Last week Wednesday, 25 June 2014, during the discussion of the Portfolio Committee on Rural Development and Land Reform’s committee programme, a robust debate was held between ANC MPs and opposition MPs about whether or not farm worker evictions should be put on the agenda as a matter of urgency. While the DA, EFF and UDM banded together in their agreement that the matter had to be addressed, the ANC stood firm that the focus of the programme had to be on the budget vote because all budgets have to be passed by Parliament by 31 July.
The issue of farm worker evictions has become urgent since the final policy proposals on land reform were released in February 2014 in the policy paper titled “Strengthening the Relative Rights of People Working the Land”. The Department of Rural Development and Land Reform (DRDLR) envisions giving farm workers ownership of half the land they are employed on, depending on how long they have worked on that particular farm and the contribution they made to developing the land. According to the policy paper, the government would pay for half the land to be shared by the labourers. Minister Nkwinti says the land reform policy emanates from the ANC’s 2012 Mangaung policy conference.
The proposed policy has left farm workers feeling vulnerable and scared that they will be "let go" by farm owners who oppose the policy.
In last week’s Rural Development and Land Reform Committee meeting, the DA’s Thomas Walters pointed out that with all media attention it was getting, the proposed policy was becoming a matter of contention that the Committee had to include in the programme.
He said, “After the elections, it has been very much present in the minds of people and I would like to propose that on the draft programme, we can probably fit it in … we could ask for a [department] presentation and possibly a debate.”
Acknowledging the deadline for comment on the policy, which is April 2015, the EFF’s Andile Mngxitama, seconded Walters’ request, saying, “If we don’t do that, [by] April next year, there will be no farm workers on South African farms. It is an urgent matter that we need to deal with… we might need to talk to the Minister about halting the [eviction] process or having some measures to protect our people on the farms. After that announcement, our people are totally vulnerable and without any protection. As this committee and leaders of our people, we can’t allow this.”
The UDM’s Mncedisi Filtane compared the situation to that of Marikana, saying that there had been a lot of talk from the media that government had acted very slowly, and the tragedy that followed was public knowledge. He warned that ignoring the plight of vulnerable farm workers would not bode well for the country.
The DA, EFF and UDM’s pleas for a presentation on the matter were met with opposition from the ANC who said that the focus of the programme presently should be on the budget vote.
“I understand ... the issues that are raised by Members, we must remember that there are processes that have to take place. When there is an issue within the Department, that process must follow proper protocol before it is attended to by the Committee… if you have any other issue for now, can you just park it? Or inform [the Committee Secretary], in writing, the issues that you think we must engage the Department on,” said Chairperson of the Committee, Phumuzile Ngwenya-Mabila”.
Ngwenya-Mabila informed Members that the Committee Programme was binding until 31 July, and the matter of vulnerable farm workers could only be discussed after that.
This was no comfort to opposition MPs, who argued that the mere fact that there was a debate or discussion happening without some type of clarity or foundational debate from Parliament created insecurity with farm workers and in property markets.
“Our job is to protect our people and this, in my view, is an emergency case. We must find time… Already we have lost over a million farm workers,” said Mngxitama.
Tensions were further heightened when ANC Member, Pumzile Mnguni said that the matter should be put to a vote. Mnguni was responding to Walters’ proposal that the matter might have to be voted on.
Opposition MPs lashed out at the ruling party saying that they did not know if a threat of a vote would be a useful manner of engagement.
“I don’t think it’s fair for [Mr Mnguni] to threaten us with a vote so early. We know that the figures are tilted against us as opposition. But we think this is an element of undermining. We may be in the minority, but it is early days and already we are being threatened,” said Filtane.
Responding to opposition MPs, Chairperson Ngwenya-Mabila stated that highlights of the policy would be brought forward at the 2 July Department budget vote meeting with the Minister, where MPs had a right to engage the Minister on the matter and if persons are left unsatisfied, this matter would be continued after the budget vote. Most Members agreed, with the exception of the DA MPs who requested that their disagreement with the committee programme be put on record.
Details of the Committee’s meeting with the Minister to follow shortly.
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