Feature Article - 100 years of legislated poverty 1913-2013

The so-called farm worker strike in the Western Cape is of great concern to most South Africans, often for very different reasons.

Everyone (except, of course, the culprits) is shocked by the violence that has been committed against the police, farmers, vehicles, motorists, the media, the workers who do not want to strike, as well as by the destruction and burning of property. The intent of such violence is not to solve a problem, but to make its solution more difficult.

My guess is that the worst of the violence is being committed, firstly, by people who are not farm workers and who have no intention of ever being farm workers, and secondly, by people who have not been able, for various reasons, to get temporary jobs during harvest time.  Only people who have the smallest stake or no stake at all in the success of the farming operations are likely to be so destructive. The motivation of these destructive rioters cannot be to bring about an improvement in the lives of the farm workers in the longer term, even if the threats and damage to property should result in concessions from farmers. The motive for the violence is rather, very likely, one of a political nature.

On 7 January, the Mail & Guardian reported that, “Last week Congress of South African Trade Unions' provincial secretary Tony Ehrenreich said Cosatu would call on the international community to boycott South African agricultural products, because they were produced in ‘slave labour conditions’.” Labour Minister, Mildred Oliphant, was correct to point out that such an action would harm and not help farm workers, who would lose their jobs if such a boycott were to go ahead. In addition it showed a lack of respect for the workers, suggesting that they do not know how to manage their own affairs.

By applying the principles mentioned in last week’s FMF Feature Article to the Western Cape farm worker issue, it becomes obvious that voluntary co-operation between workers and employers is crucial to peace and prosperity. In an environment that functions on voluntary co-operation “workers own their labour and employers own the jobs”. In such an environment, each individual worker has the right to decide for themselves what wage or working conditions are acceptable. Except in the case of fraud or coercion by either party, no outsider should ever have the right to intervene in this most basic of economic relationships.

The price the worker charges for labour, including fringe benefits such as meals, overalls and accommodation, which probably forms part of the wage packet on fruit farms, depends on their individual circumstances. Voluntary agreement allows the most productive and experienced workers to earn more for their efforts than those who are less experienced or less productive. Most importantly, voluntary co-operation between employers and workers allows less experienced or less productive workers to earn wages to support themselves rather than to be unemployed.

Minimum wages set by government have the effect of making less skilled and less experienced people unemployable. Minister Oliphant mentioned in an interview that the government had to take care that the setting of a higher minimum wage for the farm workers in De Doorns did not cause increased unemployment. Unfortunately, blanket minimum wages are already causing mass unemployment and will continue to prevent the most disadvantaged people from getting jobs. Similarly, laws that increase the difficulty of termination of employment relationships also radically reduce the ease of getting jobs.

In this 100th anniversary year of the 1913 Land Act, which deprived black South Africans not only of their property rights but also of important contractual rights, I believe it is appropriate that we recognise the similarities between the effects of that Act and our current labour laws. Sol Plaatje, the first General Secretary of the ANC, in his tireless campaign against the Land Act, explained that the law was made devastatingly effective by heavily punishing white land owners who transgressed the law. Any white landowner who sold land to a black person, leased land to a black person, or farmed in partnership with a black person, was subject to a fine of £100 (the price of a farm in 1913) or six months imprisonment. The white farmers consequently hastily ended their partnerships (crop sharing), leases, and grazing agreements (of which there were many) with black farmers. Plaatje travelled around the country and described what he found. Black farmers on the roads with their livestock, knocking at the doors of white farmers, desperately trying to find grazing for their livestock, not understanding the penalties faced by any white farmer who broke the law and offered to help.

The similarity between the Land Act and our labour laws is that they deprive people of property and contractual rights, in the case of the Land Act by punishing farmers, and in the case of labour agreements, the employers. In the case of the Land Act, the effect was to have black farmers trudging from door to door looking for alternative farming opportunities. Today, unemployed people trudge from door to door looking for jobs, similarly unaware that the barriers created by the labour laws prevent employers from employing them when they say, “I will do any job, for a little money, just let me show you what I can do, and if you are not happy you can tell me to leave, just give me a chance!”

For a century, South Africa has had legislation that outlaws voluntary agreements between people, and severely punishes those who transgress. This has caused untold misery for far too long. Stop playing political games with the farm workers of De Doorns. Stop political games being played with any people who wish to work and who wish to enter into agreements on mutually agreeable terms.  

This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.   

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