Jane Barnard vs Mail&Guardian


Fri, May 8, 2020

Decision to adjudicate

Headline: ‘Farmworkers live in filth in Franschhoek’

Date of article:  January 17, 2020

Author: Lester Kiewit

  1. Complaint

1.1 This case arises out of an article published in the Mail&Guardian on January 17, 2020 under the headline, “Farmworkers live in filth in Franschhoek”, authored by Lester Kiewit. [1]

1.2 Ms Jane Barnard, who farms in Robertson, also in the Western Cape, made the complaint.

1.3 She argues that the article breached the following sections of the Press Code:

1.1 Take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly; 

1.2 Present news in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation, material omissions, or summarization

1.3 Present only what may reasonably be true as fact; opinions, allegations, rumours or suppositions shall be presented clearly as such;

1.7  Verify the accuracy of doubtful information, if practicable; if not, this shall be stated;

1.8 Seek, if practicable, the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication, except when they might be prevented from reporting, or evidence destroyed, or sources intimidated. Such a subject should be afforded reasonable time to respond; if unable to obtain comment, this shall be stated.

  1. The article

 2.1 The article dealt with the living conditions of farmworkers on an unidentified farm in Franschhoek.

2.2 The intro states: “Farmworker rights groups are calling for the government to expropriate land from farmers if labourer accommodation is not up to scratch.”

The story cites the “Ubuntu Rural Women and Youth” movement in the Western Cape as saying “some farms along the foothills of the Simonsig Mountains in the Franschhoek Valley are shirking their responsibility to maintain the housing of farm labourers and dwellers

2.3 The newspaper visited an (unnamed) farm and found about 25 structures, many bricked up or otherwise in a deteriorating condition. This was apparently to prevent people living in them.

2.4 The reporter interviewed two farmworkers (who are quoted) and a representative of the NGO mentioned above.

One, Alfred Witbooi, complained about the quality of the water, which “comes from an open dam”, and about his general condition of poverty.

Another, Lena Arrison, who says she retired after working for 30 years on the farm, complained that “although she lives in a modest rent-free farmhouse”, she got no pension on retirement as pension contributions were never deducted.

The article did not mention whether she received a government pension.

She also worried her children would be evicted after she and her husband died.

2.5 It also quotes Wendy Pekeur, who represents the Ubuntu Rural Women and Youth Movement in more detail, saying she is petitioning government and the Human Rights Commission to be more “proactive in monitoring conditions on farms.”

She said farmers were using “benign neglect tactics” to get people off their farms, and that stricter government policy on evictions was necessary.

The article paraphrases her as saying that while “some farm owners have implemented progressive policies on housing and working conditions, others have not, leading to the entire agri-industry being shamed.”

2.6 There is no comment from the farm owner and no indication that comment was sought.

  1. The argument

3.1 Ms Jane Barnard, who describes herself as a “a member of the white farming community in the Western Cape, who have been consistently vilified and demonised in the mainstream media as cruel, abusive, exploitative land thieves and slave drivers “, complains that  this story is reflective of the “many false and racialised stories that appear in the mainstream media, scapegoating white farmers”. Such stories “whip up racial hatred and give a license to the dispossessed to invade white farms and murder white farmers.”

3.2 She fears that: “These false, racialised stories, which regularly appear in the mainstream press, seem to have emerged in a parallel process with government’s intention to expropriate white farmland without compensation.”

3.3 She argues the other side of the story – from the point of view of the landowner – is “almost always missing”.

3.4 She also provided two “case studies” to illustrate her point. In one case, Land Claims Court judge T M Ncube, who ordered tenants off a timber and sugar cane farm in the KZN midlands after a series of violent threats and destruction of the property, referred to the “atrocities” committed by the tenants (who did not work on the farm). [2]

The other was a ruling by the Broadcast Complaints Commission against the SABC which found that a particular broadcast had created the ‘impression … of a cruel farmer who had evicted vulnerable people who had been living on his farm for more than 60 years’, was simply ‘not true’. The BCCSA ordered that a correction be broadcast and imposed a fine of R10 000 on the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) for ‘broadcasting news that is not accurate, true and fair’.[3]

3.5 Specifically, she complains that the M&G story relied on single-source allegations thereby casting doubt on whether news was reported “truthfully, accurately and fairly.”

3.6 Citing the quotes from the NGO,  she argues that while there are ‘well-intentioned’ NGOs, there is also “a motivation to present a one-sided view of farm tenure because it results in easy publicity (a story on cruel farmers is bound to be published) for the organisation and lots of funding. The inescapable fact is, with no exploitation and abuse ‘The Ubuntu Rural Women and Youth Business’ would be out of business and what better way to drum up funding than by exposing ‘cruel, racist, exploitative farmers’”.

3.7 She also queries whether the houses have been “bricked up” to prevent “illegal land invasions”, and whether the tenants are legally entitled to be on the farms. “We have no means of knowing because the information hasn’t been verified nor has the farmer presented his side of the story.”

3.8 She says Mr Witbooi’s claim that he has lived on the farm for more than a decade and his allegation that the water from an open dam’ is not drinkable are ‘single-source’ allegations presented as fact.

Likewise, Ms Arrison’s claim that no retirement funds were deducted from her salary hence she has no pension was not verified.

