Child labour on SA wine farms exposed

21 May 2014 - 11:45

Dr. Susan Levine’s new book entitled: Children of a bitter harvest: child labour in the cape winelands challenges readers to think a little deeper about the origins of the products they consume. The book consists of 100 short stories documenting moments in the lives of children, some as young as 9, who worked on the Cape wine farms between 1996 and 2010.

Susan is a senior lecturer in the School of African and Gender Studies, Anthropology and Linguistics where she lectures in medical anthropology, visual anthropology and political economy. The book draws on her ethnographic research on child labour practices in the cape winelands conducted as part of her PhD study. Specifically, her research exposes widespread exploitation, alcoholism and domestic violence in the Breedekloof Valley municipality over a 14-year period. It is not an easy read because the stories concern extreme hardship. The following excerpt illustrates the brutality and powerlessness experienced by some of the children interviewed: 

We had to suffer on that farm and so we decided to go, but the farmer saw us leaving and took us straight back to work and  deducted more money. Then Nunzima trod on a plant, and he was beaten on the head. Joseph, aged 12, Children of a Bitter Harvest (BestRed)

According to Susan, many of these children were not able to break the cycle of poverty and exploitation. Most remained farm labourers into early adulthood and some have since succumbed to illnesses such as HIV. She says that she was drawn to this research because of her longstanding scholarly investment in understanding the ordinary adaptations that people make to cope with historically produced structural inequality. Her earlier research focused on youth activism at the height of the struggle in 1991, with particular attention to the toyi toyi dance. Susan’s work on child labour demonstrates that youth activism in South Africa was predicated, in some instances, to the early experience of labour exploitation in agriculture.   

The Cape Town launch took place on 23 April 2014 in the CAS Gallery. A Johannesburg launch will follow in May 

“The rhetoric of the nimble-fingered child, of children whose hands were somehow crafted by God to do the delicate work of stitching fabric, planting seeds, pruning vines, laying bricks, packing boxes, making boxes, washing dishes, shoveling coal and mining asbestos from small rocky nooks, dates back to the Industrial Revolution and continues to inform a modern ethos of child labour in South Africa” says Susan.

Speaking at the Cape Town launch, Deputy Vice Chancellor Professor Crain Soudien said that this is an important book and a huge achievement in terms of raising difficult questions about the right for children to work in contexts of poverty. 

Dr. Susan Levine is a recipient of the UCT Distinguished Teacher Award for 2011.