02 July 2010

Report back on farm workers' lifestyles


This is a research document conducted by the Anthropology department of Albany Museum in farms in and around Port Alfred and Grahamstown areas to find out how farm workers in these areas live their daily lives, working lives and social interactions amongst themselves and their neighbourhood. It aims at finding their personal interests in social activities happening in areas surrounding theirs and also to share their feelings about their experiences. It’s not a critical study but a motivational study that helps us understand the importance of their existence and to remove stereotypes attached to their settlement choices. These farming areas concerned are famous of Pineapple and live stock farming production. But now the challenge is the emergence of game farming which requires less people to work. This trend shifting is definitely causing unemployment bit by bit. We were unfortunate not to discover the cause since our study was about farm workers not farmers themselves.

Again we had a very difficult time in making people to talk freely about their lives and experiences.Maybe due to a matter of trust that our study was genuine and which won’t jeopardise their relations with their employers or complicate matters. We also noticed that most farm dwellers that are still there are old people. The youth is hardly found to be permanently staying except coming back to visit families and friends that are still staying in farms or at times to come for funerals and ritual practices when necessary.


The life stories of farm workers in and around South Africa are almost the same as any other part of Southern Africa. They share common experiences dating back from their fore fathers. Fewer changes happened over centuries in their daily lives, working lives, social lives. The subject refers to the people who still lives in farms currently and who do not see themselves relocating to surrounding villages and locations but permanently spending their lives and die in farms. To them its how life should be, I mean semi pastoralists who own few live stocks gained either from their bosses or hard earned during their working days. People who do not own any piece of land for them or their families.

The interesting part is their living arrangements as well as marriage and their relations within the area. As we were going hearing life stories from each and every farm housestead we discovered that people are happy to be there, they do not see themselves living in town as such. Although some few youngsters went to look for jobs in cities but during holidays they come back home that is in the farms where they belong .A place they call home, where their fore fathers are buried. And where they usually perform their ancestral beliefs and customs.

During our research visit to various farms in the Port Alfred and Grahamstown area we found out that they are semi-related. Each and every farm is occupied either by blood relatives who live and work there at the same they have been there since birth. They will tell you that their parents were working for that particular farmer or perhaps next of kin if he is no more. Then it becomes a recurring decimal that if your parents worked for that farmer you also become the human property of the farmer without knowing. Although there are no formal agreements and arrangements signed or entered into by the said parties. We have discovered that it’s a loyality case that binds the two parties together since the farmer himself he won’t go and look out for employees outside his farm. That’s a South African humanity amongst its citizen, which goes like you help me in return I help as well. In this case farm worker gives out labour and in return earns money for a living. The money which a worker receives helps to feed and educate their families. Yet the farmer gets assisted to produce goods that in turn earns him or her money then later boost our economy.

The cycle chain of good relations amongst these people i.e. farmers and farm workers are indeed remarkable in everyone’s daily lives. Where would we get our food and meat products if there weren’t farm workers as much as farmers who somewhat dedicate their well being to feed the nation through economic farming.

Coming to the farm workers kinship relations, we have discovered that they become related due to customary marriage practices that they perform. You hardly find an outsider to marry in most farms in this area. It is a matter of choice no one forces one to do that but they like it that way. They do not view that as taboo or wrong to be related to each other yet live and share most of their things that they commonly own or supplied to them by the farm owner. If you work there and don’t belong there in terms of kinship survival chances for you are so slim. At times you survive under plots as highlighted by one of the farm worker who hails from Port Elizabeth and works as a driver in one of the farms around Port Alfred. But it becomes a case of being accused of taking their jobs away, a common case in South Africa. In this case it is hard to refer to it as xenophobic issue as such since they are all South African citizens. Most of the time they spend their free times consuming liquor just for fun during weekends and moth ends. Usually they buy drinkables in bulks over fortnights or month ends, when they come to shop more especially those who are far from town. Their bosses transport them to and from town for free which shows a positive interaction between the employer and employee.

Settlement in these farms is similar to that of rural villages since they live in a designated area closer to each other which make their social relations tighter since they share some of available resources together. We have found out that even if they are happy to stay there but they also want to live modern lives. There should be provision of modern infrastructure to fulfil some of their needs like electronic, communication resources, etc like cellular phones, Radio, televisions. But then again that raises another reason why the new generation or youngsters are abandoning farm life for towns.

They do not want to be left behind or one can say they go out in order to access the above mentioned scarce recourses in farms elsewhere. Maybe if these could be evenly distributed there could be a rise in the figures that are currently found in terms of occupation. Another challenging case is the lack of educational facilities; mostly farm schools do not have high schools but only primary schools which are also distant to each other. Then children who want to study further are forced to relocate to nearby towns and locations ,then that leads to a drop in the number of youngsters who would like to come back to farms after finishing school or when they are grown ups and working. That is a result of lack of infrastructure provided. Again looking at that positively it may be difficult for any government or municipality to provide such resources since farms firstly are privately owned and distant to each other.

So the blame now shifts away from our authorities to be accused of failing to deliver as some farm workers were complaining of being ignored or cared for when it’s election time. They claim that they are only known to exist when their votes are needed. Then again another crises that farm workers are facing becomes the emerging of game farming that is reducing employee turnout .That’s the decision of the farm owner to shift trend in farming and reasons beyond that were not exhausted since it was not our study subject for now. Maybe in the near future we will be lucky to find out and record as well. The issue of how did they end up in those farms was not discussed since it was another subject on its own not our interest for now. We were concerned of the current lifestyles and histories positively.


This was fun working on this article since it reflected the inner feelings of the people concerned. They said their story as they felt and in need of being noticed as normal people too, who add value to our lives by their hard work in terms of agricultural production. They live normal lives like any other person and in need of recognition.

Staff of this issue: Pumeza N.Mntonintshi and Nomthunzi API.
May 2010

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