Done ‘debating’ whether “Larney Jou Poes” is free speech? Let’s talk about the conditions of farmworkers

It seems that no music video in the history of South African music, has attracted as much controversy as the Cape Town hip hop collective Dookoom’s “Larney Jou Poes,” which loosely translates into English as “Boss, you’re a cunt”.* In the two weeks since its release, it has attracted over 50,000 views and inspired innumerable op-eds, mainly in response to the accusation made by the opportunistic far right-wing Afrikaner lobby group Afriforum, that the video was racist hate speech. The video shows Dookom frontman and OG Cape Flats rapper Isaac Mutant leading a group of angry farmworkers on a tractor, and culminates in the word “Dookoom” being burnt into the hill of a farm.

A video showing farmworkers clutching guns, farming implements and the burning of the band’s name into a hill seems rather tame in the world of hip hop. NWA made Fuck the Police in 1988, and the ante has only been upped since then in terms of violence, graphic sex and drugs.

There are innumerable hip hop tracks that contain threats of violence, boasts about cocaine sales and references to real world violence, all of which are free to see in South Africa, and that Afriforum, who most likely didn’t know what hip hop was until they saw the video, didn’t call to ban. Why, then, is there such an overreaction to Dookoom’s video?

The answer of course originates, like so many other things, in South Africa’s history of race relations. Despite the long history of the white minority screwing over blacks in South Africa since 1652, as Isaac Mutant points out in the song, there has been a carefully planned effort to re-brand us whites as the true victims of South Africa’s history – particularly Afrikaans farmers. By drawing on the imagery apocalyptic fantasies of natives rising up against the colonizer in a frenzy of bloodlust that pervades the colonial imagination, right-wing lobby groups have been able to spread a myth of an ongoing campaign of violence and genocide directed by blacks with the covert support of the ruling African National Congress against white farmers in the international media.

This campaign has seen groups, who essentially have separatist and borderline fascist politics that call for an Afrikaner homeland as a form of returning to the good old days of apartheid, go through a process of re-branding in which they disguise their racist politics in the discourse of human rights.

Screen Shot 2014-10-31 at 4.58.42 PM

At one level, they have quite successfully adopted the language of “minority rights” from the domain of United States politics. This language can be quite easily used to shift the focus from the legacy of slavery, colonialism and white supremacy to giving “minorities” a seat at the table. At the next level, these groups claim that attacks on Afrikaans farmers are at a genocidal level and form part of a grand plot. In this they have adopted the genocide discourse, which has becoming increasingly popularised in international politics following the Rwandan genocide. White genocide in South Africa is mythical; the evidence suggests that the murder rate among South African whites is comparable to that found in Europe or the United States, while the country’s murder rate as a whole, despite have significantly decreased since the late 90s, is far higher than the world average stand at 32.2 per 100 000. Most murder victims are black males.

This myth is used to portray black anger, particularly directed towards the question of land reform, as essentially criminal in nature and beyond the pale in a democratic South Africa. Lobby groups such as Afriforum style themselves as a human rights group, when they simply are another obstacle to economic transformation in South Africa.

But back to Dookoom, on the 4th of November 2012 in De Doorns, a town on the outskirts of the Great Karoo desert, just off the N1 (the national highway that connects the cities of Johannesburg and Cape Town), a number of grape pickers refused to work. This set off a wave that quickly spread beyond the confines of the town across the Boland (the fruit- and wine-growing area of the Western Cape,) in which thousands of workers joined a wildcat strike demanding a new minimum wage of R150 a day. I was covering the strike as a journalist at the time.

The strike did not originate, contrary to the paranoid insinuations of the Democratic Alliance, the centre-right party that governs the Western Cape, in the machinations of an ANC determined to win back the one province not under its control. It began with a group of workers at a single farm in De Doorns, mostly women, sick of a system that is best described as an updated version of feudalism persistent in the farmlands and the “hunger loan” of R69 ($5), as workers described it to me. Workers sick of the racist paternalism of white commercial farmers, workers sick of not having money to feed their kids or send them to school, and the entire legacy of the 1913 land act – the culmination of a historical process of the dispossession of black South Africans of their land.

