Farming and housing: land struggles fail to unite in Caledon
Boyce Tom | Amandla 64 | June 2018
This article draws some lessons, and makes some observations, from the recent service delivery protest action in the small rural town of Caledon in the Western Cape. The mass action that unfolded in Caledon a few weeks before the country’s fourth national elections was typical of actions that have characterised periods before elections, whether national or local government elections.
Self-organisation is critical in the struggle of the marginalised voices of the society. It is especially critical in the context of deep-seated inequality, very slow land reform and mass unemployment, particularly of rural youth in South Africa. The defining character of collective actions is the reality of a loss of hope in government-led processes of transformation.
The swelling ranks of the peri-urban proletariat come from migration to rural towns. This is a direct result of the massive alienation of people from land, leading to the large-scale movement to seek new economic opportunities [mainly to sell their labour] in a system that can hardly absorb them all. But it is also a result of evictions from commercial farms, which has happened despite the existence of legislative measures in the form of Extension of Security of Tenure Act 62 of 1997 to protect the security of farm workers and dwellers.
Key demand: land for housing
The key collective grievance expressed in Caledon was the lack of access to land for proper housing development. The land demand in this area is quite huge and not limited to housing. But there has been no experience of unified struggle that aligns land-for-food and land-for-housing demands. A large white commercial farming community commands the lion’s share of land access, a generational privilege which has been continuing from the colonial and apartheid governments right into the years of democratic governance.
This highlights how the state has particularly failed poor citizens, with no courage to respond to the needs of the poor. The state has positioned itself as the defender of white privilege and its determination in this can be seen from its response to the protesting masses, who themselves have almost run out of patience in using other means of speaking to power.
The Theewaterskloof Municipality’s initial response to the community was to unleash the force of the police and private security company (Overberg Agri) in response to protesting residents. It is alleged that this company was responsible for killing two protesters and injuring several others. Community leaders claim the rubber bullets used by security are different and more dangerous than those used by the police.
Political opinions are often shaped by what are the drivers of protests before elections. A prominent view is that opposition parties are responsible for orchestrating violent protests as they scramble to unseat each other. This view is certainly not completely off the mark, as can be observed in the way it has divided communities not only along party-political lines but also along racial lines.
Key need: land for farming
The Trust for Community Outreach and Education (TCOE), an NGO that operates mainly in the rural areas, started to work with small scale farmers in Caledon and surrounding towns in the Theewaterskloof Local municipality. The work was mainly on issues of access to land for productive purposes. From the onset, the struggle for land was articulated as a struggle for agricultural use, mainly grazing land for livestock.
Over the years, starting from 2012 and up to now, TCOE supported local small-scale associations of small-scale farmers in their struggle to access land to enhance their livelihoods. From the onset, this struggle has had no success. Municipal authorities prefer to use law enforcement measures to deal with the issue of straying animals that have no designated and safe grazing land. This struggle has taught us valuable lessons: we believe that development-related matters are a key responsibility of the municipalities; using the courts of law to resolve these matters should never be their first option.
TCOE has always proposed that spaces of meaningful should be considered in order to bring about lasting solutions. Local farmers have won all the court cases, but next year they will once again be subjected to a similar problem of having their livestock back in the pound and once again waiting for the magistrates court to decide. From the various cases that we have won on behalf of the farmers, there was never a recommendation from the court to compel the municipality to respond to the persisting challenge in a more developmentally oriented approach, as mandated within the constitution.
Development a constitutional imperative for municipalities
Section 153 of the South African constitution gives a clear and unambiguous developmental role to the municipalities:
“ A municipality must:
(a) structure and manage its administration and budgeting and planning processes to give priority to the needs of the community, and to promote social and economic development of the community; and
(b) participate in national and provincial development programmes”
One of our observations as we worked with the stock farmers was the lack of unity. There were obvious divisions amongst the small-scale farmers and very limited independent popular organisations. Instead, the political party branches were present, although what they were doing was not visible. Since 2017, the animals that were seized by law enforcement remained in the pound and it was only a few horses that were released late last year. Many of these animals disappeared at the pound and no one owns up to the responsibility of the missing animals. A local farmer, popularly known as Oom Pops, lost about eight of his eleven horses that were impounded. Despite a court ruling for the release of the horses, it remains to be seen what will happen to the other missing animals.
Division weakens land struggles
The local municipality and the Department of Rural Development are not prioritising land access for development of local small-scale producers. Furthermore, the experiences of TCOE show that it has been difficult to unify the struggle of the working class in the rural areas. Political parties have been partly responsible too for maintaining existing divisions within the working class. This makes it difficult to build counter power in alignment with working-class struggles. The plight of the small-scale farmers should have been able to command support from the large pool of the peri-urban working class. The fact that this support has not been forthcoming should be a subject of concern for the local formations and movements undertaking the leading role in the working-class struggle.
The self-proclaimed leadership of the protesters were frank about their reluctance to include the farmland in their demands. They claim that small-scale farmers have been interested spectators throughout their days of action. Their stance was also clear on political parties as they rejected any gesture of solidarity expressed from outside. Their branding of the struggle has its limitations in that there was not even an attempt to relate the situation of Caledon to that of other towns such as Genadendal, Riviersonderend and Grabouw.
Unity towards 2021 elections
The grass root-based movements should take the responsibility of uniting the struggling sectors of society. What the country has recently witnessed was an unfolding of manipulated mass actions that do not have the genuine interest of bringing about meaningful changes to the plight of the poorest of the poor. Their main interest is political point scoring.
In Caledon and the surrounding towns, the local landless farmers and peri-urban working class need to have dialogue to find ways of releasing the existing land that is held on long term leases, to assist in addressing the needs of the local community. Making commonage land available to the needy residents has a huge potential to uplift the majority, including rural women and farm workers who constitute the most marginalised groups. A concerted effort must be devised to champion a campaign that engages municipalities on their section 153 responsibilities. Any municipality that seeks the vote of the working class should begin to demonstrate willingness to engage on terms determined by those affected, as we head to the next local government elections in 2021.
Boyce Tom is researcher for the Trust for Community Outreach and Education and is based in Cape Town.