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Words by Mnqobi Ngubane

Should migrant farm workers from other countries such as Lesotho benefit from South African land reform? This was one of the questions raised at a land redistribution conference held at the University of Western Cape in February 2019. Opinion was divided. Some found the idea a rather shocking surprise, while others expressed sympathy for Lesotho immigrants — perhaps because of the known history of land dispossession dating back to the 1860s.

The farm workers, as differentiated as they are, are in real terms ‘classes of labour’ – their fate remains entangled within contemporary capitalism even now we’ve left behind the ‘era of the working man’. Their plight is characterised by precarious employment for survival, and ‘claims of the unemployed’ for a portion of their wages. These conditions are arguably extreme for immigrants working on differentiated farms and communal areas of South Africa. Sometimes they only wait to be called upon to work while they spend the rest of their time on ‘survivalist improvisation’.

Vulnerable immigrant farm workers on South African farms

The increase of immigrant farm workers from neighbouring countries on South African farms unfolds within the context of massive retrenchments of the historical labour force in South African industry, especially mining. The substantial number of Basotho nationals employed as herders on land reform farms in eastern Free State may well be former mine workers, their relatives, or people affected by these retrenchments.

“Investigation of the material position of these workers suggested that their poverty and limited options for income, either in Lesotho or South Africa, led them to display the characteristics so useful for farmers” (Johnston, 2007:495).

Deborah Johnston’s research on female Basotho casual farm workers in the vegetable district of eastern Free State illuminates the importance of their wages in putting food on the table for their families back home in Lesotho. Her work also applies to the analysis of the plight of Basotho men employed as long-term herders on livestock farms in the same district. While there are important differences between the conditions of employment of male and female migrant workers, they share important elements of poverty and vulnerability that make them attractive to farm owners in the region. This is within the wider context of unemployment in the economies of Lesotho, South Africa, and other southern African countries such as Zimbabwe, and Mozambique – where some immigrant farm labour force on predominantly border farms in South Africa originate.

Above: Basotho farm workers in the eastern Free State.
Basotho herders on land reform farms in eastern Free State

Deborah Johnston’s formulation suggests the reasons behind the docility of the immigrant farm labour force in contrast to labour sourced within the South African borders. This explanation holds water for the Basotho herders employed on black-owned land reform farms in the eastern Free State. Here, the employers trust the Basotho men employed as herders because of their lack of mobility and their confinement within farm borders. The employers provide them with basic food (typically a sack of maize meal, cabbage, dry/canned beans, and sometimes milk) which forms part of their payments in addition to wages. The farmers prefer the Basotho herders for their labour time, which can include security work over livestock at nightfall, the expectation to wake up in the middle of the night or early morning hours to attend to warnings from a barking dog. Typically, their working day begins at sunrise and ends at sunset. This can involve 14 hours per day of herding livestock between different fenced camps on-farm and water points, handling bales for winter grazing, and being available for any farm duty at any time. Sometimes it involves moving cattle to graze on a neighbouring farm or on communal municipal land, depending on circumstances – all for a monthly wage of typically no more than R1000. Nevertheless, this is a crucial buffer against extreme poverty for their kin, back home in Lesotho.


Notwithstanding divided opinion about immigrant farm workers becoming land reform beneficiaries in South Africa, borderline farms will always deal with immigrant farm workers in some manner. This has been the case for generations and perhaps accommodating immigrant farm workers in South Africa’s land reform could start from there. Indeed, the current debate on South Africa’s land reform is a good chance for marginalised farm workers to be heard and become primary beneficiaries of land reform. This is in contrast to the apparent elite capture, and exclusion of farm workers in South Africa’s land reform. The current land reform process in South Africa has deepened farm worker marginalisation in many ways, including their exclusion in land allocation, and sometimes real loss of jobs to make way for elite land beneficiaries.

This blog is based on the author’s working paper entitled: The ‘Agrarian Question of Labour’ and land reform in South Africa: Substituting family labour with immigrant farm workers that was presented at the Colloquium on Migration and Mobilities, University of Western Cape, May 29, 2019. Research findings will also be presented at the National Conference on The Future of Farm Workers in South Africa, on 16 –18 October 2019, at the University of the Western Cape.


Johnston, D. 2007. Who needs immigrant farm workers? A South African case study. Journal of Agrarian Change, 7 (4), p. 494.