Making labour tenant’s legislation work for the underprivileged in South Africa

Monday, 6th November 2017

A new AFRA study finds answers to issues that weakens the1996 labour reform framework from effectively protecting labour tenant’s land rights. 

In 1996, President Nelson Mandela passed the Land Reform (Labour Tenants) Act. The legislation provides for labour tenants to claim land they, their parents or grandparents lived on. “This is a progressive policy”, one could be tempted to say. But does it work? 

Zithulele Mabhida Mkhize was born and raised on a farm in the Mkhambathini area of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, where he lives with two sisters, a brother and his mother.
In primary school, Mabhida lost his father, the breadwinner of the family and as the eldest son, he left school to work, and support his mother and siblings. They lived and worked on a privately owned farm in a formerly white commercial farming area as labourers for years.

When Mabhida's mother began to fall ill and could no longer farm on the land they used for years, the landowner tried to evict them, but failed. He took another serious attempt and ordered the destruction of the family’s mud house. With the house destroyed, the landowner moved the family onto a compound house on the same farm (where farm workers live), changing their labour tenant status to that of farm workers. The owner again tried to evict them. Eventually, Mabhida has taken the matter to court but legal processes take time and they have to wait.

Tenure security for labour tenants like Mabhida in South Africans is not a reality. Things do not happen according to the provisions of the 1996 reform and the extension of security of tenure act of 1997, which protects families such as Mabhida,’s against unlawful eviction from farms and provides for farm dwellers to obtain more substantive tenure rights such as the right to live on and use the land.
Farm dwellers continue to experience illegal evictions, denial of burial rights, desecration of graves, unfair labour practices, bans on renovating houses and access to basic services.
But many farm dwellers do not want to leave the farms they consider it their homes. For them, the act’s procedural protections offer little solace. Their interests lie in the act’s long-term tenure security objective and the content of the substantive rights it is meant to provide.

Cracks in the legislation and solutions

According to the Association for Rural Advancement’s (Afra’s) new research report, Pathways out of Poverty: Improving Farm Dweller’s Tenure Security and Access to Housing and Services, the judicial system has made progress in defining the respective legal rights of owners and people living on their farms, but the absence of an institutionalised and neutral system to administer the security of tenure act and labour tenant rights on farms causing inconsistency in their adjudications.

The laws and regulations governing farm dwellers’ rights to tenure security and access to housing and basic services, establish a framework that can create a sound foundation for realising farm dwellers’ constitutional rights. However, the state has been unable or unwilling to effectively implement the legal framework it has put in place.

Despite limitations like this, litigation is an important means to realise farm dwellers’ constitutional rights. However, the collaboration between farm dwellers, landowners and the spheres of government is essential to find ways to unblock the obstacles and find mutually acceptable options to secure rights and access to services on a systematic basis.
But collaboration initiatives confront the long history of dispossession, unfair labour practices and skewed power relations on farms. Often it is farm dwellers and municipalities at the table, while willing farm owners are few and far between. And many farm dwellers are growing tired of compromise.

AFRA’s  recent engagements with landowners, agricultural unions, and government departments show that potential for change exists.
A greater willingness to communicate about land and services issues appears to be evident on some farms.
It is certainly apparent in several municipalities.

Download AFRA new research reports here:

Written by Royston and Nokuthula Mthimunye, researcher and communications advocate at the Association for Rural Advancement. 

Photo credit (AFRA)