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Farm dwellers’ struggle for basic rights not at an end

After more than 12 years working and living on a farm in Howick on the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, Nonkululeko Mdluli said nothing much has changed in the lives of farm dwellers. She said besides being denied basic services and medical care, human rights violations continue unabated.

For many years, Mdluli and other farm labour tenants under the uMgungundlovu district municipality had to contend with competing for water with livestock. They had little hope that their plight might ever change. The farm dwellers and their young children were also subjected to unsafe and inhumane health conditions. They endured a life of squalor, being forced to use the nearby bushes and sugarcane fields to relieve themselves. The veld also served as their ablution facilities where they bathed in full view of the public.

Local municipalities uMshwathi and Msunduzi as well as uMgungundlovu district municipality vehemently refused to provide relief to the farm dwellers, claiming that the workers were on private land and as such they cannot be allocated the much-needed resources. About 200 households were affected by the refusal of the local government to provide them with water, basic sanitation and refuse collection services.

However on 29 July the Pietermaritzburg High Court made a landmark ruling compelling the three municipalities to provide residents living on the farms with all services, including allocating space for them in the municipal integrated development plans (IDP’’s). Handing down his judgment, Judge Jerome Mguni [note: please double check spelling as it is normally Mnguni] said the stance by these municipalities was inconsistent with the constitution. He subsequently gave the municipalities six months to present their plan of action to court detailing how theywere going to address their shortcomings.

The matter stems from a 2017 class action where an organisation advocating for farm labourers’ rights, the Association for Rural Advancement (AFRA) together with the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) took the municipalities to task for failing to prioritise the constitutional rights of farm occupiers and labour tenants within their jurisdiction with services.

The organisations sought structural relief to force these municipalities to provide the residents with basic services such as water, sanitation and the collection of refuse.

Speaking to Mukurukuru Media, Mdluli said while the high court judgment was a step in the right direction in addressing the plight of farm workers, more effort was needed to completely liberate and improve the lives of people working and living on farms.

“This latest development gives us hope that communities working and living on farms have the same rights as other citizens. We have also seen progress such that we no longer endure long distances to fetch water because they’ve installed water tankers and temporary toilets for us,” said Mdluli.

She said prior to this they walked kilometres to fetch water with babies on their backs and 25-litres containers on their bare heads. This is after they had endured long hours in the scorching sun, working in the fields.

“As farm workers, we live in horrendous conditions without proper housing and electricity. Our children do not have access to education because they have to travel unsafe and long distances to access schooling. So we are just raising our children to be farm workers as well. This is no way to raise a child,” lamented Mdluli.

Mdluli, with a standard four education, said she became a farm labourer at the age of 16 after her parents, who were also farm workers, died. “I had to fend for myself; I had no choice because I quit school at a tender age to live with my parents at the farm.”

While uMshwathi municipality and uMgungundlovu district municipality bowed to legal pressure by complying with the court order, Msunduzi on the other hand is challenging the outcome.

AFRA spokesperson Nokuthula Mthimunye confirmed to Mukurukuru Media that Msunduzi municipality intends opposing the ruling by the court.

“We noted with regret and disappointment that the Msunduzi municipality has lodged an application to appeal the judgment. We are however, encouraged by other municipalities who have accepted their constitutional duty to provide basic services to all people residing in their jurisdiction. We are not deterred by this and we will be making an application to ensure that the high court judgment is implemented pending the appeal,” Mthimunye told Mukurukuru Media.

She added: “We are committed to working together with all municipalities including Msunduzi to ensure the efficient planning and delivery of basic services to people living on farms.”

Besides the three municipalities, other respondents in the case included the ministers of corporate governance and traditional affairs and water and sanitation as well as the KZN Cogta MEC.

Mthimunye described the ruling as a precedent-setting judgment for farm dwellers and labour tenants across the country, saying those residing on farms can use the same judgment to claim for their constitutional rights.

“It is about implementation of legislation and where there are gaps, reviewing and putting in place relevant legislation that addresses the constitutional rights of people living on farms,” she stressed. – Mukurukuru Media

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