Farmworkers bear the brunt of a brutal evictions legacy

Farmworkers are trying hard to retain the roofs over their heads as they face more evictions.

Sophie Julies (65) and her daughter, Chiahida Malgas. She lost two sons after they were no longer allowed to live with her on the farm where she worked. Picture: Lauren Isaacs/Eyewitness News

CAPE TOWN - November marks a year since the farm house of Sophia Julies' was reduced to rubble by a few strikes from a bulldozer. While sending the walls crashing to the ground, the machine took with it years of warm and happy memories of comfort, safety and refuge.

Twelve months may have passed for her and her family since the incident, but the feelings of fear and trauma caused by being violently forced out of their home still cut deep and the memories are as painful as when it transpired that day.

Sixty-five year-old Sophia Julies and her daughter, Chiahida Malgas, both sobbed throughout an interview with Eyewitness News as they told of their hardships on a Western Cape farm.

Julies first set foot on the farm in 1979 and worked until poor health no longer allowed her to in 2001.

She was one of the first people to live there while working in the farmer's house. At that point, the farm was not yet operational. Julies says she advised the man to start planting fruit and to later build his own fruit storage facility and he took her advice.

Julies became the manager, while her husband managed another part of the business:

"As the business grew, so did the staff compliment and the farmer erected shacks for them along the river... But then I told him 'no, those are not dogs'... Because during winter, the river would overflow and run into people's homes and there were women who were expecting and that was unhealthy... so I told him to build proper houses for the workers and again, he listened," says Julies.

Julies was happy until 2001 when a second owner bought the farm and said her children who were over the age of 18 could no longer live with her.

Sophie Julies (65) outside the space she now lives in after being evicted from her home on a Western Cape farm. Picture: Lauren Isaacs/Eyewitness News

Sophie Julies (65) outside the space she now lives in after being evicted from her home on a Western Cape farm. Picture: Lauren Isaacs/Eyewitness News

"That's how my two sons found their death within a space of two years after they were sent off the farm. My one son died in 2001, my other in 2003, and my husband also died in a car accident in 2011. And now they are saying my grandson must go [and work on the farm] but I said I can't lose all my children like this... they must leave and their mothers are sleeping here... how do we sleep at night and our children are sleeping outside along the road?"

Julies says her situation worsened in 2017 when the third and current farmer took ownership and she was told she needed to look for a new place to live. If she found it, the farmer would buy it for her.

But then COVID-19 happened and complicated Julies' plans to find alternative accommodation.

According to Julies, a month before she and her family members were put out of the only home they knew, she received a letter informing her a court had approved her eviction. But Julies was unaware of a court date and that she had to be present.

Chiahida Malgas says she was at work on 15 November last year when she received frantic calls, advising her that her children were hysterical at home because they had a gun pointed at them.

"I rushed home and the sheriff of the court and the police were standing there. My son, who was 11 at the time -- was sleeping. One of the farm's security guards went to wake my son up at gunpoint. He woke him up and said 'come, come, pack your things'... and threw black bags at him."

The single room all members of the family use in their new space after being evicted from a Western Cape farm. Picture: Lauren Isaacs/Eyewitness News

The single room all members of the family use in their new space after being evicted from a Western Cape farm. Picture: Lauren Isaacs/Eyewitness News

Malgas cries bitterly as she describes her children's experiences.

"My husband asked why they were gun-pointing my child because he was no threat to them. The sheriff of the court kicked the door open and they forced their way in and they started packing our stuff themselves. Everything they packed in, they broke... nothing that we have here stored in a container is in the state that it was. Furniture, cupboards, our tumble drier and stove are all damaged because it had to stand outside in the rain."

Malgas and Julies both opened criminal complaints of malicious damage to property and for the incident involving her son being held at gun point but says she was informed by members of the Groot Drakenstein Police Station earlier this year -- that both cases had been thrown out.

Julies and her family were forced out of their home; which had three bedrooms, a large living area, a kitchen and a porch. Now six people are crammed into a single room of about six metres where they have to sleep, wash, prepare food and eat.

Julies weeps as she points to her stove in what is supposed to be used as a shower.

Sophie Julies shower that also doubles as a kitchen. She says she struggles with cockroaches who bite her because of how the space she lives in is. Picture: Lauren Isaacs/Eyewitness News

Sophie Julies shower that also doubles as a kitchen. She says she struggles with cockroaches who bite her because of how the space she lives in is. Picture: Lauren Isaacs/Eyewitness News

"I have to make my food in the shower on the stove and I have to put the plates on the bed and dish up my food here. A person can't even sleep at night because the cockroaches are attracted by the smell of the food. You squirm, they bite... It's very hard for me and I'm more sickly... I had a minor heart attack when they moved me to this place. I have a heart problem, I have diabetes, I have high blood pressure, I have kidney problems and I'm very stressed, according to my doctor."

