Nelly Bassily | August 18, 2008
Like many other South African farm workers, David Mashele used to live in a mud hut. Typical mud huts are drafty and do not protect against heavy rains. He never imagined that he would move into a house with four rooms, big windows, a ceiling, and a toilet. But Mr. Mashele and his family did just that when a block of 118 houses was handed over to farm workers in Limpopo, South Africa, courtesy of the government and their employer.
The provision of homes to farm workers in Limpopo is one of the recent news items that reflect moves to improve conditions for farm workers in Southern Africa and defend their rights. Farm workers are typically housed on the farm of their employers. For years, human rights advocates have said that this arrangement makes farm workers and their families extremely vulnerable. Often, if the man of a household becomes unable to work, his wife and children will lose their home as well, even if the woman and children also work.
A report released three years ago found that, between 1993 and 2004, over 900,000 people were evicted from South African farms. The problem of farm worker eviction is similar in neighbouring countries. In Namibia for example, nine farm workers and their dependents were kicked off their farm after the farm changed ownership. Their situation gained national publicity, as the evictees ended up living on the side of a road for years before the government allotted them a home and farmland.
Raimar von Hase is president of Namibia’s National Agricultural Union, or NAU. He said that commercial farm owners have cleaned up their practices and “no member of the NAU has evicted and dumped workers in the street in the last 12 months.”
There are also encouraging signs that farm workers have better access to health care and education. Earlier this year, Namibia’s Agricultural Employers’ Association formulated a policy to support HIV-infected farm workers. According to the policy, employers are obliged to facilitate access to affordable HIV treatment, including anti-retroviral drugs, for all employees who need it. The Association also pledged that workers would not be refused employment if they were HIV positive.
In South Africa, employers in the agricultural town of Christiana are backing a basic education program for farm workers. The government and a private media company also contribute to the program which teaches farm workers basic literacy, math, and computer skills. Mieta Booysen is one of the program facilitators. She says the farm workers are all eager to learn. The training also benefits employers, as it means that their workers will have higher skills and can do more complex tasks, such as taking measurements.