lot of farmers are saying that farming isn’t farming anymore, it’s become an administrative job. Do you know what I’m saying?”

“Yes,” I said, “it sounds very bureaucratic.”

“It is! So we assist them with everything. If a farmer needs a team trained in health and safety procedures we’ll arrange an instructor and set up a course. It’s very flexible.”

“And if there are specific skills that workers want?”

“That’s more difficult. They’d need to approach their employer first, and most farmers would be suspicious as it’d probably mean the worker was looking for a job somewhere else. They’d also need to negotiate time off to come to training. It’s better if the farmers approach us, to be honest.”

Farmers paid for most of the courses, she explained, although the centre also received donor funding from time to time. “It helps us reach out to employers who don’t want to spend money. Some estates are fully behind our training initiatives, but others don’t see the point.

“There are a few really backwards farmers around here — but not everybody is like that.”

We took a tour of the building, visiting its 100-seater lecture theatre (“We hire it out to corporates and the municipality”) and a series of classrooms where small groups sat facing their lecturers, learning mathematics, viticulture and advanced Excel spreedsheet management. The occupants of this final room — Ms Hoffman laughed a little nervously before opening the door — were all white.

“It’s a bit boring at the moment,” she apologised. “There’s a wine tasting practical this afternoon, if you like?”

Back at reception, standing beside an austere portrait of Graham Beck (a hagiographic coffee-table book celebrating his achievements was also on display), she spoke about some of the challenges the centre faced. “Education levels are very poor around here,” she said, “and we spend a lot of time teaching remedial English and maths. But the biggest problem is life-skills. Workers can’t imagine doing anything other than being on the farm, and many aren’t prepared to put in the extra work that skills training requires. We often hear about trainees asking for time off to do their homework, but that’s supposed to happen after hours. It’s like, ‘Yes, you can improve your situation — but you have to make some sacrifices just like everybody else.’”

She was odd, Ms Hoffman: scattered, chatty, sincere, and by turn guarded and utterly unreflexive. She spoke quite earnestly of the need to uplift farmworkers and give them better opportunities, to address issues of social and economic marginalisation, and so on, but also seemed to blame workers for many of their own problems, framing things such as alcohol abuse, drug addiction, teenage pregnancy and a perceived low work ethic as problematic personal choices, not structurally mediated behaviour:

“Most farmworkers don’t know how to plan for the future.”

“The kids aren’t interested in what we offer here.”

“Twenty pregnant girls in one matric year!”

“And the drink!”

Robertson, she told us, had recently been revealed as the having the highest incidence of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome in the world (as high as 119 children per 1000, or more than one in ten, according to a 2008 Medical Research Council policy brief). She clucked, shaking her head. “It’s too terrible.”

Her concern was genuine. She appeared to take her job seriously. She said: “We’re trying to help people so that they can move on to better things.”

Whether fairly or not, she reminded me of an archetypal South African woman I’ve encountered so many times before: caring, compassionate, saddened by the state of the world, and myopic enough to convince herself that her small acts of charity, dispensed into a black hole of poverty she’ll never come close to understanding, might bring about the transformation she fully believes she’d like to see.

She followed us outside, thanking us for visiting. “I’ve probably talked too much,” she said. “But if I had to sum up I’d just say what I did in the beginning: that it’s not as bad out here as people say. Things are changing.”

She stood at the entrance and watched the car drive off.

 

*

 

“It’s hot,” said the kid with a twisted eyeball, sweating in the back seat, “and I just had a lollie, so it’s worse. Sorry.”

A droplet slid from his hairline — number 2 cut, peroxide blonde — to his brow, which he mopped smooth. His name was *Virgil. He was 24 years old but looked younger. His damp shirt was emblazoned with a large black and white US flag.

“See, I’m with the Americans,” he said, tapping his chest. “With the gangsters, like everybody else.”

We were parked in Hexpark, a working class settlement just outside Worcester, where an older man with heavily marked arms had waved us down. “What are you looking for?” he’d asked, before sending Virgil our way. The boy jumped inside and started talking.

“People still work on the farms,” he told us, “but not so many right now — it isn’t harvest season yet. The gangs are more active. A lot of people make money selling tik.”

Across the road two men were washing a navy BMW with shiny rims. 2Pac’s Do For Love was bumping from the speakers — it would have seemed too obvious in a script. “Merchants,” said Virgil, craning his neck. The lookout who’d flagged us had returned to his position a short distance up the street. “I buy from them. They make real money. They live properly, you know.”

The last time he’d worked on a farm, Virgil told me, was three years ago, when he’d gotten into an argument with his employer’s son. “He was my age, running the farm for his dad, and thought he could pay me like shit and order me around. Fuck that! I’m a worker, not a slave.”

“Farmers put their children in good schools. They grow up in luxury and one day they take over the farm. We grow up here. That’s just how it is.”

It was shortly after lunchtime on Wednesday and the curb was busy, with people of all ages sitting in small groups or ambling about. Some girls in school uniform walked past. The mountains, which were draped in grey cloud, felt far away.

“What about this season?” I asked.

“I’ll work,” he answered. “I was in jail and I need money. Wages have improved since the strike.”

A few minutes later the lookout returned, warning us that the police would assume we were buying drugs if they drove past. (As it happens, we were stopped and searched quite roughly on the way out.) He waited at the window while Virgil lit a smoke. “Are you going to work on the farms this season, too?” I asked.

“Why the fuck would I work for a boer,” he spat, looking away. “We have our own business here. Those people can pick their own fucking grapes.”

 

*

 

The night before, in the shadows outside Christiaan’s cottage, I’d asked the circle of workers if they’d heard of Dookoom before. Never, they said, shaking their heads. “There’s a new song in the Cape about life on the farms and it’s made a lot of people angry,” I explained. “Is there any way you could listen to it?”

There wasn’t — they had no internet, no Whatsapp, no CD players, no Mxit.

Parked outside the merchant’s house I posed the same question.

“Don’t know,” the lookout answered. Loud hip hop thumped across the street.

“The song’s name is Larney Your Poes,” I said. He whistled.

“Jesus. That’s befok.

Sooner or later the music will reach him. Perhaps it’ll thrash from the speakers of a friend’s car. Perhaps labourers from the backyard dwellings and crumbling flats will carry copies with them onto the farms; perhaps Christiaan and others will hear the lyrics. Perhaps they’ll get angry and demand change, the sort Myra Hoffman could never dream of.

And scarier yet, perhaps things will remain the same.

We’d just arrived at Christiaan’s and were waiting for him to appear when I asked a passing worker how things were going. “Kannie kla nie — ” he answered, a standard response, but then he added: “Nou moet ons net angaan.”

“Can’t complain. We must just carry on now.”

He stepped inside the cottage and was gone.

* Some names have been changed.

(Lead photograph via Wikimedia Commons.)