Regulating slavery is not good enough: Thoughts on the spiritual in the Cape Winelands and beyond by Haidee Swanby

“The Cape Winelands is vast and filled with events and happenings, so make sure you set enough time aside to enjoy the beautiful surroundings, taste wine, pick strawberries and participate in numerous events hosted by the various regions. … Try donkey and horse-and-carriage rides through the vineyards, picnics next to a dam as ducks and swans float by gracefully, a cheetah outreach programme where you can interact with the fastest big cats, restaurants, gift shops, art galleries, amphitheatres, spa and wellness centres, nature and game reserves, butterfly enclosure, lion park, crocodile park – the list is endless.”

Cape Wineland Tourism



The Cape Winelands is a premium global tourist destination, but scratch behind the opulent, warm and welcoming veneer, and you might find a parallel world – a world where those who labour to keep the fields in order, the kitchens running and the guests in bliss, remain even today, little more than slaves. When Trevor Christians, head of the Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU) presents on the plight of farmworkers in the Western Cape and their struggle for the most basic necessities for survival, one feels the pain of a legacy of oppression and cruelty that should have no place in our modern day society. He tells of dirt-poor people who are in many ways captive on their employer’s land, handicapped by generations of alcoholism, lack of access to education and basic services and who are constantly reminded that they are less worthy.

Harrowing stories exposing the lives of some farm workers in the Western Cape have been documented in a booklet called “Farmworkers Speak. Hope. Heroism. Determination.”, which was made available at a recent meeting in Cape Town, organised by the Trust for Community Outreach and Education (TCOE) and the Rosa Luxembourg Foundation, with the aim of linking the struggles of smallholder farmers and farmworkers in a bid to create common ground in the fight for Food Sovereignty.[1]

In one of the stories, farm worker Andy Johannes explains how his family lives on the farm with no access to clean water or electricity and how he worries that his children cannot attend school as there is no transport for them. He is taunted by his boss who refuses to address the problem and instead threatens to have the children removed by the police, due to the lack of parental care. Another story exposes how a 45-year-old woman from Zimbabwe, who is injured in a farm accident, forces herself to return to work in extreme pain or face a loss of income, which is already way below a living wage. The stories paint a picture of grinding poverty passed down from generation to generation, which is disturbingly at odds with the bucolic delight described in the tourism PR. Victimisation of farmworkers who organise, unionise or stand up in other ways for their rights is the norm and it is common for farmers to spread the word amongst themselves who the “trouble makers” are, effectively closing down all avenues of employment for those individuals in an area. Also common is the experience of collusion amongst farmers, police and the local courts against farmworkers. (TCOE, 2016)

CSAAWU was a key organisation in the historic farmworker uprisings in the Western Cape in 2012/13, which saw unprecedented militant strikes and protests by thousands of farmworkers across more than 25 towns demanding an end to slave labour and sub-human living conditions, as well as the more recent strikes against Robertson winery. Significant gains were made through these courageous and sustained actions – the strikes in 2012 succeeded in gaining a 50% increase in the minimum wage, while the 14 week Robertson strikes clinched a backdated increase of 8% or R400 (whichever is greater) and an annual bonus worth a month’s salary in time for the festive season. However, despite these gains, farm workers must deal with the backlash as producers close ranks, and find novel ways to underpay or unfairly evict and retrench workers. (Webster, 2016)


Source: Sies!

While CSAAWU and other allied organisations are demanding and winning urgent basic remedies to the dire material conditions farm workers endure, there is an even stronger call for acknowledgement of their personhood and dignity that is going unheard. In his article, The Universality of Humanity as an African Political Potential, Michael Neocosmos shows that the core ideological feature of global capitalism is manifestly the idea that freedom, equality and justice are applicable only to a so-called enlightened and civilised few who populate what Domenico Losurdo described as a “sacred space”, while the unenlightened majority, who occupy the “profane space” are too indistinct from nature to be accorded such liberty. (Neocosmos, 2016) In other words, they are considered little more than animals. Neocosmos points to Hegel’s notorious notion that slavery was actually the “occasion of the [slaves’] increase in human feelings”. Much more recently we encountered a version of this thinking in a deeply controversial tweet from the Premier of the Western Cape Province, Hellen Zille, in which she held that anyone who believes that colonialism was “all bad” does not recognise that it was responsible for the deliverance of an independent judiciary and modern infrastructure (Cape Argus, 12 April 2017).

