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Cape Town - For too long we have referred to the employers and management on farms as farmers while the people who work the soil are mere workers.
We are perpetuating an inaccurate assumption that farmers own farms and workers mindlessly work. This terminology is problematic.
My layman’s understanding of the definition of the word “farmer” is “a person who works or tills the soil to grow plants or raise livestock of some sort”.
Imagine if the term miner meant an owner, investor, manager, shareholder, boss, a person who inherited a mine, or maybe a person with a university degree or diploma that qualifies him to manage operations on mines.
We would be surprised by he who stands up and says “I am a miner”. What does a miner look like and what does he do? The same logic applies to the use of words like driver, singer, runner, player, writer, lawyer, preacher and trader. So why then does ordinary logic not apply when using the term farmer?
There is an obvious lack of transformation in the ownership and senior management in this sector, but equally concerning is how, as a society, we are part of this apartheid mindset.
I have applied much thought to this issue following Passop’s monitoring of the strike in De Doorns in the Hex River Valley and, most notably, a meeting last week between striking workers and the Hex Valley Table Grape Association, an association of farm owners and management in the area.
During the meeting an angry and disgruntled worker referred to farm owners as “whites”, but he was immediately contradicted by a farm owner who chairs the Hexvalley Table Grape Association. The farm owner stated “we are farmers, not whites”, making the point that farm owners are not a race, but people with a particular position or job.
At this time in South Africa, bosses, whites and the wealthy in the farming sector are all called farmers. It is also assumed by much of society that a farmer is not only white, but more specifically an Afrikaans white person.
It is even further confused with the term “Boer”, which is believed by Afriforum to mean farmer, white or Afrikaner.
During the current De Doorns farming sector strike and labour dispute, it is more important than ever that we expose the systemic abuse of this terminology.
We should take into account Afriforum’s race-based understanding of the term “Boer” in their court application to stop the singing of “kill the Boer” when we decide on the correct words we use in society.
In contrast, does the ANC understand the word “Boer” to mean racist, apartheid police or system and/or oppressor?
There are even groups who claim that there is a genocide of whites when referring to the farmers. Again, this seriously, dangerously and possibly deliberately blurs race and culture with the profession, wealth or status of farm owners.
To the worker who farms for a wage, it should be of no relevance what race the boss is; R1 400 a month for full-time work for only eight months every year equates to an income of R933 a month for the year.
This is not what farmworkers are willing to work for regardless of who they work for. It is worth adding my experience thus far is that I have been warmly welcomed and embraced by striking workers regardless of my lack of pigment.
I have experienced, at worst, surprise when I have shown my sympathy for their plight. I have experienced no hostility or racism and never felt unsafe.
Ironically, in contrast, some farm owners and bosses, despite my skin colour, have tried to run me over and threatened to shoot me. This shows that the point of disagreement between the workers and bosses is a wage issue not a race issue. Disappointingly, there has been blind support of farm bosses by some officials, politicians and sectors of society. This perpetuates the perception that some leaders are only representing certain races or classes.
Additionally, it is sad to note that I have not yet met a farmer in De Doorns who has said, yes, we should consider paying higher wages. At best, the more progressive farm owners have indicated their disgust at the ill-treatment of workers on other farms.
Why can’t we embrace a new South Africa and accept that people who farm are farmers, others are farm landlords, bosses, owners, human resource managers, resident farmers, mechanics, businessmen, investors, shareholders, sales men, beneficiaries of land or business inheritance or office workers in the farm sector?
I anticipate resistance from farm owners, some workers, media and parts of society to this call to refer to workers on farms as farmers. Arguments will vary.
It is my view that we need to achieve transformation. I believe equally and maybe even more urgently we need to confront and correct the prejudice at work.
It is time for us to do some introspection, and maybe rethink the terms we use, especially those in the media. Why can’t we see articles headlined “Farmers strike, management refuse to accept workers’ demands?”
Some farm owners are clinging to the racial identity of the term “farmer” while also facing the anger and frustrations of striking workers who have been liberated from political oppression but feel the struggle for a better life is not complete.
These farm owners are sometimes racist and confuse workers, who face labour oppression, by also showing them racism and the racial domination of management. There are also those groups of farm owners that will do anything to claim that South Africa is experiencing land invasions, ethnic cleansing, violence and ungovernability.
If we don’t consider this context and reconsider our use of words, we take unnecessary risks, confuse honest labour issues, and feed a stereotype in which all whites are farmers or Boere. Workers stand to have their genuine demands for a living wage mistakenly seen as a race conflict.
* Braam Hanekom is the director of the refugee NGO People Against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty (Passop).