Grape crop brings in millions, but farm workers live a harsh life

Vineyards well watered, while people struggle for water-By Sonja Smith

Some of the burnt houses belonging to farm workers of the Aussenkehr vineyards. They say that there is not enough water for basic needs, let alone to extinguish fires. Photo: Brandon van Wyk

A vineyard near Aussenkehr, in southern Namibia. Photo: Chris Mattison / Alamy Stock Photo

Located about 50 kilometres from the Noordoewer border post that separates Namibia from neighbouring South Africa, Aussenkehr has vast vineyards that stretch as far as the eye can see.

Surrounded by a semi-desert area, the vineyards thrive only because of a plentiful supply of water from the nearby Orange River, which forms a natural border between the two countries. Set against the harsh, brown terrain, the verdant vineyards — which have grapes that can be harvested three to five weeks earlier than elsewhere on the globe — seem alien compared to southernmost Namibia’s dry and harsh landscapes.

The highest average temperature in Aussenkehr is 34°C in January and the lowest is 20°C in June. The area gets an average of annual 262mm of rain.

The plump and juicy table grapes that grow in these vineyards are destined for supermarkets in European countries, such as the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium, as well as South Africa, generating much-needed foreign currency for Namibia. In fact, last year, all of Namibia’s table grapes exports earned N$840 million, and over 33 million kilogrammes of grapes were shipped out of the country. 

One of two taps available for the 16,000 farm workers who tend to the Aussenkehr vineyards. Residents say the water is drawn directly from the nearby Orange River and that after 30 minutes, green particles begin to materialise and sink to the bottom of the bucket. Photo: Brandon van Wyk

Grapes from the Aussenkehr region. Photo: Brandon van Wyk

But the oasis-like beauty of the area’s grape farms hide a dark secret: the 16,000 farmworkers who care for the vines and harvest the grapes earn a pittance and live under harsh conditions. Two kilometres from the grape farms, they live in an unnamed settlement in rudimentary reed and zinc structures, and have endured decades without potable water and other basic services like electricity and sanitation facilities. Residents even use the river and mountains as toilets. 

The Orange River is their lifeline, and they must fetch water daily from it for cooking and drinking. They also bathe and wash their clothes in it.

But the river is also dangerous, and at least 15 people have lost their lives in its deep and, at times, fast flowing waters over the last 14 years.  

Their dry and dour settlement stands in stark contrast to the rows and rows of bright green grapes that seem to stretch on for an eternity. It has no water to fight the fires that often spring up in the farmworker community, so residents can only stand and watch helplessly as their possessions and valuable documents are consumed by the flames.

A tanker carrying purified water. Residents say that water is delivered irregularly and there is not enough for everyone in the settlement. Photo: Brandon van Wyk

A hilltop which residents are forced to use as a toilet. Photo: Brandon van Wyk

It’s hard out there for a farmworker

Linda Christian, 29, a farmworker at Silverland Riverside farm, one of the Aussenkehr farms, told of the area’s grape farm workers’ harsh existence.

“I have been working here since 2011 as a seasonal worker,” she said. “We live in dwellings that have no proper structures. We do not have access to clean water, and there is no electricity. The farm companies bring water to permanent workers only, so for us to get water we have to go through the permanent employees,” Christian said.

Julian Swartbooi, 36, also an employee at Silverland since 2019, adds, “We go by the river to bathe, wash clothes and fetch water for cooking and drinking.” They can access a very limited amount of clean water 300 metres away but there is “normally not enough to cater for everyone to use.” 

Apart from a lack of clean water, Swartbooi says workers are paid “peanuts.”

Levi Shimbilingwa has planted a number of aloe vera trees in front of his home. Despite the challenges he faces, Shimbilingwa says that he finds joy in nurturing his plants. Photo: Brandon van Wyk

“One of the challenges we are facing here is lack of proper compensation,” he said. “We do a lot of work and it is tough. We take leaves off [the vines], we tie the grapes, hang them out, count them, pack them for export and so on. We start work at 7.30 in the morning work until 5 pm. For that we are paid Namibian N$2,800 – about US$190 – at the end of the month.”

That salary barely buys enough food for a family to last a whole month. In fact, the local Spar supermarket is run by the son of one of the farm owners, which means that a significant portion of the meagre salaries of the workers are going right back to the employer. 

Apart from a lack of clean water, workers are paid “peanuts.”

Julian Swartbooi

The settlement also has a small government clinic with only three nurses, a primary school and a shopping centre where farmworkers have access to basic services, including banking facilities, a cash loan operation and alcohol. But with their paltry salaries, they can hardly afford to take advantage of many of these services — let alone pay for medical aid, retirement benefits or social security.

Kevin Liddle of Silverlands Vineyards did not answer queries about the worker’s low salaries. 

