Farm Occupiers and Labour Tenants are Forgotten Citizens in South Africa

Zabalaza Mshengu
Zabalaza Mshengu (Born in 1914 – Died in 2018)

By Thabiso Mbhense

Zabalaza Mshengu was one of the applicants in a case against three municipalities, uMsunduzi, uMshwathi and uMgungundlovu municipalities. The matter was heard in Pietermaritzburg High Court on the 2 November 2019. The Judge reserved his judgment.  The applicants are labour tenants and farm occupiers, respectively, who do not have access to basic services such as sufficient water, basic sanitation and refuse collection. They reside on farms owned by different land owners, under jurisdictions of these municipalities. They live on land owned by the commercial farmers.

Farm occupiers and/or labour tenants, and particularly those represented by the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) in this case, do not have access to sufficient water, basic sanitation, refuse collection and a clean environment in general.  There is no formal sanitation system and sufficient water supply on the farms where these farm occupiers and/or labour tenants reside.

There are no decent toilets, some of the occupiers and labour tenants have dug pit latrines next to their homes however, these makeshift toilets are smelly and attract flies and vermin.

Some farm occupiers and/or labour tenants have to go to the nearest bushes in order to relieve themselves. Furthermore, the surroundings of their homesteads are dirty with rubbish everywhere, due to the absence of refuse collection.

Each farm occupier and/or labour tenant can barely get enough water from the available water sources to meet his/her individual drinking needs.  The farm occupiers and/or labour tenants and their families, generally, have to attempt to obtain water for other needs from the dams, rivers and water streams nearby.  When, as is often the case, there is no water to cook, they go to bed without food in their stomachs.

The humiliation that female farm occupiers suffer is also pronounced in their application papers that were submitted in Pietermaritzburg High Court. It is described as follows:

“Women and girls suffer great hardship, humiliation and impairment of their dignity. They do not have proper refuse facilities to dispose of their pads during their menstrual cycle nor are they able to wash themselves whenever necessary. The used pads are strewn around their place of residence

Farm occupiers and/or labour tenants, and particularly those represented by the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) in this case, have repeatedly requested the municipalities mentioned above to provide them with access to water, sanitation and refuse collection. Unfortunately their requests have not solicited any response from these municipalities.

Municipalities are obliged by the Constitution and a range of statutory provisions to provide water, sanitation and refuse services to all their residents including farm occupiers and/or labour tenants.  Contrary to this obligation, uMsunduzi, uMshwathi and uMgungundlovu have not taken reasonable steps to realise these rights for a very specific category of people: farm dwellers and labour tenants.

Instead, the municipalities have opposed the application brought by the applicants despite the fact that it is the duty of the state to provide basic services to the farm occupiers and/or labour tenants. They argued that the responsibility rests with the farm owners.

All the applicants asked in their application is a finding that the municipalities must do something.  They ask for a declaration that farm dwellers and labour tenants have rights to water, sanitation and refuse collection, that the municipalities must develop a reasonable plan to realise those rights, and must report to the Court on how they have implemented that plan.

If the applicants are successful, the judgment in this matter will assist a number of farm occupiers and/or labour tenants who are in the same situation in South Africa.


Thabiso Mbhense
Thabiso Mbhense

Thabiso Mbhense is an Attorney currently employed by Legal Resources Centre. He holds Baccalaureus Iuris (B Iuris) Degree and Bachelor of Laws (LLB) from University of KwaZulu Natal. He was employed as a candidate attorney by University of Kwa-Zulu Natal Law Clinic in 2003. When he was employed as a candidate attorney he was specialising in cases involving land reform, eviction in rural areas, domestic violence, child maintenance, divorce, labour, family matters, curator bonis and curator ad litem applications.

He was admitted as an attorney in 2005. He is currently specialising in cases involving rural and urban evictions, land reform, housing, provision of basic services, upgrading of informal settlements, acquisition of land and land claims.

He has appeared in the Magistrates’ Court, High Court, Land Claims Court, CCMA and Supreme Court of Appeal.

Inspired by our history, the Constitution and international human rights standards, the LRC is committed to a fully democratic society based on the principle of substantive equality. The LRC seeks to ensure that the principles, rights and responsibilities enshrined in our national Constitution are respected, promoted, protected and fulfilled.