Cautionary tale for expat SA farmers: Mississippi and the cotton-picking blues

As SA’s economy takes a government-induced nosedive, many of its youngsters are flocking to foreign climes and stronger currencies to build capital but, it seems in this case, they cannot escape the colour of their skin and their country’s history. If by an accident of birth, you are a white ‘Born Free’ Saffer and got tipped off about farm jobs where you could earn the equivalent of over R18,000 a week, wouldn’t you jump at it? Those who did might in future avoid places that have similar histories to their own if they want to keep things uncomplicated. This is a cautionary tale full of irony, paradox and, predictably, deep historical wounding. I need to mention just four words and you can discover the rest for yourselves: ‘Mississippi’ and the ‘cotton crop blues. This article was first published on Politicsweb. – Chris Bateman

The boers of Mississippi

By Andrew Donaldson


There’s an intriguing federal lawsuit before the Grenville district court in Mississippi concerning alleged civil rights violations: a group of farm labourers from the Delta claim they were asked to train South African “guest workers” before losing their jobs to them.

According to a preliminary court document filed in September, the South Africans are employed in terms of the US agricultural guest worker programme, or H-2A, as it’s known colloquially. Once shunned as expensive and bureaucratic, the country’s farm labour shortages have seen a four-fold increase in H-2A visas issued over the past decade, from 55 384 in 2011 to 213 394 in the 2020 fiscal year.

The overwhelming majority of last year’s visas, 197,908 of them, went to Mexican workers. While South Africans comprise the second largest group, their numbers still seem insignificant, at 5,508 visas. This nevertheless represents a 441 per cent increase since 2011.

The dramatic growth, and the fact that the South African workers are, without exception, all white, is probably what attracted the attention of the New York Times. In their hands, the matter has now been suitably Disneyfied as a reboot of Song of the South with Br’er Racist cast as a principal antagonist along with Big Farmer.

The latter appear to favour white South Africans as they’re English speakers with a “strong work ethic”. But park that for a moment, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

The plaintiffs are six black American farmworkers who say they have been systematically underpaid and denied job opportunities in favour of the South Africans by their employer, Pitts Farms Partnership, or PFP. They say that PFP had applied to the US government to bring in the South Africans, claiming there were no eligible Americans to do the work.

What’s more, PFP then paid the South Africans significantly more than locals for doing the same or similar work — which is a violation of federal law and breaches an undertaking that PFP would treat its foreign and domestic workers equally as required by the H-2A visa programme. As a result, the plaintiffs say they have suffered massive underpayment and lost job opportunities.

One of them is Richard Strong, a 50-year-old seasonal field hand who has worked for PFP for 24 years. He’s done so like his father and grandfather before him, a family lineage, the Times reported, “of punishing labour and meagre earnings that stretched back to his enslaved ancestors brought from Africa. He tilled the soil, fertilised crops and irrigated the fields, nurturing an annual bounty of cotton, soybeans and corn for a prominent farming family. ‘I’ve been around farming all my life,’ Mr Strong said. ‘It’s all we knew.’

The same is true of Strong’s fellow workers at PFP — all longtime seasonal field labourers. Their former employer runs an operation of several thousand acres in Sunflower County, Mississippi, growing cotton, soya beans and corn, among other products. They were last paid $7.25 an hour. The South Africans, by contrast, received an average of $11.83 an hour. In terms of the H-2A programme, PFP must also provide them with housing and transport.

Strong and his fellow plaintiffs say that, during their time at PFP, they were always supervised by a white person. “Occasionally,” they state in papers, “the supervisor used racial slurs, including the n-word. Pitts Farms was informed about the supervisor’s use of racial slurs and did nothing.”

Then, as if to bolster their case, they point out that, at 73 per cent of the population, Sunflower County is a predominantly black region. “For many years, PFP employed a majority black workforce. As of 2014, however, this number has steadily dwindled, as PFP began applying for and hiring white South Africans for the same work. And since 2014, PFP has used the H-2A programme to hire only white South Africans —no black South Africans — although that country too is majority black by a wide margin: estimates stand at around 80 per cent black compared to less than eight per cent white.”

This is the crux of the matter: by hiring only white workers from South Africa, “a country with its own history of racial injustice,” the Times helpfully points out, PFP have allegedly violated civil rights law. As the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Ty Pinkins, put it, “Black workers have been doing this work for generations. They know the land, they know the seasons, they know the equipment.”

