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The Indentured Life of Blacks in Rural South Africa

May 31, 1987|Steven Mufson | Steven Mufson, Business Week correspondent in South Africa, was expelled from that country last week

THE GREAT KARROO, SOUTH AFRICA — Ride beneath the big sky, pass parched scrub bushes and a certain dirt road curves close to a small hill. Nestled in the shade of the hill lies John Biggs' 12,000-acre farm with palm trees, grapes, corn and 4,000 sheep.

Over Easter weekend, the senior black farmhand on Biggs' farm drove around the workers' quarters, taking nips of homemade brew and hobnobbing with his fellow workers. Then he weaved through the trees in the farmer's car, parked it precisely near the farmer's house and passed out 100 feet away.

Biggs fancies himself enlightened, so he didn't fire the worker. Instead he enlisted the services of an itinerant black evangelist, Zachariah Timothy, master of six African languages and healer of souls. "These people have been living an ungodly life. They are blinded by evil things, drinking and staying together in an unmarried life," Timothy said, sitting in his ironed white shirt and tie, sipping tea under the vines on Biggs' patio. So in exchange for room and board and a healthy fee, he is trying "through the Holy Spirit, to set the workers free from being so much in the world."

But the farmhands here say their problem isn't spiritual, but physical. "We believe that drinking won't be a problem when we have better living conditions and wages," said Klaas Grobler, the farm's "boss boy," or senior black farmhand. According to Grobler, his problem wasn't loose living. "We should have had Easter weekend off, but we didn't. So we decided on our own not to work."

More than a dozen farm workers interviewed on the farm displayed deep hostility towards Biggs and the itinerant evangelist, whom Biggs is paying the same as half a dozen of the farm laborers put together. Biggs treats the 20 families on his farm better than most South African farmers treat their employees, but each laborer still earns just 85 cents to $3 a day. Those that operate equipment are fined when the equipment breaks down. While Biggs has a swimming pool and tennis court next to his sprawling 18th Century house shaded by poplars and pines, the laborers live without electricity and share communal water taps. Some workers live in small, three-room houses; others cram families into single rooms in hostels down the road where vines of dark grapes stand row on row. To relieve the boredom and emptiness of their lives, the workers concoct a homemade brew made of King Korn home brew sorghum malt, pineapple, yeast, bread and water; for $2.50 they make enough to keep the whole work force in an inebriated haze for a weekend.

This farm isn't unusual. Indeed, by the standards of South African farmers, Biggs is enlightened. In other areas, farm workers complain of being beaten. One laborer who worked for no remuneration other than the right to grow a little corn and graze five cattle, went to seek work elsewhere. He was shot and killed by a farmer for crossing the farmer's property.

Some farmers pay as little as 10 cents a day. Often the laborers pay their meager salaries back to the farmers to supplement food rations. A rural-action group in Johannesburg says that in handling disability cases, it has never been able to convince the government compensation board that any farm worker has a total income of more than $25 a month, including wages, housing and food.

While labor unions have improved conditions for many black South African industrial workers, the 1.3 million black farm workers are trapped in what amounts to indentured servitude. The political influence of South Africa's white farmers resulted in the exclusion of farm workers from the Basic Conditions of Employment Act. That means farm workers get no leaves of absence and no sick leave. They can be forced to work an unlimited number of hours without overtime pay and can be summarily dismissed without cause. One woman who was a cook on Biggs' farm says she was fired for arriving late one day--after the 5:30 a.m. starting time. She had worked there for 19 years and was earning $30 a month.

If farm workers fall sick, they must transport themselves into town. While Mrs. Biggs' white Mercedes stands parked near the house, laborers pay $10 or $20 for a taxi to town or walk 15 or 20 miles to a doctor. Once a month, Biggs drives the workers into town. They stay about three hours, then he drives them back.

The case of the boss boy illustrates how a worker is bound. He earns enough to keep alive but not enough to be free of his employer. Grobler, the best-paid worker on Biggs' farm, says he earns $18.75 a week. The farmer says he gives each worker 7 1/2 pounds of meat a week, but workers say that they must buy other food from him at prices he fixes. Grobler says supplementing his family's diet costs another $12.50 a week.

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