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S. African Human Rights Commission Criticizes Farm Living Conditions - 2003-09-02

The South African Human Rights Commission says living conditions in the country's farming communities need to be improved, and it has issued a series of recommendations.

After two years of public hearings, interviews, and farm inspections, the Human Rights Commission reports that South Africa's rural areas lag behind the rest of the country in providing most of the basic rights guaranteed by the country's constitution. The report points to lack of land rights and land tenure, sub-standard housing, inadequate food and water supplies, lack of health care, and poor education.

The 200-page report recommends accelerating the country's land-reform program, which is designed to help South African blacks acquire white-owned land. The slow-moving program is trying to buy land from white farm owners, and to avoid the disruptions that resulted from land reform in neighboring Zimbabwe.

The commission also recommends improving schools for farm workers' children, and educating the workers about their legal rights, including the right of long-time workers to continue living on farms, even if they stop working there.

The commission launched its investigation in response to complaints from farm workers and farm owners. Chairman Jody Kollapen says the commission's work confirmed the fears that sparked the inquiry.

"In broad [terms], I think the commission remains concerned that laws that were designed really to protect the most weak and the most vulnerable are yet to reach them, and yet to have a beneficial effect," said Mr. Kollapen. "So while we seem to have an adequacy of laws, we seem to do pretty poorly with regard to ensuring that laws are able to reach people and work to their benefit."

The report says there is general and widespread lack of compliance with South African labor laws, little unionization, and evidence of child labor on some farms in almost every province.

In two areas of the country, alcohol abuse among farm workers is a major issue, complicated by a traditional practice of paying workers in part with alcohol instead of cash. The so-called tot system is most widespread in the wine-producing areas of the Western and Northern Cape provinces. The commission recommends eliminating the tot system.

Human Rights Commission member Charlotte McClain says farm communities have been and continue to be among the most marginalized in South African society.

"The situation is not great," she said. "But we do not want to sensationalize it in that regard. We want to look at how do we begin to address it collectively and make sure that we change the situation and make sure that there is the achievement of equality and that people are able to access their right in those communities."

Aid groups that work in rural areas are cautiously welcoming the Human Rights Commission's report, although few are expressing surprise at the findings. At the Rural Legal Trust, Letlhogonolo Gaborone says what really matters is what happens next.

"It is nothing new," he said. "It is something that has been happening all along. We welcome the fact that it has been documented, and hope that our government, parliament will take concrete steps to address the plight of rural dwellers throughout the country."

The country's main agricultural union, Agri South Africa, is welcoming the report. Most Agri South Africa members are white farmers, who might be expected to object to criticism of the living and working conditions they provide for their employees.

But the report also deals with an issue of special concern to white farmers. The commissioners investigated a series of brutal assaults, murders, and so-called farm attacks, that the union believes are politically and racially motivated.

The Human Rights Commission concluded, as the South African police have done before, that the main motivation for farm attacks is criminal, not political.

The report points to a high level of overall violence in rural areas, including both attacks on white farmers and on black farm workers. The commissioners called for improving overall safety and security in rural areas, and improving the level of trust between the police and the communities.

Agri South Africa President Japie Grobler says the union has been making those same recommendations for years. And he is trying to look at the report constructively. "First and foremost, we have to admit that whoever lives in the rural areas, farm workers and farmers alike have to be protected and have to be looked at," said Mr. Grobler. "The positive side is that we got a lot of information about what should be done to make it a better working place for all in the rural areas."

The Human Rights Commission legal branch is continuing to investigate several cases of human-rights violations in farm communities, which could result in legal action.

The commission says it is up to government, citizen groups, and farmers to begin to change things. The commission recommends the establishment of an ongoing forum to discuss the issues raised in the report.

One commissioner, who chaired several public hearings in rural areas, says he got the impression that the groups and individuals who testified had not previously had much experience talking to each other, even though they lived in the same community. He said that will have to change if there is going to be any progress.