How important is terminology? When we choose to call some people who work the land “farmers,” while labeling others as “farmworkers,” what power are we according them?
In Ripe with Abuse, I carefully distinguished between “farmers” and “farmworkers,” using the former to refer to someone who owned the land, and the latter to refer to hired laborers. This was partly to conform to standard practices, and partly because I needed a clear distinction between the two groups. But in doing so, did I unwittingly support traditional power disparities?
Braam Hanekom, Director of PASSOP, a South African refugee/immigrants’ rights group, might argue that I did. He’s spent years working with workers in De Doorns, South Africa, and has been closely involved in recent negotiations arising from farmworker strikes in the region. Below, he shares his opinion piece on how we refer to those who farm the land. While the issue is particularly complex in the South African context, I believe he raises questions that are universally applicable.
“It has been far too long that we have referred to the employers and management on farms as farmers while the people who work the soil are mere workers. We are perpetuating an inaccurate assumption that farmers own farms and workers mindlessly work. This terminology, which is used in South Africa, is very problematic. My layman’s understanding of the definition of the word farmer is “a person who works or toils the soil to grow plants or raise livestock of some sort.” Imagine if the term miner meant an owner, investor, manager, shareholder, boss, a person who inherited a mine, or maybe a person with a university degree or diploma that qualifies him to manage operations on mines. We would be surprised by who [stood] up and [said] ‘I am a miner.’ What does a miner look like and what does he do? The same logic applies to the use of words like driver, singer, runner, player, writer, lawyer, preacher, and trader. So why, then, does ordinary logic not apply when using the term farmer?
There is an obvious lack of transformation in the ownership and senior management in this sector, but equally concerning is how, as a society, we are part of this apartheid mindset. I have applied much thought to this issue following PASSOP’s monitoring of the well-known strike in De Doorns, in a small town in the Hex Valley (Western Cape), and most notably in a meeting last week, on Monday, between striking workers and the Hexvalley Table Grape Association, an association of farm owners and management in the area. During the meeting, an angry and disgruntled worker referred to farm owners as “whites,” but he was immediately interrupted by a farm owner who chairs the Hexvalley Table Grape Association. The farm owner stated, “we are farmers, not whites,” making the point that farm owners are not a race, but people with a particular position or job.
At this time in South Africa, bosses, whites, and the wealthy in the farming sector are all called farmers. It is also assumed by much of society that a farmer is a not only white, but more specifically an Afrikaans white person. It is even further confused with the term “Boer,” which is believed by Afriforum to mean farmer, white, or Afrikaner.
During this De Doorns farming-sector strike and labour dispute, it is more important than ever that we expose the systemic abuse of this terminology. We should take into account Afriforum’s race-based understanding of the term “Boer” in their court application to stop the singing of “kill the Boer” when we decide on the correct words we use in society. In contrast is the ANC understanding of the word “Boer,” meaning racist, apartheid police or system, and/or oppressor. There are even groups who claim that there is a genocide of whites when referring to the farmers. Again, this [claim] seriously, dangerously, and possibly deliberately blurs race and culture with the profession, wealth, or status of farm owners.
To the worker who farms for a wage, it should be of no relevance what race the boss is; R1400 rand a month for full-time work [for] only 8 months every year equates to an income of R933 rand a month for the year. This is not what farm workers are willing to work for regardless of who they work for. It is worth adding that, thus far in my experience, I have been warmly welcomed and embraced by striking workers regardless of my lack of pigment. I have experienced, at worst, surprise when I have shown my support of their plight. I have experienced no hostility [or] racism, and [have] never felt unsafe. Ironically, in contrast, farm owners and bosses, despite my skin colour, have tried to run me over and [have] threatened to shoot me. This shows that the point of disagreement between the workers and bosses is a wage issue, not a race issue.
Disappointingly, there has been blind support of farm bosses by some officials, politicians, and sectors of society. This perpetuates the perception that some leaders are only representing certain races or classes. Additionally, it is sad to note that I have not yet met a farmer in De Doorns who has said, yes, we should consider paying higher wages. At best, the more progressive farm owners have indicated their disgust at the ill-treatment of workers on other farms.
Why can’t we embrace a new South Africa and accept that people who farm are farmers, [while] others are farm landlords, bosses, owners, human resource managers, resident farmers, mechanics, businessmen, investors, shareholders, sales men, beneficiaries of land or business inheritance, and/or office workers in the farm sector?
I anticipate resistance from farm owners, some workers, media, and parts of society against this call to refer to workers on farms as farmers. Arguments will vary. It is my view that we need to achieve transformation. I believe equally and maybe even more urgently [that] we need to confront and correct this prejudice[d] mindset. It is time for us to do some introspection, and maybe rethink the terms we use, especially those in the media; why can’t we see articles entitled ‘farmers strike, management refuse to accept workers demands’?
Some farm owners are clinging onto the racial identity of the term “farmer” while also facing the serious anger and frustrations of striking workers who have been liberated from political oppression but [who] feel the struggle for a better life is not complete. These farm owners are sometimes racist and confuse workers, who face labour oppression, by also showing them racism and the racial domination of management. There are also those groups of farm owners that will do anything to claim that South Africa is experiencing land invasions, ethnic cleansing, violence, and ungovernability.
If we don’t consider this context and reconsider our use of words, we take unnecessary risks, confuse honest labour issues, and feed a stereotype in which all whites are farmers or Boers. Workers stand to have their genuine demands for a living wage mistakenly seen as a race conflict.”