Skip to main content

Dreams of a better life long departed

Resource type: News

The Sunday Independent |

Images and text combine in Voices from the Land, to reveal despair and hope Distance blunts the jagged edges of painful realities. But all it takes is a smell, sound or image to re-sharpen the softened contours of memory. That has been the effect on me of working on Voices from the Land – Jurgen Schadeberg’s book and exhibition documenting the conditions of South Africa’s farm workers. Eighteen months ago I accompanied him on a small leg of his odyssey. For Schadeberg, Voices from the Land means revisiting and expanding an investigation he did 53 years ago with the Drum journalist Henry Nxumalo, into conditions of potato farm workers in Bethal. Focusing on the Western and southern Cape, my aim was to contextualise Schadeberg’s images of farm workers within the present transformations in agriculture and examine how recent legislation governing agrarian policy reform and land restitution had affected farm workers. The photographed image can speak for itself. But the convoluted landscape of South Africa’s recent history needs translating. My mission, therefore, was to tell the stories behind the statistics and to incorporate personal portraits of the unfolding, tumultuous narrative of the rural economy. Schadeberg emphasised that the project would not be an investigative assignment and that judgement should not be imposed on villains or victims. We would simply show how much had changed since democracy, and how little. But suspending judgement is impossible. The nutrients of South Africa’s showcase constitution have not fertilised the land inhabited by many farming communities. Recent research has damningly documented farmers’ brutality towards workers, and includes horrifying employment and living conditions on farms and widespread abuse of child labour. Women workers, seasonal labourers and illegal foreign workers are particularly vulnerable. Although the infamous dop system has been banished, the residue of alcohol abuse lives through the generations in the form of foetal alcohol syndrome. These conditions are neither endemic nor exclusive to the farming sector. Yet since 1994 more than a million workers have been evicted from South Africa’s farms – more than during the last decade of apartheid. Virtually all the dispossessed labourers once lived and worked on white-owned farms. Today, they form a dishevelled army of the uprooted and impoverished. Yet the public and private sectors ignore the fact that, enmeshed in the noble intentions of land transformation, is a legacy of dispossession – a suppurating sore under a seemingly pristine skin. Only when scratched does it rupture. The skin metaphor is appropriate to a little piece of Provence in the Western Cape, called Fransch-hoek. It provides a microcosm of the chasm between prosperity and poverty, policy and delivery. The landscape presents a vignette of privilege – an idyll of vineyards, olive groves and manicured mansions. Yet hidden between the postcard village and the viticulture estates is another side of Eden closer to a feudal fiefdom than a country hailed as the poster-child of democracy. We visited workers who had been born on Franschhoek farms, had worked the same land for 20 to 40 years, 12 hours a day, six days a week. They are fortunate to be classified as full-time labourers. Their “casual” counterparts, many migrants from the Eastern Cape, fare worse. We interviewed Rachel Paulse, 45, who has been incapacitated by a stroke, courtesy of decades of hard labour and living. At 51 Martin Beukes has been blinded by the pesticides used on the farm. He was never supplied with protective clothing.

Related Resources


Human Rights & Reconciliation

Global Impact:

South Africa