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Telling the Story About South Africa’s Rural Poor

Resource type: News

Gara LaMarche |

The transition from apartheid to the new South Africa is rightfully viewed as one of the major advances in human history toward equality and democracy. But as I have written here before, many problems still exist: the South African government became an object of ridicule, and many lives were lost, with former President Mbeki’s denial of the relationship between HIV and AIDS; xenophobic violence erupted this summer against Zimbabwean refugees fleeing from President Mugabe’s reign of terror; lesbian and gay South Africans, particularly those in rural areas, are often victims of “corrective rape” or other forms of violence and intolerance despite the acknowledgement of the South African courts and Parliament that they have the right to marry; and the economic divide between those who live in comfort and most people in South Africa is widening.

Since 2002, The Atlantic Philanthropies has supported efforts in South Africa to address a number of these issues. I want to share today a less well-known example of injustice with its roots in apartheid – the plight of South Africa’s rural poor, including the unjust and unlawful evictions of nearly one million farm dwellers in the decade after South Africa adopted its new constitution in 1994. Incredibly, the widespread problem of farm dweller evictions was almost invisible until a group of sixteen NGOs in South Africa banded together with support from Atlantic to tell the story of evicted farm dwellers.

To highlight that issue, Atlantic has launched “What We’ve Learned: Lessons From A Communications Campaign for South Africa’s Rural Poor,” the second publication in its Atlantic Reports series. The report describes the experience of Atlantic and its grantees focuses on using communications to advance human rights; specifically, it highlights the Farm Life in South Africa Project, a campaign Atlantic funded over a number of years to raise awareness of a social injustice and the living conditions of farm workers and the rural poor in South Africa. The report shares lessons from the first phase of the campaign in 2004-2006, which are relevant for funders, nonprofits and advocates around the world interested in using communications to elevate a human rights issue, and describes how the campaign partners are applying those lessons in their ongoing work.

The publication opens with the story of a family, the Skhosanas, interviewed by one of Atlantic’s grantees, Social Surveys Africa:

Until 2001, they survived relatively well on the farm. They had a tap for water; they had firewood. Then the farm was sold to a new owner who wanted the Skhosanas off the land. For two years, they fought eviction. After all, this was the “new” South Africa, and, for the first time, they had rights. But the farm owner shut down their water tap and ordered them to stop gathering wood on his land. Finally, the owner came early one morning when the children were still asleep, broke down the door, and threw the family’s furniture and belongings onto the road. The children were afraid they would have nowhere to sleep. Mr. Skhosana was ill at the time. Mrs. Skhosana says she will never forget the experience of “being thrown out like rubbish”.

Staff members of community organisations had known for years that black farm dwellers, including farmworkers and their families, were being kicked off farm land in post-apartheid South Africa without legal recourse. But without the data to show the scale or impact of the evictions, policy makers paid little attention to the issue. Furthermore, when the Farm Life Project began in 2004, the South African government did not have a clear or integrated rural development programme. The number of commercial farms was dropping throughout the country, resources were scarce in rural community organisations and many evictees did not know they had “tenure” or residency rights and even more didn’t know where to get help.

To demonstrate the breadth and depth of the crisis and help elevate it on the policy agenda, in 2005 Social Surveys and the Nkuzi Development Association developed the National Evictions Survey, the cornerstone of the Farm Life in South Africa Project.

“Atlantic helped initiate the Farm Life in South Africa Project, arising from the work of grantees to combat illegal evictions from farms,” said Gerald Kraak, programme executive for Reconciliation & Human Rights in South Africa. “The foundation funded research to identify the scale of the problem, launched a national education awareness campaign to inform the public about the findings of the study and supported a national advocacy campaign targeting government, with recommendations to prevent ongoing evictions from farms.”

The Project brought together a handful of research, grassroots, legal rights and arts organisations to assess and publicize the current status and living conditions of the nation’s farm dwellers, with Atlantic’s support. The Project explained the predicament of farmworkers and farm dwellers and clarified the impact of the evictions on the stability and well-being of South Africa’s rural communities. Over a number of years, they stimulated a national policy discussion and began addressing the challenges of keeping this issue on the national and social agenda over time.

In addition to the National Evictions Survey, the campaign integrated multiple communications tactics, including commissioning documentary photographs of farm life by photographer Jurgen Schadeberg, publishing them in the book, Voices from the Land, and sharing them in a travelling exhibit which toured both cities and rural areas.

This publication describes the planning and execution of these efforts in 2004-2006, some of which were successful and some not. It also shares lessons from the campaign and describes how partners in the campaign are currently applying the lessons they have learned in their ongoing work, including:

  • A coalition can be extremely effective through a multifaceted campaign that integrates many tactics
  • A communications campaign must be sustained if it is to produce long-term benefits
  • Coordinating a successful communications campaign requires active involvement from participants
  • Timing of communications and advocacy efforts is crucial to success
  • The communications budget must not only be adequate, but also strategically allocated
  • Effective advocacy requires local voices and strong coalitions

The publication concludes by explaining the continuing challenges of responding to rural poverty in South Africa and around the world. It examines potential policy solutions and how funders and nonprofit organisations can influence social change at a systemic level, such as amplifying the voices of the rural poor globally to engage in policy discussions that will impact their lives.

Despite the achievements of this multi-pronged campaign, almost three million black South Africans remain marginalised, living on farms owned mostly by white farmers. But, the future is beginning to look brighter as the policy environment for rural issues in South Africa is improving in the post-Mbeki era.

There are numerous challenges to overcome before South Africa can be the society it has fought so hard to become. But with its progressive constitution and new National Assembly elections this coming April, there is hope that opportunities for change and the advancement of social justice are on the horizon.

Gara LaMarche

Links to organisations mentioned in this column: