The Poorest of the Poor

Karretjie Mense: The Poorest of the Poor:

NON-FICTION: Published on and Cape Times:

In and around Coleseberg, a small historical midway town on the N1 between Cape Town and Johannesburg, I find a group of impoverished sheep shearers living in abject conditions of poverty, surviving in tiny tin shacks on the verges of public roads. They are a unique category of poor, and have only recently, in the last 15 years, become a settled, sedentary people. They are known as the Karretjie Mense of the Karoo, a self-inscribed identity that has originated from the fact that they have, prior to the recent shifts in agricultural and political landscapes, lived the last 80 years or so nomadically, on donkey carts.

The Karretjie Mense appropriated skills that allowed them to move around; since the greater Colesberg area is comprised of some half a million hectares of farming land, and a majority of that is Merino sheep farming, they took on the task of sheep shearing and fence-fixing. This allowed them to move about the landscape setting up camp at certain locations, doing their work, and moving on to the next area that needed their skills.

I’m 50 kilometers south-east of Colesberg, at a small outspan at a T-junction in the middle of no-where. There are three families living here. There is no running water and definitely no electricity. Dogs are tied down by chains, and live in small corrugated iron kennels. There aren’t any trees around – it’s winter, and firewood is high currency. Piet Bekkers is hitting at an old dry log with a “bos-pik”, hacking off small splinters for his fire tonight. The shack he lives in is full of holes, and once the sun has dropped, temperatures will fall below zero.

I chat to Liesbet Booysen, who’s lived at this intersection for 15 years: “There are no jobs in Colesberg. We live out here so that we can get occasional “los-werk” from farmers who live around here. My dad used to live here – he now lives on a farm. I grew up on the karretjie with him, but now that we don’t move, we must stay here and wait for work.”

Her husband comes out of there home, a small zinc shack with a faded yellow sticker stuck on it with the words: “This is an ANC home”. His name is Hendrik Hermanus. He explains further: ‘The days on the road were much better. The farmers let us shear, and there was always work. Now that the farmers use electric shearers, us karretjie shearers have no work.”

Farmers have started using outsourced, unionized teams of shearers from Lesotho, who arrive in a team with electrified shears. Although it is still commonly agreed upon that the traditional hand shearers are better than the electrified ones, they are too slow for the modern pace of wool production. This has rendered the Karretjie Mense futile, as they try to adapt to a rapidly changing political economy of the wool trade.

The Karretjie Mense are obviously not unionized and thus have subservient and weak bargaining positions as they are at the pure mercy of the farmer. They do not live on the farms and thus the farmer has minimal responsibility towards them. 
When they do get work, they are paid very little. Even when they were shearing, they would be paid between 90c and R1.20 per sheep. On average they would shear 25 – 30 sheep per day, thus earning around R125 – R150 per week. This amount would waver, and depend upon the amount of sheep needing shearing and the seasonality of the job. The shearers would get one sheep to slaughter per 1000 shorn, but would have to pay for everything else they might need to survive during the shearing period.

Hendrik shows me around the outspan. I see a box of pelts on his roof. I ask him what it is. “It’s a Rooikat.”

He walks around to the back of his shack and gestures for me to follow. He bends down into some long grass, and lifts up a slightly decayed head, with the skin still attached. It’s another, smaller, Rooikat, a bullet hole clearly seen in the center of the creature’s skull.

“We eat it,” he continues, “farmers drop it off for us after they’ve trapped and shot them, and we eat it.”

“What’s it taste like?” I ask.

“It tastes like chicken,” he answers, “the meat is white.”

It is commonly thought that the relationship between the farmer and the shearer is symbiotic, since a skill is exchanged for a wage; but rather, it seems quite obviously the opposite – the farmer only has to deal with the labour when it suits him/her, and is able, due to the fact that the labourers are not represented by any union, and the fact that they are wholly dependent upon the farmers for employment, to exploit this labour.

Since sheep shearing is seasonal work, the shearers are dependent on the times when they are needed by the farmer to provide for their families in the times when work is scarce. And now that shearing is dwindling, these people are forced into a corner where they sit and wait for something to happen. They lack dignity and recognition for the role they play in the wider agricultural community, and now that they have very little certainty, and almost no visibility in the national and international dialogue between mainstream media and politics, they struggle through their poverty as the unmistakably poorest of the poor. They have been socio-politically sidelined, and have thus become strangers in their own land.