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SOUTH AFRICA: "If You Are Landless, You Are Damned"

Miriam Mannak

CAPE TOWN, Oct 16 2009 (IPS) - A group of small-scale South African farmers has lodged a complaint with the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) against the government, accusing the authorities of not sufficiently assisting small farmers to make a living and therefore undermining their human right to food security.

The complaint was handed over today, World Food Day (Oct 16), by the Food Sovereignty Campaign (FSC), a network of small-scale farming associations from the Western Cape and Northern Cape provinces in the south-western and north-western parts of the country. The SAHRC is a constitutional body with the mandate to monitor and promote human rights in South Africa.

"We have tried for the past years to grab the government’s attention, but so far we have had no luck," FSC chairperson Davine Witbooi said.

"Last year, in our last attempt, we handed over a memorandum asking the government to improve small-scale farmers’ access to land so that they are enabled to grow the food they cannot afford to buy — simply because they are too poor to do so. The minister seemed to understand us and he said he acknowledged the urgency of the problem. But so far we have not heard anything back."

The farmers’ pleas come four months after President Jacob Zuma in his first state of the nation address said that by "working together with our people in the rural areas, we will ensure a comprehensive rural development strategy linked to land and agrarian reform and food security.

"People in the rural areas have a right to be helped with farming so that they can grow vegetables and other things and raise livestock so that they can feed themselves."

Witbooi believes it is time for action. "That is why we decided to take the matter to the SAHRC. We are sick and tired of not being taken seriously, while in the meantime our human right of food security is being violated," she told IPS.

About 30 small-scale farmers had come to Cape Town to witness the handing over of the complaint, including Rosina Secondt from Pela, a rural settlement in Namaqualand in South Africa’s Northern Cape province. "If you can’t afford to buy food in the shops, growing your own is your only option for survival, otherwise you are lost," she explained.

Although Secondt owns about 60 sheep, she barely makes ends meet. "It may seem like a large number of sheep, but all in all I earn about (150 dollars) a month," she said. "But at least I have an income – even if it is small. The majority of people in Pela are unemployed, because there are no work opportunities.

"They depend on the (child support) grant provided by the government, which equals 20 dollars per child per month. This is not enough to survive on. Growing their food and owning life stock is therefore vital."

The main problem is poor access to land, she noted: "People have some land, but it is not enough. Government needs to make land available to us. We are not asking a lot, just enough land to sustain ourselves."

Inadequate access to land is not the only challenge faced by small-scale farmers in Namaqualand, a semi-desert region with an average annual rainfall of less than 200mm. "We need irrigation infrastructure too," Secondt said. "There is water from the Orange River, but we need to be able to get the water to our crops. So infrastructure is crucial.

"Most people can’t afford to build their own irrigation systems, so we need government to step in. This is not happening."

Witbooi agrees. "We need infrastructure, but we often hear that there is no money," she told IPS. "But there is plenty of money. Billions are spent on the FIFA soccer world cup, for instance. There is money! There is just no political willpower to help the poorest of the poor." The world cup is taking place in 2010 in South Africa and stadiums and transport infrastructure is being built across the country.

Apart from improving farmers’ access to land and providing irrigation infrastructure, the activists are urging the decision makers to take a stronger stance against evictions of farm workers by their employers.

"About one million farm workers have been evicted from since 1994," says Cape Town lawyer Gareth Prince, who was also present at the protest. "Most of them have been kicked off the farms without being offered alternative accommodation. Where can they go? If you are landless, you are damned."

According to Prince, less then five percent of the eviction cases were addressed in the courts. "People would like to go to court, but there are obstacles," he explained.

"While some do not know what their rights are, others simply live too far from a courthouse or can’t afford to press charges. Although a farm worker, like any South African, can apply for legal aid, these services are often difficult to access when you live in a rural area."

Witbooi added that government itself is guilty of evicting small-scale farmers. "Look at what is happening in Eerste Rivier," she said. "People are being evicted without their needs, circumstances and human rights being taken in consideration."

Eerste Rivier near Cape Town is small farming community that was established on vacant, government-owned land. It is home to 300 poor households that have been surviving on small-scale agriculture for the past two-and-a-half decades.

The existence of the settlement has come under threat after the Western Cape provincial housing department lodged a successful application for an interdict to stop the farmers from working the land.

"Yes, we are there illegally, we know that. But the provincial authorities never seemed to mind us as the land was vacant for years before the first person settled there 25 years ago," says Craig Jonkers, chairperson of the iThemba Farmers Association, which represents the farmers of Eerste Rivier.

"Now they want us out. The first construction has already started. The problem is that we will lose our livelihoods. We are unemployed people who want to feed and save ourselves, instead of stealing and reverting to crime. That is all we ask."

Witbooi stated that if the SAHRC does not come with a reply to the complaint soon, the FSC plans to revert to action: "The SAHRC must take our complaint seriously and take this matter forward, quickly. We are sick and tired of not being heard."

SAHRC’s provincial manager for the Western Cape, Leonardo Goosen, responded that all the commission can do is review the case and decide what to do next. "We cannot change laws or governmental decisions," he says. "The only thing we can do is to make recommendations."

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