This brings us to the “training” of the foreigners. Forgive my cynicism, but the “equipment”, as revealed in the lawsuit, appears to be of the tractor and truck variety, vehicles that are not unheard of in white South African circles. There also appears to be complicated procedures regarding pesticides, the instructions of which usually come printed on the can.

To their credit, the Times has presented its readers with a broader outline of a problematic situation. They quote industry sources as saying that the US is faced with a choice of either importing its food or importing the labour needed to produce that food domestically. Farms across the US, from the Midwest to California, must rely on foreign labour as ageing Americans exit the field and other low-skilled workers opt instead for jobs in the construction, warehouse and hospitality sectors, work which offers higher pay, year-round (as opposed to seasonal) employment and other benefits and incentives.

In the Mississippi Delta, an area of high unemployment and entrenched poverty, the appearance of the South Africans was initially of little concern. They’re now employed at more than 100 farms across the Delta. But it was only when local workers were informed their services were no longer needed that public attention was drawn to their presence.

Commentators say the reliance on South Africans is understandable. Row-crop production in the region is not as labour-intensive as it once was, but workers must be skilled to use machinery and equipment. As agricultural economist Elizabeth Canales explained, “We hardly have any Latinos in this remote region. Naturally, it’s easier to hire South Africans where language will not be a barrier, especially because in this area, you have a very small Spanish-speaking population.”

The South Africans who arrived in the region were “willing to work weeks that sometimes stretched to 75 hours or more, gruelling schedules that night have been difficult for older local workers to maintain”, the Times reported.

The only South African who spoke to the newspaper is 28-year-old Innes Singleton. He’s worked in the Delta since early 2013 and is now earning $12 an hour at PFP, making more in a week than he’d earn in a month back home. Sometimes, he said, he puts in a staggering 110 hours a week.

This has troubled me a bit, and Singleton may want to launch his own lawsuit against the company. Draconian exploitation, appalling hours, and what have you.

I wonder, too, about this talk of a strong “work ethic”, which smacks a bit of exceptionalism. Young expats are undoubtedly hard-working and diligent but this is due to necessity and desperation more than anything else. The alternative is not worth contemplating. For those like Singleton, it’s leave and work, or stay and starve.

Breasts of Thunder 

Farewell, then, to Wilbur Smith, the Rhodesian Ernest Hemingway whose books of derring-do and high adventure were devoured by legions of schoolboys in search of lurid sexual content. This, of course, was long ago and far away in the days before internet porn. Once we all had actual intercourse, though, it became embarrassingly clear just how preposterous Smith’s one-handed prose was. His work twice made the shortlist for the Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex Award. On both occasions, sadly, the nod was cracked by more tweedy, highbrow authors.

He nevertheless gave it his all, bringing metaphors to the mattress that smacked of colonial fervour, torrid jingoism and square-jawed resolve. In 2017’s War Cry, a chap goes about his lover “like Dr Livingstone and Mr Stanley exploring Africa”. Elsewhere there are nipples “standing up as proudly as little guardsmen on parade”. In 2014’s Desert God, the nips appear not to know their rightful place and march as Kitchener on Omdurman: “This rippling curtain [of hair] did not cover her breasts which thrust their way through it like living creatures…” (For the sake of propriety, we shall not dwell on the “sweet dew of feminine arousal”.)

Smith has been described by some as a sexist dinosaur. He certainly played the part, once enraging a journalist by cheerfully telling her that he must be a feminist because “I love to see a woman with a cute bottom walking past.” And, if he is to be believed, he did bed dozens of women with shapely backsides. In the decade following the death of his third wife from cancer in 1999 and his fourth marriage in 2000, he boasted that he slept with an untold number of “ladies” as if to make up for lost time.

One of whom, readers may recall, was a £300-an-hour London call girl who, upon discovering the identity of her client, which does happen when you call out your own name during orgasm, demanded £10,000 to keep quiet about their encounters. Smith called her bluff and so she went to the tabloids. “She tried to blackmail me,” an unabashed Smith explained, “but in the process she said I was a helluva lover.” He probably paid her for that as well.

Smith appeared to be unaffected by such publicity. At a reported £4-million a book, he could afford to ignore his detractors — which he did with goodnatured humour. He would joke that his real contribution to the world of literature lay in the pots of money he made for his publisher, who was then able to issue “worthy” titles that critics wrote about but readers avoided and refused to buy.

