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Pregs Govender: I walked their road, I know its nowhere near dignity

It is a small ordinary garden, with colourful spring flowers on the one side and a neat vegetable patch on the other. I want to photograph it, to capture the courage that creates beauty.

Everything else we have listened to and seen that day, seem designed to crush the human spirit. The horrific statistics of poverty, inequality, unemployment, precarious employment, food insecurity, lack of access to housing, water and sanitation, ill-health and gender based violence speak of the destruction of human life. The flowers show how human beings survive.

Around the corner from the small house where someone has carefully tended the flowers that blossom and bloom, the stink from the large pigsty fills the air and the flies follow over a hundred pigs, as they brazenly push their way out of the pigsty into gardens and homes.
“In summer, we are prisoners in our own homes, when we have to keep our windows and doors closed to try and keep the flies and mosquitoes away...and the smell is too bad,” says Ms Mkhwanaza who lives opposite the pigsty in Mandela Square in Zwelethemba in Worcester. The name of the man we all love inspires those who live here. Yet those with hold power have yet to honour their lives.

Directly in front of the house with the beautiful garden, over the dusty path, is an open field where people go when nature calls. I watch the young woman who moves towards it, fearful for her safety. Ms Jali tells us that “women must either be accompanied by their husbands at night or use a bucket if they have no husband to go with them”. Women have been attacked and raped, she tells us, and in December 2011 a woman was killed on her way back from the field where she relived herself.

These are sad stories of women in the Western Cape’s poorer areas that include Makhaza and Ndlovini. In Makhaza a young woman told me in a weary matter of fact way that it would be hard to find a woman or girl who had not been sexually assaulted on her way to or from these “toilets”.

This week on International Toilet day the United Nations revealed that 2.7 million people, mostly children, die annually from illnesses directly related to poor sanitation. Water Aid states that one in three women still don’t have access. The day you read this will mark the first day of the 16 Days of Activism against gender based violence campaign.

In Mandela Square, there are none of the municipal services that are normally taken for granted in middle class suburbs. Here there are no toilets, no taps and no refuse collection. The temporary toilets are locked because they are full and the municipality has not collected the buckets. Like several others around the country, there are some farms in this region that produce SA’s fine produce for global export, yet have no toilets or taps that workers can use. The farm workers resort to the indignity and danger of the open fields and streams.

A few years ago, the South African Human Rights Commission went with Sikhule Sonke, a women farm worker’s trade union, to a farm that exported award-winning flowers produced by workers who showed the Commission the pigsty they had lived in. Last Friday the Commission negotiated till 8pm with a farm-owner in the Cape so the children of farm-workers who went on strike would not be deprived of food their parents usually buy on credit from the farm-owner. When the strikes began, the Commission conducted site visits in Worcester and the Hex River Valley including De Doorns and has been monitoring the IPID investigation into the shooting and death of farm-worker, Michael Daniels allegedly by the police.

Since its inception, the Commission has received many complaints from farm-workers and their organisations. In 2001, these led to the Commission’s national inquiry into human rights violations on farms. This was followed in 2007 with public hearings on progress on land tenure, security, safety and labour relations. The Commission briefed the Parliamentary Select Committee on Agriculture and Land Affairs on the findings of the first inquiry in June 2005. It made a further submission to the select committee which focused on the eviction of farm dwellers on 27 February 2007. Parliament did not use its oversight role to ensure that Government was held to account.
 
The Commission’s first report raised the problems of ongoing evictions from farms despite the promulgation of legislation to protect tenure security; general and widespread lack of compliance with labour legislation; the vulnerability of women and seasonal workers on farms; crime and violence experienced in farming communities; a lack of confidence in the ability of the legal system to address the needs of farm dwellers; limited access to services and housing on farms and a lack of information on HIV/AIDS and associated challenges in extending health care services within farming areas.
 
The Commission’s second report observed that there had been ‘very little progress towards achieving security of tenure for farm dwellers and labour tenants and that the Extension of Security of Tenure Act (ESTA) has had unintended and undesirable consequences. Its promulgation contributed to large numbers of pre-emptive evictions’ It recommended that the Department of Land Affairs (DLA) should ‘enter into an urgent dialogue with its social partners to review, clarify and reform its policy on tenure security for farm workers and occupiers’.
 
Recognising that ‘the implications of the increasing casualisation of labour and the need for the regulation of labour bureaus does not seem to have been given sufficient priority’ the Commission recommended ‘a review by the Department of Labour (DOL) on the conduct of the labour bureaus within the agricultural sector with a view to effectively regulating them’  It observed that ‘occupational health and safety regulations with respect to the handling and storage of pesticides represents a major hazard for workers in input and pesticide intensive agricultural sectors’ and recommended that ‘a national programme led by the DOL involving all communication media to alert agricultural workers to their rights in terms of the law’.
 
The Commission’s report noted that ‘domestic violence, workplace sexual harassment and sexual abuse of women and children remain underreported and poorly prioritised by many employers, law enforcement and government agencies’ and made clear recommendations to address this. The key recommendation that would have ensured that all other recommendations would have been effectively addressed was a ‘Farming Community Forum’ under the auspices of the President’s Office. This would have brought farm dwellers, farm owners and government on an equal basis. The proposals of farm-workers and rural communities on how to address land rights, labour, safety and security, economic and social rights would have had clear results. Government has to use its considerable power at local, provincial and national level to uphold and advance the rights of those who live and work in the rural parts of South Africa.
 
As part of its provincial hearings on Water and Sanitation across the country, the Commission holds/held its Western Cape public hearing in Zwelethemba in Worcestor on Monday. As in all its hearings, the Commission has invited people from urban and rural areas to attend and hold local, provincial and national government to account for the problems they have had in accessing these rights. Poverty, inequality and violence still characterises the lives of too many people, especially in rural South Africa. Government has a clear responsibility to uphold human rights when wealth is created through polluting water with acid-mine drainage or pesticides or through inhumane wages and working conditions.

Opposite the pigsty in Mandela Square, little children slept in a crèche that struggles to access clean water and decent sanitation. They are the future our Constitution was created for.
 
Pregs Govender is the Deputy-Chairperson at the South African Human Rights Commission.

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