It should come as no surprise that the colonialist mentality remains embodied in global capitalism today, which continues to be inherently based on “exploitation, oppression, and racism for its existence” (Neocosmos, 2017). We can identify this worldview in the inhumane treatment of farm workers invisibly tasked with the smooth running of the Cape Wineland Tourist industry, or in the damning reality that 1 in 4 South African children are stunted in a country that is officially food secure (Human Science Research Cou, 2012). We see this mentality in the fact that minimum wage is set at a level that does not even ensure that workers’ families can subsist on a nutritionally complete diet, never mind live in dignity (PACSA, 2017). Even as the gourmet foodie trend booms in Cape Town and environmentally conscious middle and upper classes procure organic, indigenous and artisanal foods, cheap highly processed foods must be good enough for the poor, who are suffering an epidemic of malnutrition, obesity caused by nutrition transition and related diseases such as diabetes and hypertension (Western Cape Government). Our entire agrofood system (globally and in South Africa) is built on this very model.

South Africa’s agricultural production system remains inextricably tied to apartheid roots and lack of agrarian reform and wholesale adoption of neoliberal policies continues that legacy. We have a duel agricultural system, dominated on the one hand by a highly capitalised, large-scale industrial commercial sector and emerging farmers aspiring to be assimilated into that sector, and on the other, “a large assembly of micro or small-scale producers who are survivalist and produce only a small portion of their household food needs” (African Centre for Biodiversity, 2016). Beyond agricultural production and looking to the South Africa agro-food system as a whole, we also find a “power dynamic where large financial and corporate interests, linked closely to state elites, define the terms of agro-food investment and select technologies that reinforce their power and control over resources” (Greenberg, 2015). The government of the day has provided material support for expanding and entrenching this corporate controlled food system in the form of subsidies drawn from our public purse, access to public technical facilities and expertise, and favourable policies for private investment. Public resources have thus “entrenched a system of production and distribution built on social injustice at the expense of alternatives” (Greenberg, 2015).

Bitter Harvest doccie still


The most marginalised in our country, farmworkers, are stuck in this well-oiled and deeply entrenched system. They are caught in a horrendous paradox – calling at the same time for just enough money to survive and for dignity – to be included in the space of the sacred. Demanding a living wage of R150 per day is arguably asking for regulated slavery, potentially entrenching the established system that separates people into different categories where it is acceptable for some to live in conditions that would not be acceptable for yourself or your family. Clearly South African farm workers need urgent and radical interventions to ensure that basic survival conditions are met and their basic physical suffering is ended, but does this then preclude a demand for the “universality of humanity” (Fannon, 2000), where all are people regardless of any kind of category we may care to ascribe to them, are included in the space of the sacred and accorded freedom and dignity?

As long as political agency is directed toward fighting injustice arising out of a very particular context and seeks remedy for a particular set of people, it risks reproducing the self-same conditions. However, if “particular subjectivities are able to have a universal value, it is because they are not entirely reducible to the conditions of their creation” (Neocosmos, 2017) These subjectivities have the potential to be  an expression of the very thing which the “weight of the world declares impossible” and mark a beginning that could not have been anticipated on the past. What is key here is the emphasis of universal humanity, not particular identity, in the struggle for emancipation. Neocosmos is excited about the potential that Africans – or more accurately some Africans – have historically had in thinking against and beyond the oppressive particularities of interests, place and identity embedded in dominant culture, in some instances due to the reality of their exclusion from that dominant culture and the persistence of their own culture despite “relentless and organised repression” against it.

