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'From on farm to own farm?': the role of farm worker unions in land reform in South Africa

Doreen Atkinson, Daniel Pienaar and Jeff Zingel
Democracy and Governance Programme, Human Science Research Council, South Africa

May 2004

Report on a study commissioned by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO)

SARPN acknowledges the FAO website as the source of this document.
Further details on this project can be obtained from Ms Kaori Izumi, FAO-Harare at:
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Executive summary

This report forms the South African Country Study of a comparative regional study being undertaken by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) into ‘strengthening the role of agricultural workers unions in West and Southern Africa’. The focus is on the role of agricultural workers unions in land reform.

This emphasis has been developed within a broader FAO mandate aimed at establishing an improved set of support arrangements and actions for farm workers and unions - as a relatively neglected set of agents- and seen as capable of making, and participating in, a deeper and more sustainable agriculture and wider rural development. This is inherently desirable, both in the context of large scale structural changes in African rural and agricultural economies, (where farm workers are increasingly subject to evictions and engage in the occupation of farm lands), and in a history of neglect with regard to appropriate support relative to that provided to other, dissimilar interests in African Agriculture.

The aim of the study is to understand the circumstances and organisation of South African farmworkers and unions, the legislative environment which influences or supports their actions, and their actual or potential participation in policy making and implementation, particularly in the unfolding of the country’s land reform programme. The constraints, limits and prospects in the manner in which they currently engage with the farm labour community, with farmers and with the various spheres of government, and the outcomes of their operations, are the focus of the study.

The objective is to develop concrete policy recommendations, project ideas and proposals which assist agricultural farmworkers unions and governments to identify those ways to effectively collaborate with each other in order to avoid the negative impact of land reform on agricultural workers, as well as to improve livelihoods.

The report begins by locating farm workers against the broad context of conditions on South Africa’s largely commercial farms, of comparable minimum wage determinations, and against trends in employment and labour changes in agriculture. Large scale labour shedding has occurred over the last decade in response to the effects of a rapid liberalisation, to similar global trends in ‘modernisation’ and in mechanisation. Skilled and semi- skilled labour, while decreasing on the commercial farms in aggregate terms, is coming to comprise a larger component of the workforce at the expense of rapidly diminishing reliance on ‘casual‘ or informal workers, in contrast to many other agricultural economies.

The post apartheid legislative response to these conditions has been dramatic, with an impressive suite of job security, tenure rights based and livelihoods based protective measures in support of farm labour, labour tenants and farm occupiers, and for land reform and unions. Unions are however circumscribed by restrictions on accessibility to farms via a Protocol recently developed in response to the rapid increase in farm attacks and murders, and on the lack of a legislated collective bargaining forum, and to relatively weak enforcement of legislation by government.

The farm worker union response over the decade has been consolidating, but constrained by the legacy of a post 1994 proliferation of small, ineffective and short lived union operations which tended to seriously alienate workers, farmers and officialdom. Presently 5 major unions, affiliated to different federations or non-aligned, promote farmworker interests. Some are more strongly based in food processing and retail, currently with an expanding farmworker outreach. Recruitment rates and membership levels are not generally high and outreach work is hard, with a ‘double bind’ in the legislation (see 3.2 below). and poor resourcing of organisers being the major constraints. An appendix provides background information on the unions approached, covering annual budgets, the number of organisers and members as well as addresses and contact numbers.

The farming community –and agricultural public sector- reception to unions is improving in places, particularly on the larger farms and in agribusiness, with smaller farmers following these examples, but the tendency remains for them to view unions with deep suspicion, and to divert them off the farm while mediating the statutory processes of engagement via a growing legion of expensive ‘expert farm labour consultants’. Despite these trends, union organisers maintain that where they develop positive support relationships over time (and particularly through networks of farm workers who are related or who communicate member benefits across farms), there is a growing acceptance of the benefits of the roles they play by both worker and farmer.

South Africa’s Land Reform Programme has a changing and highly contested framework of priorities, with three sub- programmes supporting different priorities vis; restitution for those forcibly removed from their lands, tenure security for those presently on farms, and land redistribution. The latter is the vehicle considered most appropriate for investigation, and for farm workers –through their unions - to access in pursuit of a more sustainable agriculture and rural development. Redistribution is grant supported via LRAD, based on a proportional beneficiary contribution on a sliding scale, and caters for food safety net projects, production for market projects, share equity schemes and schemes in communal areas.