Living with an ever-present danger of fires

But the problems of the settlement become even more dire when fires break out, a not infrequent occurrence happening, on average, once every two months. The farmworkers’ homes, often built from reeds, are highly flammable. Once a fire has taken hold of one home, it spreads rapidly to neighboring ones. According to the farmworkers, the main causes are discarded cigarettes and candles.

Residents of the village describe one of the many frequent incidents where their homes burn down, often due to circumstances outside of their control. Video: Sonja Smith

Dominic Rooy, a 28-year-old farmworker, says when a fire breaks out,“Our only solution is to break down other houses and let one burn, because there is no water to extinguish the [flames].”

Given the health and safety risks, several workers on the vineyards want to quit their jobs. Maria Ipinge, 54, says she is among them, even though she is still six years from retirement age. Ipinge has been a farmworker since December 1999.

“I have been working here for such a long time, and I have been living in these reed houses that look like they are falling apart,” she said. “There is no decent shelter here. I am retiring next year because of the water problem. 

“Sometimes water comes, sometimes it doesn’t come at all. But when it comes, it’s only once a week,” Ipinge said. 

Once the delivered supplies of water are finished, residents can also turn to a small reservoir, which is topped up with water pumped from the river, for an alternative source of the much-needed supply. But this comes with challenges, according to Ipinge,  “There [in the reservoir] you find hair, used toilet paper and plastics. You can’t really be disgusted because that’s the only water you have,” she said.

Martin Murondo, 28, says that the limited water from the tiny reservoir is a breeding place for algae that starts to grow shortly after they fill buckets from the pipes leading from a man-made zinc dam. As a result, workers who rely on the water for drinking purposes and their children develop diarrhoeal diseases and stomach ailments. 

“The water we are given comes from the river,” Murondo said.  “It looks clean, but once you leave it in the bucket or a container for an hour or so, then you will notice green dirt gathering at the bottom.  There is better water at the clinic and by the post office, but not in our settlement.” 

The story doesn’t end there.

One farmworker, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that farm owners victimise employees who speak out about their appalling living and working conditions:

 “Sometime last year I called into a radio show and spoke about working conditions and saying that all of us want assistance. The complaint was based on working hours. We were told to start working at 4 am, but when working hours are counted, they base it from 7.30 am. I was questioning why it was that way. Since then, I was cut out from working. I haven’t worked ever since.” 

The farm owners refused to respond to this specific allegation. However, responding to questions about the workers’ overall deplorable living conditions, the Namibian Grape Growers Association said it is not content with the living conditions of the employees in the informal settlement in Aussenkehr. 

The association has acknowledged that the process to improve the workers’ condition has taken longer than they expected. They say that the association is waiting for the government to complete basic infrastructure improvements first, but acknowledge help is already on the way.

“We were told to start working at 4 am, but when working hours are counted, they base it from 7.30 am.”

Farmworker, anonymous

“There are a number of projects that the growers are actively pursuing to improve the conditions. These include the construction of over 50 houses, addressing the drinking water challenges (over N$2.5 million already spent by commercial Farmers and more planned) and the provision of support for the local government clinic and police station.” 

When water becomes deadly

Help cannot come too soon. The lack of access to water has led to several deaths of farmworkers who have drowned in the river over the years. Since 2006, the Aussenkehr police station has recorded 15 deaths of farmworkers who have drowned while swimming, fishing and accessing drinking water. 

This includes an incident where four young girls drowned in December 2018, and another where a young boy died in the river May of this year.

The station’s sergeant, Bronwin Appolus, said that he could only provide statistics to the media and not names to protect the deceased’s families.

Regional Commander in the Karas Region, Commissioner David Indongo, said he has, on numerous occasions, advised the community not to go to the river due to the increased number of people drowning.

Since 2006, the Aussenkehr police station has recorded 15 deaths of farmworkers who have drowned while swimming, fishing and accessing drinking water.

“Many that have drowned are not necessarily due to water access,” Indongo said.  “Those ones go fetch water and go back to their homes. But those that go with the intention of crossing the river to go over to the South African side for firewood, for drugs and for alcohol are mostly the ones that drowned.” 

Most farm workers interviewed disputed Indongo’s statements, saying they do not participate in illegal activities. They said the deaths occur when they drown trying to access water for cooking and cleaning, as well as when fishing.

Despite all the challenges, Aussenkehr, an essential source of foreign currency for Namibia, is considered a miracle in the desert with a climate that is perfect for growing table grapes. The Aussenkehr farms include Namibia Grape Company, Cape Orchard Company, Silverlands Vineyards’ Hillside Farm, Solar Grapes, Frontier Grapes and NDC Agribush.
New hope or false dawn?