The eventual adoption of a United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a triumph after a struggle of more than 25 years highlighting the horrors that colonialism has visited on peoples all over the globe, provides an instructive example of embracing the concept of a universal humanity. While the Declaration clearly fights for the rights of a particular group, it does not request to be included in the dominant culture, or regulated or tolerated by the dominant culture. Instead, the Declaration affirms that “all peoples contribute to the diversity and richness of civilizations and cultures, which constitute the common heritage of humankind” and that “all doctrines, policies, and practices based on or advocating superiority of peoples or individuals on the basis of national origin or racial, religious, ethnic or cultural differences are racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust” (United Nations, 2007)

However, not only have indigenous struggles been extraordinary in embracing a universality of humanity, but further there has been a clear call to recognise that it is not only humans who are worthy of recognition, that humanity does not occupy a sacred place separate from Nature, and in fact, Nature is seen as primary and humans derivative (Berry, 2015). This turns the liberal conception of the sacred and profane described by Lusordo on its head. For example, the deeply evocative protest against the Dakota Pipeline in the United States since early 2016 is rooted in an indigenous worldview in which people are inextricably embedded in their territory and in Nature. As such, LaDonna Allard, Director of the Sacred Stone Camp – dedicated to “spiritual resistance” of the pipeline is quoted as saying, “I am not negotiating, I am got backing down. I must stand for our grandchildren and for the water” (

In another example closer to home, a pan-African body, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, passed a Resolution on the Protection of Sacred Natural Sites and Territories in May 2017 in a bid to decolonise African jurisprudence and recognise Africa’s plural legal systems. “This means recognising that indigenous and traditional peoples’ customary governance systems are underpinned by a different source of law from the dominant system. They are derived from the laws that govern life, the Earth’s laws, based on generations of acute observation of their ecosystem” (Earthlore Foundation).

Just as global capital runs on oppression and exploitation of those humans not worthy of occupying the sacred place, it similarly ruthlessly exploits all of Nature, since the dawn of the industrial age, considered as subordinate and profane. It is a long journey from the exploitation of farmworkers in the Cape Wineland vineyards in desperate need of basic living wages and decent living conditions to a call for embracing a universal humanity and going even further to recognise that it is not only human beings that should be accorded rights. However, such a call gives us all the potential to participate in transforming a world where exploitation of people and environment is bringing humanity to the brink of disaster.

Buddhist activist and deep ecologist Joanna Macy gives us hope and a possible course of action in the face of despair in a world governed by the “1%” who dominate, exploit and extract with impunity. In what she has termed The Great Turning, she points to a vast global movement that is not necessarily acting in concert but when seen together is already reshaping and consciously evolving a new life-giving way of living through three broad categories of actions:

defend the sacred

Source: Protest at Dakota Pipeline by Dallas Goldtooth

The first is “holding actions” that resist business as usual and protect our remaining natural resources.  The second is the creative redesign of the structures and systems that are the blueprint of our social lives (such as our jurisprudence or agricultural systems) so that they become life-sustaining instead of extractive and exploitative. The last is to rediscover our sense of belonging to and being in the sacred natural world – thereby widening our understanding of the networks and relationships that sustain us and tapping into our deep core of compassion to give us the courage to protect the dignity of our brothers and sisters. Perhaps it is time to radically extend the space of the sacred. Until we can find the sacred in the mundane – those we hold dear and those in our employment, those who we differ from and in the living world around us – we may have to remain with the unsatisfactory remedy of simply regulating slavery.



[1] Food sovereignty supporters consider farmers and producers to be custodians of agricultural land, who should have the right to define what they produce and how they produce it. There are some critiques of this position but it has wide support from forces opposed to industrial-scale commercial agriculture. (Greenberg, 2015).