Screen Shot 2014-10-31 at 4.51.05 PM

In a sadistic, co-ordinated response to the striking farmers – particularly in Robertson – farm owners are ensuring that their colleagues will not hire so-called problem workers who they have dismissed after the strike, saying the financial burden of the new minimum wage is coercing them into restructuring. Many workers have simply not received the new minimum wage at all as farmers desperately applied to the department of labor for an exemption from paying the new wage, relying on the lengthy nature of bureaucratic processes to buy them a window to co-ordinate a response to the strike. Other permanent workers have been fired only to be rehired as casual laborers, often through labor brokers, and farmers have increased their efforts to scour remote places such as Upington in the Northern Cape in an effort to secure cheaper and more placid workers.

The agricultural sector is notorious for being of one the most difficult sectors for unions to organize due to the seasonal nature of employment for many workers, the sheer distance between workers on different farms, and the very nature of the relations between farmers and permanent workers. Most permanent workers live on farms and many are from families who have lived there for generations. Farmers often refer to these workers as being part of what they call an extended family, despite the starvation wages that are the norm in the sector.

Farmworkers are locked into a relationship in which they are dependent on farmers not only for their accommodation, but for the necessities of life – from children’s school clothing to fuel for keeping their homes warm during the winter. While farmers often consider their support for these necessities indicative of their longstanding charity and generosity, they ignore the fact that workers are dependent on their goodwill in order to survive because wages are far below the cost of reproduction.

Workers’ dependence on farmers for accommodation and what farmers call charity is now being used as a weapon of retribution in the aftermath of the wage increases, just as it was used coercively to discourage workers from taking action before the uprising. The insidious character of the relations between farmers and workers is further underscored by the perpetuation of such abominable practices as the infamous dop system – paying workers with cheap alcohol instead of money.

Screen Shot 2014-10-31 at 4.53.08 PM

Another coercive practice occurs in the form of micro-credit made available to workers through farmers, either through shops run by farmers on their properties or through small loans given to workers to help them make ends meet. These loans lock workers into a perpetual cycle of debt as they are forced to spend a significant percentage of their monthly earnings on repaying their employer. This is on top of the rent, water, and electricity workers already pay to farmers.

After the uprising, farmers retaliated against workers who participated in the strike and their families by retrenching them, justifying this move by citing the financial burden of the the new minimum wage and the workers’ participation in an ‘illegal’ or ‘unprotected’ strike. Of course, it would have been impossible for them to have participated in a protected strike, because less than 10% of workers in the sector are unionized.

Farmers then raised the rents of workers’ accommodation, often by over a 100%, and threatened to evict those who couldn’t pay. Some began to force family members who didn’t work on the farm to pay rent for the first time. Others threatened to evict dismissed workers, claiming they needed to make space for new employees. Many permanent employees have been fired and rehired on a temporary basis, forming part of an increasing casualization of the farm workforce. For example, over 60 CSAAWU (Commercial Stevedores and Agricultural Workers Union) members, many of them women and union leaders were dismissed in the aftermath of the strike. Furthermore, most of the retrenched farmworkers have been blacklisted, meaning that other farmers refuse to hire them.

The quality of the farmworkers’ houses is often disguised by a fresh coat of paint or, in some of the farms near Robertson, by solar panels. While these houses may appear comfortable, spacious, and environmentally “correct” to a casual passer-by, they in fact often house eight people in only two rooms and have no running water. The solar panels, giving the illusion of the farmers’ commitment to defence of the planet, are rarely connected, actually serving as window dressing designed to impress rather than as a source of power. Many of these houses are still covered by toxic asbestos roofs.

Screen Shot 2014-10-31 at 4.54.50 PM

This paternalistic mentality resurfaces again in the responses from organizations such as Afriforum to the Dookoom video. They claim that because the video violates the tone of civility required to engage in the process of land reform, it should be removed from the public sphere. In other words, because the video presents violence against property and has some nasty words in it, it’s a threat to social cohesion, something needed for the process of land reform. In essence, these groups are attempting to remove the anger at the core of the strike from the discussion, and instead place it into the domain of racist hate speech. Removed from the discussion, of course, are the horrific work conditions that are predominant in the agricultural industry and the poverty wages that continue to be paid.

* “Poes” is a difficult word to translate into English, but essentially it is a strong swear word which means vagina, but if used as an insult, it approximates more to the word cunt and in afrikaans it is considered an insult to refer to “Jou poes” or ‘your cunt’, the ultimate form of this is to talk about “Joe ma se poes” or “your mother’s cunt”.

Benjamin Fogel

Benjamin Fogel is doing his PhD in history at New York University. He is a regular contributor to Africa is a Country and Jacobin.

2 Comments

Comments are closed