Prior to 2020, there was an increase in farm evictions across the Western Cape. During the Covid pandemic of 2020, the government announced a moratorium on evictions. But this moratorium did not prevent unlawful evictions. Farmworkers are very often intimidated into leaving farms with nothing more than a wooden structure (wendy house) and a R 5 000 while others leave with nothing. Many farm workers are displaced and dumped in informal settlements where there is often no sanitation and water facilities, and then pay rent of R 500 or more to stay in the backyards of others.
The Rural Legal Centre is currently dealing with 23 eviction cases with the help of Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI). These are cases related to farm workers who have worked on the farms often for more than 20 years and are meant to be long-term occupiers who are protected by Extension of Security of Tenure Act (ESTA).
The story of Uncle Boy Latha is one such an example. Uncle Boy worked for 44 years with the Malherbes on the Groot Rivier farm. He was the manager of the farm and did his work with passion. He is a humble person who cares a lot and reaches out to his fellow human beings. Aunt Lena, Uncle Boy’s wife, worked as a domestic worker on the farm. Their children were born on that farm and have a long history with the farm. Uncle Boy says that when he first came to the farm in 1978 it was a milk and cattle farm called Soutpansdorings. Over the years he helped to develop it into vineyard farm. Other farm workers on the farm say Uncle Boy is a mentor to them and they could always come to him for advice.
In March 2021, Mr Malherbe died and his wife sold both farms that they got for a few million. Uncle Boy and Aunt Lena received their severance package for their years of service. The problems started when the new owners of the farm did not want Uncle Boy’s services and did not want him to remain as an employee, because they wanted to give the house in which Uncle Boy lives to the new manager to live in. During that period, Uncle Boy had several eviction orders from the new owners to vacate the house which Uncle Boy lived in. Furthermore, there was an agreement between the Malherbes that they would put money aside to buy Uncle Boy a house when he retired. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that this agreement would not be honoured and negotiations was very difficult, since the agreement was never put in writing. “I gave them 44 years of my life, and today I am nothing to them” he said. Csaawu and the Rural Legal Center with the help of SERI fought very hard to make sure that an agreement was reached which was worthy of all Uncle Boy’s years of service.
At first, Uncle Boy was told to look for a house that he liked. But his suggestions were all rejected and he was told that the costs of the houses he was suggesting were too high. Instead, he was offered a mere R200 000, which was eventually increased to R400 000, to buy a house. Uncle Boy rejected both these offers on the basis that he wanted the same standard as the house he had lived in for the last 44 years, which is not an unreasonable demand. Uncle Boy wanted a house that was spacious enough to accommodate his family with dignity and with enough space for all his furniture he had acquired for their family after years of very hard work. “I’d rather stay on the farm as a long-term occupant than be dumped in a small house where I won’t have the enough space for my grandchildren and other family” he explains. The negotiations left the Uncle Boy and his family frustrated and drained.
Eventually an agreement was reached for R725 000, which enabled Uncle Boy to buy a house that suited his family’s needs and which he could pass on as his legacy to his children and grandchildren. The purchase of the house is in process and contracts have been signed.
“This is a victory for all farm workers facing evictions, but it is also bittersweet as many farm worker families are not as fortunate as Uncle Boy to have progressive organizations such as CSAAWU, the Rural Legal Center and SERI protecting their rights ” says Denia Jansen from the Rural Legal Centre.
Finally, on August 25, 2022, Uncle Boy and the rest of his family moved into their new home.
Uncle Boy laughs with joy as his household goods are loaded onto the lorry, “after all these years it’s time to shake the dust off my feet and own my own house!”
The victory is sweet, but the battle continues!