I interviewed him a few times, usually as yet another blockbuster was laying waste to entire Indonesian forests. I once challenged him on his claim that he diligently researched every aspect of his novels for authenticity by pointing to yet another of his ludicrous sex scenes. I forget the novel — they all blur into one — but here the action takes place al fresco after a buffalo is fatally wounded by our heroine on her first safari. So engorged are the nipples with lust and primal urges that it’s off with khaki kit most pronto and she and a muscular hunter rut away on top of the convulsing animal as it breathes its last. A prototype bosveld waterbed, you could say.

“Oh, come on,” I said. “You ‘researched’ that? That’s rubbish! It would never happen!” Smith laughed. “Oh, it could happen. It most certainly could happen. You never know. Women. The heat of the moment and so on.” “But,” I said, “here was a professional hunter. Wouldn’t he, like, put the buffalo out of its misery and then, uh—” “You mean, kill it first?” “Yes,” I said, “before making the beast with three backs…” At which point we both broke down, sniggering like schoolboys. Interview over.

The internationally recognised Thief-in-Chief

Last weekend, The Sunday Times of London led its “Letters to the editor” columns with correspondence from readers expressing outrage at Conservative Party donors allegedly paying £3 million to secure seats in the House of Lords. The leading letter gave the page its main headline: “This PM is no Churchill — he is Zuma, leading us to disgrace.” It read: “The Tory party knew of Boris Johnson’s lies and dubious dealings and still voted to make him leader. The consequences were never in much doubt. He is not Winston Churchill; he is not Donald Trump; he is Jacob Zuma, taking us along the same path towards national disaster and disgrace.”

Whose heart would not swell with pride at that? Accused Number One’s name is now synonymous with sleaze throughout the English-speaking world. International recognition! Major league roguery! But not everyone is pleased. One unhappy reader registered his displeasure on the newspaper’s website. “Highlighting on the front page [a] letter that identifies Mr Johnson with ex-President Zuma disgraces a once great newspaper. [The letter writer] clearly knows nothing of the real horrors of Zuma’s regime but Times’ editors should. It shows either a complete lack of judgement or the continuing effort of the paper’s proprietor to undermine public faith in British democracy.”

This was very much a minority viewpoint. Many felt the comparison quite apt. One commentator said, “I imagine there is also a long line of suitable Guptas ready to come to his defence in return for some insignificant inducements conveyed within brown envelopes.” Ouch.

K is for Kevin

To Westminster, where a select committee hearing has heard a devastating account from former England spin bowler Azeem Rafiq of his experiences at the Yorkshire County Cricket Club. His damning two-hour testimony confirmed what many of the regulars at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”) have long suspected: that the pavilions and dressing rooms here are the natural stomping ground of the over-privileged hypocrites and racialists who thrive at the crease. Remember, these are people who have derided and sneered at South African cricket for decades.

Among the slurs and insults levelled at Rafiq by his “team mates” were “Raffa the K*****”, “elephant washer” and “Paki”. Interestingly, this behaviour was initially dismissed as “banter”; calling someone a “Paki” was no more offensive than calling the Harare-born Yorkshire batsman Gary Ballance a “Zimbo”. Coincidentally, and like many others, Ballance has not emerged in a favourable light in Rafiq’s account:

“He would constantly talk down to me and make racist jokes, designed to undermine me and make me feel small, like coming up and interrupting me when I was talking to girls in a club, saying ‘Don’t talk to him, he’s a Paki’ … On those bus trips, he would look out for corner shops and makes comments like, ‘Does you dad own these?’ Gary would often make comments like this on YCCC bus trips … The word ‘Kevin’ was something Gary used to describe anyone of colour, it was an open secret in the England dressing room. It was used in a derogatory manner all the time. My understanding is that [player] Alex Hales went on to name his dog Kevin as it was black. It’s disgusting how much of a joke it was.”

Ballance has now been suspended from selection for the national side. But the England and Wales Cricket Board will have to do more than dropping posh bigots if it is to successfully counter charges of institutional racism. It should be noted that, at a recreational level, more than 30 per cent of England’s cricketers are British Asians. This drops to four per cent at a professional level. It’s also worth pointing out that England, along with the West Indies, were the first teams to take the knee when the sport resumed after the Covid hiatus. Perhaps the ECB could investigate why such gestures have not sorted out their issues.

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