Farm worker knowledge of the programme itself, and the constituent options is very limited and often nonexistent, and union engagement with land reform, both in support of members and for their own interests is sporadic, and based on individual support actions across the country. While there are instances of wholesale union support into land reform, there is also scathing criticism of the operation of schemes, (for example the operation of share equity in the Western Cape). Union organiser perceptions about new class and labour formations arise in the process.

The public sector and official Department of Land Affairs (DLA) engagement with farm workers in support of accessing the options available under the Land Redistribution for Agricultural Development (LRAD) programme options is limited - held back by staffing shortages and a less than rigorous approach to an ‘on farm’ local level engagement with farm workers, on the whole limited to farming towns. Quantitative information on the budget available to the DLA, the number of personnel employed overall and in the land redistribution sub-programme is provided in an appendix

Provincial agriculture’s perceptions of the role of unions varies across different provinces-with some positive but many apprehensive or negative. Similarly, representative commercial agriculture associations vary in their perception of union significance and longer term roles. Nevertheless, there are many encouraging and positive outcomes in a growing collaboration. Numerous barriers of mistrust will however need to be broken down.

Most union organisers and unions wish to pursue active roles in support of land reform programmes on behalf of workers more vigorously, but clearly lack the training and knowledge of policies and programmes. Similarly, many spheres of government engage with unions and farmworkers in a limited way. It is within this arena that the reports recommendations are constructed, based on the premise that both ‘sides’ need to be more fully resourced, and to know what the available resources are.

However, the research has been limited by the unavailability of data on the land reform process in South Africa. In particular, disaggregated data on the beneficiaries of the land reform and land redistribution has not been compiled yet in the country and it is source of a controversial debate. These data constraints limits the scope of the conclusions and recommendations of the report.


Across the country there has been fairly rapid progress within the operation of land reform, with some 450,000 hectares transferred over the last few years. Many beneficiaries come from backgrounds very dissimilar to farm workers. Farm workers have -with some notable exceptions in share equity schemes in the Western Cape and large ‘transfers’ in Mpumalanga particularly -been excluded from the promise and potential benefits of entry into a more productive agriculture.

It is recommended that farmworkers unions should be extensively strengthened and supported by a combination of government, FAO, donor and appropriate NGO activities directed at four significant ‘levels’ or arenas. The recommendations are made in recognition of the following central tenet or organising principle which is held to promote a more effective incorporation of citizens into a deeper rural development and more successful and redistributive land reform, viz;

That both ‘sides’ have to be properly resourced, and both ‘sides’ need to know what the available resources are. Clearly, this basic tenet is absent in the unfolding of farmwokers unions and their support into land reform.

The forms of support should be debated, shared and designed with unions and central, provincial and local government in the relevant ministries over time.

The Farmworker Unions:

  • A clear need exists to introduce capacity building programmes into selected unions to ensure a deeper understanding and more effective access to, and operationalisation of the policies, instruments, arrangements and options in land reform and in redistribution by union organisers. Such capacity building should be programme based, and devolved to a project based approach thereafter, in a phased manner.
  • Broadening the base of services offered by unions to promote a ‘development agent’ or ‘broker’ role between the possible beneficiaries of the land redistribution programme and the programme itself (becoming a civil society based service provider to government –but not an NGO). This would enable the union to effectively offer its members a menu of choices when faced with eviction, retrenchment or any expropriation of their workplace. Detailed land reform options then become one of a suite of possibilities for members, supporting improved livelihoods.
  • Unions should be supported to more formally address the nature of communication with actors in the agricultural sector, particularly at national and local government levels, with a view to broadening the base of discussions from labour issues to matters of common concern. The ideal would be that unions, while retaining their rights-based approach, should also be seen as ‘social partners’ by others in the sector and as stakeholders in the land redistribution process.
  • The study has highlighted the need for settlement phase support in land reform projects. Given a serious negative potential for new class and labour divisions to emerge in land reform projects- as these become emergent enterprises- this is a seriously neglected aspect of land reform. Attention should be directed at formulating the detailed role of farm workers unions in such support, as but one agency providing either technical support, or, acting as an instrument of oversight (such as in M+E) for policy and programmes-or for both. This recommendation is sensitive –and would require very detailed and locally specific dimensions.

