Friday, 14 January 2011

A special kind of stupidity

RW Johnson on the South African govt's draft Land Tenure Security Bill

It is with a tremendous sense of déjà vu that I read the documents on PoliticsWeb on Land tenure Security. It is just over twelve years ago that Lawrie Schlemmer and I carried out the first - and as far as I know, the only - full-scale survey of farmer and farmworker attitudes in KwaZulu-Natal. (Those were the days, now sadly long gone, when the Helen Suzman Foundation was doing research projects.)

The extraordinary truth was that although a great deal was written about the rights and wrongs of the rural situation, no one had ever interviewed a properly representative sample of farmworkers. Typically the agrarian radicals who produced most of the literature had not spent time on farms (which they regarded as enemy territory) and the farmworkers they interviewed were, literally, sacked or evicted or ex-farmworkers whom they found at rural bus stops and taxi ranks - by definition an atypical and biased sample.

The people who did such research had hardly entered a farm or met a farmer but they got awards for their research. Welcome to the wonderful and dysfunctional world of academic South Africa. Have a look sometime at what passes for research into rural South Africa. It's often just straightforwardly embarrassing, with agrarian radicals pressing hard for land reform which never actually works.

Even more remarkably, such folk would often organize conferences about "rural livelihoods" and the like - omitting farmers. When the farmers asked if they could attend they were treated almost as if they didn't legitimately exist. Conference resolutions would be drawn up without taking them into account and would be pushed through by large, whipped majorities, usually insisting on all manner of ideological objectives which the farmers thought either impossible, fantastical or objectionable and often all three.

Judging by AgriSA's walk out from a recent such conference, such tactics continue. The key to all such research and all such politicking was a workerist approach which simply assumed that the employers were, so to speak, foreign devils and then assumed, against all empirical evidence, that if you removed the farmers you got something called land reform. What you actually got was chaos and starvation. At very best, the farmers were regarded as a necessary evil.

What this disregarded was the simple fact which Ministers of Agriculture round the world have all realised long ago, which is that you can only bring about change in commercial agriculture by working with and through farmers. Even if the Minister sends in farm inspectors, the farmers are, after all, the people in charge on the farm for at least 99% of the time. The farms are their property and the workers their employees. They are driven, very powerfully, by the exigencies of the climate, the seasons and the market. Those are forces that they absolutely have to obey and reckon with. It is extremely difficult for any outside agency to make much of a dent in that.

The KZN Agricultural Union - KwaNalu - was the only fully integrated, multiracial farming organization in South Africa. Mandela had regarded its formation as so important that he personally attended its inauguration (and danced at it). It had a majority of small black farmers and a large number of Indian sugar farmers as well as the province's main white commercial farmers.

Nonetheless, KwaNalu felt frustrated by the current situation and invited us to do the research. They were model clients - fascinated by what we had to tell them but utterly non-interfering in our research or analysis. We published our full results in a publication doubtless still available from the HSF: RW Johnson and Lawrence Schlemmer: Farmers and Farmworkers in KwaZulu-Natal. Employment Conditions, Labour Tenancy, Land reform, attitudes and relationships (HSF, December 1998, 98pp plus questionnaires).

We actually went onto all the farms and to ensure we got truthful responses we made sure that farmers and workers were interviewed out of sight and earshot of one another and by someone from their own language group. The results were then tabulated and analyzed by us, out of the reach of either farmers or farmworkers.

The results were extremely interesting and showed a far more harmonious situation than one might have divined from any of the radical agrarians' publications. On the whole farmers and farmworkers got on pretty well with one another and working conditions and wages were also much better than generally believed.

One reason this was so was that many farms were examples of what one might call working paternalism. For the farmer was first port of call for workers in need. Many received extra food from the farmer, or were provided with TV rooms on the farm, or had their children's school fees paid or were given interest-free loans or got lifts from the farmer into and out of the nearest town.

Once you added in all these small payments in kind, you realised that overall, farm wages were not uncompetitive and that farmworkers on a flourishing farm, where they had often worked all their lives, often had a greater sense of job security than most industrial workers.

Quite often the workers' schoolchildren, back on the farm during vacations, would ask for and get small farm jobs - painting a fence, washing a car, mowing a lawn - which provided them with pocket money. We were careful to ask the workers very closely about farmers who hit or abused them but the results were vanishingly small.

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Thanks to JP

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