Julies says she has one wish.

"My desire is that I just want to get out of here because this farm has hurt me… I can't live the rest of my life being unhappy. I pray a lot and I know the God we pray to will get me out of here… then I will start a new life. I worked hard here. There were three years, I worked day and night for the first owners. During the day, I worked in the kitchen and at night I worked in the storage facility and one Saturday morning, I collapsed in the kitchen while drying a glass. When the farmer came home, he saw me laying in blood on the floor and the doctor said my body is giving in because I'm working too hard."

Julies has been thrown a lifeline by national government and her heart's desire may just be granted.

Earlier this year, a delegation of the joint committee of the Portfolio Committee on Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development and the Portfolio Committee on Employment and Labour conducted oversight visits at farms across the country. Public hearings were also held where farm workers and dwellers highlighted the poor conditions under which they live.

Julies was among the people Members of Parliament (MPs) interacted with and after hearing her story, they said she should never have been exposed to this treatment.

They further instructed Julies to continue her search for a new home - a process that is being undertaken by national government.

Julies explains she was meant to be a long term occupier, protected under the Extension of Security of Tenure Act or Esta. Under the general provisions of Esta, an individual has the right to receive visitors, to have family members live with them and to have access to water, health and education services.

Long-term occupiers are awarded special rights. The Ubuntu Rural Women and Youth Movement says if a person is 60 and older and he or she has lived on the land for 10 years, or if the person becomes disabled or ill while in employment, that person can stay on the land for the rest of his or her life. The organisation says long term occupiers may not normally be evicted unless they commit a violation of their obligations.

Albeit unsuitable, cramped, and uncomfortable, and although she is unhappy, Julies has a roof over her head while scores of farm workers end up being dumped along the road outside of their farm along with all their belongings.

This past Friday, MPs who conducted the oversight visits gathered virtually for the consideration and adoption of the draft report on living and working conditions of farm workers, farm dwellers, labour tenants and farmers.

Officials presented a number of findings and recommendations.

It includes a recommendation to Agriculture Minister Thoko Didiza to consider amendments to certain sections of ESTA... And these amendments, among others, should safeguard the risk of homelessness when immediate eviction is granted -- and should provide for the protection of spouses and children of long-term occupiers.

The committee has, among a list of recommendations to Police Minister Bheki Cele, suggested police stations - especially those that serve rural and farming communities - must be trained on ESTA and land tenure rights.

It's also recommended a review of the regulatory framework for private security companies on farms to ensure their operations are strictly monitored so that they don't become a law unto themselves, terrorising citizens in public spaces and in their homes.

MPs say the Employment and Labour Ministry should consider developing mechanisms to regulate the number of farm workers that may share a room or hostel on a farm in order to ensure that an acceptable number of farm workers can live in a safe and comfortable place with human dignity and privacy.

The Ubuntu Rural Women and Youth Movement’s Wendy Pekeur says there’s no doubt illegal farm evictions are on the rise.

“Evictions have actually become worse. And you’d think 25 years after the constitution it won’t happen anymore. But you still see people’s water being cut, electricity being cut, forcing people to leave the land… and we still see illegal evictions that don’t go through the court procedures. Evictions are carried out in the most inhumane way. We’ve seen people’s belongings are destroyed as if it’s worthless stuff. Already the eviction is traumatising and then they evict people in the way that they do, violating many constitutional rights.”

Meanwhile, the Women on Farms Project led a march to Parliament about two weeks ago where a memorandum addressed to Didiza was handed over.

A ban on hazardous pesticides on farms and a moratorium on farm worker evictions were among their demands.

The organisation’s Carmen Louw agrees that illegal farm evictions are becoming increasingly prevalent and that it is commonly characterised by violence.

"When there's a court ordered eviction, the sheriff often asks police to accompany them, as well as the farm's private security, who does not have jurisdiction in dealing with evictions. We have previous and current footage of evictions where there is this increase in violence, even where people have rights... Widows, as long term occupiers are violently evicted from farms. In fact since 2012, we have seen an increase... most farms have these private securities that harass people and violently threaten them. So it's a common scene on farms," says Louw.

When Eyewitness News requested Agri Western Cape weigh in on the issue of farm evictions, its chief executive officer Jannie Strydom had this to say: “The majority of producers in the Western Cape are subject to a series of strict audits. This includes an audit by the department of labour, the Sustainability Initiative of South Africa NPC and the Wine and Agricultural Ethical Trade Association (“WITA”), as well as the Global GAP - an internationally recognised certified standard that ensures good agricultural practices. Agri Western Cape is in regular communication with both of these entities to assist where necessary and possible. We also urge our members to act within the confines of legislative frameworks, and will continue doing so.”