Comprised almost entirely of hyper-arid, arid and semi-arid land, Namibia receives the least rainfall in southern Africa. This is made worse by recurring droughts and unpredictable rainfall due to climate change, which emphasises the reality of water scarcity in the country. As such, the Namibian government declared three states of emergencies between 2013 and 2019 related to drought, with 2019 being the driest year in 90 years.

Graphic: Adi Eyal and Daniela Q. Lepiz

Promises, promises, promises…

This drought has exacerbated the plight of the grape farmer workers, whose lack of water and poor living conditions has been like this for many years.  

The Minister of Agriculture, Water and Land Reform, Calle Schlettwein, said plans are finally afoot to restore the the farmworkers’ dignity: 

“The industry together with the government has embarked on the development of a formal settlement. The grape industry supplied the required land, and all 990 erven [plots of land] have been fully serviced. Clean water will be supplied by NamWater from the recently commissioned treatment plant, and NamPower has connected the settlement to the power grid.”

Graphic: Adi Eyal and Daniela Q. Lepiz

In fact, for the 2019/20 national budget, the ministry allocated a quarter of its budget to water infrastructure and potable water provision. The ministry received N$1.95 billion of the national budget in that current financial year. Of that, N$494, 852,000 was allocated to specific bulk water projects. 

One of the government projects designed to increase water access is focused on the sharing of water from international rivers like the Orange River, including the joint construction of the Noordower/Vioolsdrift dam with South Africa. 

Recently, three water engineers — Gerrit BassonOusmane Sawadogo and Jeanine Vonkeman — from Stellenbosch University carried out a reservoir sedimentation analysis of the proposed Noordoewer/Vioolsdrift (NVD) dam on the Orange River and evaluated sediment control mitigation measures.

They suggested that it would be beneficial to design the NVD project with sediment flushing to maintain a long-term equilibrium storage capacity of the reservoir while ensuring that small floods from the dam can still deposit increased sediment loads at the estuary.

Over 60% of Namibians have poor access to water and sanitation facilities and are subjected to unsafe hygiene practices.

While the minister is quick to point to solutions such as these, many residents remain sceptical that the Namibian government will finally start taking their cries for help seriously.

In fact, the money allocated to develop the water sector and the supply of water to these communities will likely not make a major dent in the country’s water access issues. Over 60% of Namibians — including 57% in rural areas — have poor access to water and sanitation facilities and are subjected to unsafe hygiene practices. In short, the farmworkers’ issues are actually a part of a much larger systemic problem.

Schlettwein notes that the ministry will also roll out the flexible land tenure system in the settlement occupied by the farmworkers. The flexible land tenure system is a concept to provide affordable security of tenure to inhabitants in informal settlements in Namibia. 

 “This offers a permanent solution for appropriate shelter for workers in the region currently occupying informal shacks and grass huts,” the minister said.

Meanwhile, chairperson of the Namibian Grape Growers Association, Nico van der Merwe, said that a local company would install 10 new water points for “safe water” by the end of November.

“To facilitate easier access to clean water, some of the commercial farmers in Aussenkehr have installed a pipeline to enable the distribution of water as well as AQTap water dispensers, which are not dissimilar to a bank ATM but dispense water instead of money. Four AQTaps were installed in the first quarter of 2020, as a trial.

The taps were well-received by the community, although some had complained  about the long distance to the taps for some people, Van der Merwe said. “As a result, a further 10 water points are being installed by a commercial farmer, which means that every resident will have access to clean water within a maximum of 200 metres of their home.

The rollout should be completed within the next two months. It is being done in collaboration with the local Spar, which will sell N$60 water credits to residents.

“All the costs (over N$2.5m) of the project have so far been covered by commercial farmers,” the association said.

In addition, Andries Kok, NamWater’s acting chief for water supply in the south of Namibia, said that the Karas Regional Council had developed an initiative to develop 7000 erven/residential plots with complete water, electricity and sewage systems. 

“NamWater embarked upon the construction of a purification plant to supply potable water to the Aussenkehr community, including the newly developed township,” Kok said. “It consists of abstraction facilities from the Orange River, a purification plant as well as an intermediate pump station and a terminal reservoir. 

The project cost N$86 million and was commissioned during early 2020, when potable water became available, Kok said.

He added the council is just the bulk supplier of water. “NamWater made water available to the local farmers/producers/owners in order to use and distribute according to their needs… This is the responsibility of the local authority or the producers, owners and farmers,” he said.

But Uanana Mbandjeue, a farmworker at Namibia Grapes Company, said he wished he could believe all these promises of water and infrastructure improvement. He says that the government “makes a lot of empty promises. Everytime our living conditions get media attention, they come up with solutions. 

“The new development they keep talking about is something that we were told a longtime ago — many years ago. Is it for us or for our kids? We will only believe what they say when it has happened,” Mbandjeue said.  

This article was developed with the support from Wits University

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