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  • Going for Broke: the fate of farm workers in arid South Africa
  • Marja Spierenburg (bio)
Doreen Atkinson (2007) Going for Broke: the fate of farm workers in arid South Africa. Cape Town: Human Sciences Research Council.

Doreen Atkinson's book on the fate of farm workers and dwellers in South Africa is a highly relevant and very welcome publication. Among the poor, marginalised groups in South Africa, this one has received the least attention from policy-makers so far, and it is precisely to the latter that Atkinson addresses her work. One can only hope that the public debate on the plight of farm workers and dwellers that briefly erupted in South Africa following the murder of Eugene Terreblanche will trigger a more enduring interest in the issue among policy-makers at different levels of government.

Doreen Atkinson starts her book with a detailed historical overview of the changing position of farm workers and dwellers in the South African rural economy, introducing also briefly the concurrent academic debates. She shows how the availability of labour - for farming and other sectors of the South African economy - was a problem for the colonial government as well as during the early stages of apartheid. Through land alienations and increasingly strict controls on the movements of black and coloured people successive governments sought to solve the labour shortage. Farmers' attempts to secure labour while keeping labour costs low, however, resulted in the emergence of a group of 'squatters' and labour/rent paying tenants, who, though stripped of ownership, still had access to land for production. Even when tenancy was outlawed under apartheid, many farmers and landowners continued the system. This situation also laid the basis for the allocation of areas for cultivation and grazing to farm workers, which in turn, according to Atkinson, influences present debates on land reforms in South Africa. Paradoxically, at the time when the creation of a class of near landless, [End Page 156] super-exploitable labourers finally was completed - in the late 1960s, early 1970s - government subsidies for white farmers to modernise and mechanise their farms resulted in labour becoming increasingly obsolete. After 1994, this situation was exacerbated, when under the new democratic dispensation the South African rural economy was increasingly deregulated. Facing stiff international competition, many farmers went bankrupt, resulting in a further decline of employment opportunities for farm workers.

It is against this historical background and present-day context that Atkinson provides a detailed analysis of the current position of farm workers and dwellers in the arid southern part of the Free State and the Karoo, focusing on their livelihood strategies, public policy concerning farm workers and dwellers and possible policy options.

One of Atkinson's main arguments is that the timing of measures to improve tenure security such as the Extension of Security of Tenure Act (ESTA), and the extension of labour legislation to the farming sector to improve wages and working conditions, was wrong, as they occurred in what she refers to as a policy vacuum (2007:125). The restructuring of local government, the re-demarcation of districts originally meant to integrate the rural and the urban, led, according to Atkinson, to an urban bias (2007: 160-2). Urban problems, augmented by the influx of migrants from the rural areas - including farm workers who lost their jobs - receive most attention and resources. Responsibilities concerning service delivery in commercial farming areas are unclear: who should provide what on what is mainly private property? As a result, service delivery on farms has deteriorated, especially after the dissolution of the Transitional Local Councils responsible for commercial farming areas in 2000. The extension of labour legislation to the farming areas, including stipulations concerning minimum wages, resulted in many farmers discontinuing, or asking payments for services provided to their resident workers such as housing, water, and grazing. The threats of land claims by farm workers and dwellers led many farmers to seek their removal from their farms - ironically, often through ESTA which allows for legal evictions of those who cannot prove longstanding ties to the farms, as has also been documented by NGOs such as AFRA and ECARP. Casualisation of labour on the farms is a related trend...


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pp. 156-160
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