3.9 She says the news was not presented “in context”: “It is terrible that anyone should live in appalling conditions but shouldn’t Wendy Pekeur’s anger be directed at a government which has stolen trillions of Rand and as result cannot provide alternative housing for ex-farm workers and land tenants. This should be government’s responsibility not the farmers. The farmer pays taxes which should go towards housing and on top of that he is expected to provide free housing and maintenance for all his workers, ex workers, land tenants and their families. For any business it is financially unsustainable.” She also cites the taxes paid by farmers and the fact that many are “up to their eyeballs in debt”.

On Ms Pekeur’s comment that government should consider expropriating land if farmworkers’ houses are not maintained, she says this is vindictive  and “straight out of a kangaroo court.”

3.10 She cites a Constitutional Court ruling  - Baron and Others vs Claytile (Pty) Ltd. and Others (CCT241 / 16) [2017] ZACC 24) - which held “the city is constitutionally obliged to provide suitable alternative accommodation to the Applicants”. (The Applicants were ex workers and land tenants).[4]

She also cites Professor Ruth Hall, a member of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s land reform advisory panel and a professor at the University of the Western Cape’s Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies, saying:  “Billions of Rand earmarked for the development of an agrarian economy have been squandered across all provinces,” and recounts other failures in land reform.

3.11 Citing clause 1.7  of the Press Code: “Verify the accuracy of doubtful information, if practicable; if not, this shall be stated”, she argues “none of the doubtful information (i.e. single source allegations from an aggrieved farm tenant and information from an NGO who may have an ulterior motive) has been verified.”

3.12 She also argues clause 1.8, that the views of the subject of critical reportage should be sought in advance of publication, was transgressed: “The views of the farmer are completely absent from the story. The M&G claims that Lester Kiewit phoned the farmer but this is not stated in the story.” She points out that although the M&G told her they had endeavoured to get comment from the farmer (who is not named), this is not stated in the story.

4. Standing of the complainant

4.1 Ms Barnard has provided a considered argument to back her case.

4.2 However, my problem is in her standing to bring the complaint. Although she describes herself as a member of the farming community in the Western Cape, her farm is more than 100km away from Franschhoek. That community was not the subject of the story.

4.3 In dealing with this complaint both the acting Public Advocate, Mr Fanie Groenewald, and the executive director of the Press Council, Mr Latiefa Mobara, approached the M&G to try to find a resolution .

4.4 The paper, though, said the story centred on specific allegations about a specific farm. The farm was not named as the reporter could not get hold of the farmer for comment.

4.5 The acting public advocate, Mr Groenewald, dismissed the complaint after several attempts were made to resolve it. This was because the complainant was not named in the story, nor directly implicated. His view was that she had no standing as a complainant.

5. Complaints Procedure

5.1 The Complaints Procedure of the Press Code defines a complainant thus:

1.1. “Complainant” shall mean and include any person who or body of persons which lodges a complaint and has standing to complain in terms of the following rule:

anyone acting in their own interest;
anyone acting on behalf of another person who cannot act in his or her own name;
anyone acting as a member of, or in the interest of, a group or class of persons; and
an association acting in the interest of its members.

5.2 The challenge here is that Ms Barnard is not the farmer who has been implicated in the article, nor is she acting on behalf of that particular farmer.

5.3 Is she, though, acting “as a member of, or in the interest of a group or class of persons [or] association acting in the interest of its members”?

5.4 Her complaint may be well argued and substantiated, but there is no evidence that she is acting on behalf of “farmers” in a specific area or in the Western Cape.

Decision

Ms Barnard has already expressed some of the challenges faced by farmers in her piece published by Business Day in 2017 and which she submitted as part of her argument. [5]

This debate could benefit from being aired more substantially in the media . However, it is not for the Ombudsman to make that decision. Newspapers must determine their own editorial priorities and make their own decisions, so long as the particular articles fall within the bounds of the Press Code.

But this is a different matter: to complain about a particular article, the complainant has to show some standing. The fact that Ms Barnard is also part of the farming community in the same province is not, to me, a strong enough link to show this standing.

It is also clear she is not acting “on behalf of another person”, as there is no indication of any support for the complaint from the specific farmer who was implicated (although not named), not indeed anyone from the Franschhoek community.

While it could be argued that Ms Barnard is “acting on behalf of a group or class of persons”, there is also no evidence of this. The group “farmers” seems too broad as a notion for a complainant to represent. There is also no association that has backed this complaint.

For those reasons, I must agree with the acting Public Advocate and decline to adjudicate this specific complaint. However, it should be clear that this decision does not reflect on either the merits of the story, nor the merits of the complaint.

Appeals Procedure

The Press Council’s Complaints Procedure, clause 1.8, stipulates that if either party is not satisfied with the Ombud’s decision to decline to adjudicate, they may appeal to the Chair of the Appeals panel, Judge Ngoepe within 7 working days. He can be reached at khanyim@ombudsman.org.za

Pippa Green

Press Ombudsman

May 6, 2020


[2] http://www.saflii.org/za/cases/ZALCC/2019/22.pdf

[3][3] Ms Barnard references the ruling here https://dailyfriend.co.za/2019/12/25/farmers-reputation-redeemed/ but I could not find it on the BCCSA website

[4]  http://www.saflii.org/za/cases/ZACC/2017/24.pdf

[5] https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/2017-08-23-farm-worker-evictions--the-another-side-where-the-landowner-suffers/