  • At provincial levels of government, several provinces have already initiated forums under the aegis of the provincial MEC for agriculture. These meet on a quarterly basis, with participants usually including provincial commercial farmers’ associations, representatives from agribusinesses, representatives from the provincial departments of land affairs and agriculture, as well as other parties who have an interest in agriculture in the region. Sub-committees have also been instituted to allow matters of common interest in the province to be discussed regularly. On a national level an agricultural forum has been established by the Minister of Agriculture and Land Affairs, and is attended by the national representatives of the organisations mentioned above and performs the same functions on a national level.
  • Given the decentralised nature of farm workers’ unions, commercial farmers’ associations and the government departments involved in agriculture, there is no reason why this arrangement cannot be devolved to the third tier of government, namely local government. To this end, it is recommended that municipalities form similar forums involving all institutions active in agricultural matters in the particular municipality. The result should be a highly ‘stimulatory’ three tier system, encompassing all spheres of government, wherein all stakeholders (from local to national) would be involved in a cooperative process to discuss and design matters of mutual concern and manage conflict situations should they occur.
The Food and Agricultural Organisation:

  • The FAO should firstly, provide its ‘good offices’ to facilitate contact between the leaderships of different farm workers’ unions in South Africa and secondly, provide a forum where matters of common interest (such as access to farms, and the legislation regarding land redistribution) can be discussed and more formally introduced via programme and project based training (in line with recommendation one, above, for The Unions). This would encourage unions in the same sector to share knowledge and possibly cooperate in certain areas, such as gaining access to farms, presentations to government or communication with commercial farmers’ associations.
  • The FAO could take advantage of is regional infrastructure to organise a ‘regional network’ of farm workers’ unions. Unions from different countries within the Southern African region could be brought into contact with each other and be provided with the opportunity to share experiences, identify areas of collaboration and explore possible ‘best practice’ lessons.
  • The FAO can encourage unions to form partnerships with NGO’s that provide training and technical assistance in areas such as farm management and agricultural techniques. This would enable unions to undertake a deeper “development agent’ or ‘broker’ role covered in the second ‘union recommendation’ above, particularly to members who are interested in acquiring their own land or who have already entered the LRAD process (covered under NGO’s below).
  • With two prominent exceptions, the trade unions approached have no research capacity. Donor support for such capacity would enable the unions concerned to develop a better understanding of the legislative environment governing the land redistribution process, and make for unions to be informed partners in negotiations with the other relevant stakeholders.
  • Conversely, donor organisations can provide funding to the DLA, through government channels, to establish educational and training sessions with unions as a component of the land redistribution programme. Significant precedent for donor support into aspects of land reform processes exists in many provinces. This support could also be provided to the NDA on a decentralised basis to establish similar ‘learning’ between its extension officers and union organisers and members.
Non-governmental Organisations

  • Relevant NGO’s (and the Farmers Associations noted below) with extensive track records need to be supported to play a strong role in the aforementioned capacity-building and training programmes.
  • NGO’s should be supported to form partnerships with unions with a view to providing training to its members in the related areas of selecting best bet land redistribution options, the ‘economics of farming’ and in the areas of financial management and in effective farming techniques. These arrangements would find support from the DLA, since officials interviewed indicated that unions could play a helpful role in briefing applicants about the challenges that would face them after land has been transferred. Also, by virtue of receiving training ex ante and ex post the transfer of land, beneficiaries would be in a better position to improve their livelihoods.
Farmers’ Associations

  • The study has shown that farmers’ associations and unions already engage in ad-hoc meetings around matters of common concern. It is suggested that farmers’ associations be supported to approach unions with a view to institutionalising such meetings and that land redistribution be placed on the agenda of issues to be discussed. Such meetings can be incorporated into the structure provided by the local government or provincial agricultural forums.
  • Local farmers’ associations can be supported to begin to provide training to union organisers (and members) in both the financial aspects of farming as well as farming techniques. This would put union organisers in a better position to dispense advice to their members who want to enter the process of land redistribution.

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