September 13, 2007

Commission probes rights violations on farms / Minister warns farmers / Rural civilian protection reorganised

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) is currently carrying out an inquiry into human rights violations in the country's farming communities. The three-day public hearings, taking place at the SAHRC in Johannesburg, is a follow-up inquiry into the progress made since the 2003 investigation into forced evictions, violence and assaults carried out against farm workers and farm dwellers.
According to the SAHRC, the intention of the inquiry was not to provide an exhaustive account of the condition on farms, but rather to understand and interrogate why continuity and change from the past exist side by side in the agricultural sector and what the necessary policy prescription should be. The SAHRC has indicated it will be focussing on land tenure security, labour relations and safety on farms in its investigation within the context of the unique relationship that exists on farms. The SAHRC established that since the initial enquiry in 2003, "not much has been achieved in respect of critically interrogating legislation such as ESTA and, as a result, the spate of illegal evictions continues unabated. In the context of constitutional land reform, tenure security is still the most neglected component in the land reform agenda and often what has been absent in discussions is critical reflection of the most appropriate forms of land tenure to promote stable and long term access to land."
Deputy Agriculture and Land Affairs Minister Dirk du Toit has in the meantime warned farmers who evicted tenant workers illegally that their land would be expropriated, raising the temperature of an already heated situation. There are few reliable figures on the extent of evictions. One 2005 survey estimated that between 1994 and 2004, nearly one million people were evicted from their homes on farms — which are often part of their employment package — compared to about 700.000 the previous decade. Some 2.9 million people worked on farms and 950.000 lived on them, it estimated. The Confederation of South African Trade Unions blames many of the evictions on the trend toward turning farms into luxurious golf estates, safari lodges and tourist accommodation in preparation for the 2010 World Cup.
Annelize Crosby of the main commercial farmers union AgriSA said that it was wrong to use land confiscation as a threat. Farmers are already jittery that the government wants to accelerate land seizures to meet its target of disadvantaged black and mixed race communities owning 30 percent of agricultural land by 2014. At the moment an estimated 80 percent of South Africa's land remains in the hands of the affluent white minority.
The South African government has repeatedly stressed it would not resort to Zimbabwe-style land grabs from whites. Instead, it has adopted a willing seller, willing buyer approach to land reform, but the government accuses some white farmers of asking too much and dragging out sales.
Furthermore, controversy over rural security has deepened with a government decision to phase out a paramilitary force that was part of the apartheid state's security apparatus. The announcement in February by President Thabo Mbeki that commando units were to be disbanded has since then elicited sharply divergent views. White farmers claim commandos were an integral part of rural security, while black officials and policemen claim that they have persisted in perpetrating rights abuses. "The first ones to go will be the ones where there've been allegations [of rights abuses], the problematic areas," a defence ministry spokesman, Sam Mkhwanazi, said.
The allegations of rights abuses have played a significant role in the government's decision to phase out the part-time force. Responding to calls for the commando units to be retained, Minister of Defence Mosioua Lekota was quoted as saying: "A structure like that, which is not under proper training, proper regulation and doesn't even have arresting powers - they are just citizens armed with weapons - that [think] they can do anything they choose to do, cannot be allowed in a constitutional order."
Organised agriculture, however, does not share the view that commandos are a threat to South Africa's constitutional order and human rights. "We need commandos, and we see them as one of the backbones of the rural protection plan, without a doubt," AgriSA Kiewiet Ferreira, a farmer in the central Free State Province town of Harrismith, claims. However, he admitted that the commandos were not reflective of South Africa's demographic mix. "The minister was saying commandos are too white. At this very moment, 42 percent of all commandos are African, coloured or Asian groups," Ferreira said. "Yes, for sure, on the officer side, it is mostly white, just over 90 percent. But that's also due to a lack of funding: in the last nine years, they have cut funds and human resources for commandos, so there's not a lot of money to train officers," he said.
For many South Africans, the commandos remain a tangible reminder of the apartheid-era military machine. According to the government's information system, the phasing out of commando units was part of an overall transformation of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). (Bua News, Thswane / rts)

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