Mrs Thatcher reveals her ignorance of apartheid

By David Beresford in Johannesburg

MRS THATCHER gave a startling demonstration of her ignorance of apartheid and South Africa last week when, on her first visit to the country since 1972, she delivered a paean of praise to farmers for their treatment of black workers.

Seeming unaware that agriculture has long been the most scandalous sector of the South African economy as far as employment practices are concerned, Mrs Thatcher swapped compliments with the country's farm bosses on an estate outside the town of Stellenbosch on the second day of her tour of the country.

To cap the occasion, her hosts announced that a new variety of nectarine was being named after her, called "Margaret's Pride". In an exchange of puns over the new fruit, the farm leaders made their adoration of Mrs Thatcher clear, referring at one stage to Margaret's Pride as "one of our international winners".

She in return expressed her satisfaction at being compared with a fruit whose "influence" lives on long after the original product was created".

Clearly relaxed and possibly unguarded on what has been described as a private visit to South Africa, Mrs Thatcher's remarks would almost certainly have caused an outcry if she had still been in power.

Making no effort to qualify her antipathy towards sanctions over the years, she launched into an extraordinary tribute to the farmers, painting an idyllic picture of life on the land for their labourers, adding that "people did not actually work through what it means to the families in villages and on farms".

The latest government figures, for 1987, show that the 1.3 million blacks working in South Africa's commercial farming sector earned an average of about 215 pounds a year. They enjoy no protection on statutory minimum wages, conditions of service, health and safety standards, unemployment insurance, working hours, overtime pay, maternity leave, holidays and the like. The Labour Relations Act, which regulates industrial relations, specifically excludes them.

This discrimination is due almost entirely to the attitudes of the country's white farmers, who remain probably the most racist community in South Africa.

There have been some improvements in working conditions over recent years, particularly in vineyards of the Western Cape. But these reforms, which are limited, have been due largely to international pressure.

The effect of sanctions has been made clear by South African officials themselves. In 1987, for instance, the minister of agriculture, Greyling Wentzel, warned Parliament that the labour practices on the farms were creating problems in selling South African produce overseas. "The fact that we do not have labour legislation in regard to agriculture leads them to say that we are using slave labour," he said.

There are, in fact, many aspects of the labour system used on South Africa's farms which verge on slavery. They include what is known as the labour tenancy system, by which a contracting family sends one member to work for a farmer in return for access to the "white" land. Some farmers run separate labour farms, as human reservoirs to work their own fields.

The "tot system"--by which grape farmers pay their workers with alcohol instead of money--is also reported to remain in widespread use, even though it has been outlawed. Farms are also notorious for brutal murders of labourers who are treated as no more than chattels.

In her remarks Mrs Thatcher said it was notable that South Africa had had "very little trouble on the farms". She added: "It is, I think, one of the most interesting things in life that work in the rural areas on farms does involve very close contact between farmer and all of those who work; it is much more like a family."

It was, she said, "one of the most wholesome kinds of life that one can possibly imagine, and most satisfying and also very healthy". It "would have been a tragedy if we had upset that very excellent arrangement that you have".

(text of May 26, 1991 Guardian Weekly article)