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Forgotten by the highway:
Globalisation, adverse incorporation and chronic poverty in a commercial farming district

Andries du Toit

CSSR Working Paper No. 101

University of the Western Cape

February 2005

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The paper highlights the key insights arising from a household livelihood survey conducted in Ceres as part of the Chronic Poverty Research Centre’s work in South Africa. It argues that conventional livelihoods analysis needs to be informed by a much more sophisticated awareness of the local and global socioeconomic factors that mediate and shape the strategies that are available in local contexts. The livelihoods of the marginalised rural poor in Ceres, for instance, have to be understood against the background of complex shifts and realignments in global agro-food networks and the implications for local labour market restructuring. This analysis casts doubt on the appropriateness of attempts to frame poverty in South Africa in terms of social exclusion and the lack of integration into the ‘First World’ economy. Rather than social exclusion, poverty in Ceres needs to be understood in terms of adverse incorporation.


‘Left behind’ in Bella Vista Zone 3

Katriena Sym considers herself lucky. She has a roof over her head, a husband who has found work on a farm near by, and a lodger who contributes to the household expenses. ‘Ceres is baie hard, en ek praat nou van hard’ she says, pronouncing her consonants with flinty Karoo precision, ‘maar ek dink ons sal darem regkom’.1 She surveys the inside of her house. There is a plastic milkcrate which does duty as a chair; there is a primus stove and a few pots; there are two sour and ragged foam mattresses; and there is a ramshackle cupboard containing half a kilo of flour, some salt, sugar and cooking oil, and one tin of cheap mackerel. Beyond that, there is literally not a stick of furniture. The little space is bare and empty, cold in winter and hot in summer: most days Katriena prefers to sit outside in the shade or (in winter) at a fire built from scavenged wood or even discarded plastic soft drink bottles.

She has plenty of time to sit around these days. Her eyes have deteriorated much in recent years (‘my gesientes is nou nie wat dit was nie’)2 and she is medically unfit for the hard and exacting work of picking fruit and pruning trees she has done for most of her 39 years. She originally hails from Williston in the Karoo, but she has spent a significant part of her adult life away from home, travelling with teams of seasonal workers to Ceres, Citrusdal and other towns in the Western Cape’s horticultural districts. It was a hard and expensive life, being an uitwerker, and she has decided to settle in Ceres. So far, she thinks it was a good decision. Her common-law husband, Isak, has found work at a neighbouring farm, and they now have a lodger who has also promised to contribute to household expenses.

But in spite of having made this move, her conditions still seem grim. Indeed, there is an unsettling vagueness about Katriena’s hopes that things will improve. The reality is that her husband’s job has not brought in much money. In theory he should be paid between R150 and R200 per week, but she sees almost none of it. Lack of cash means that they have to ‘borrow’ food supplied by the farm shop operated by Isak’s employer. The supermarket in town is significantly cheaper – but the supermarket does not extend credit. Every week, Isak’s payslip shows that most of the money he has earned has already been ‘eaten up’. In a good week, he will bring home R50; sometimes he brings home nothing at all. When he does bring money home, Katriena spends a significant part of it on their accumulated water debt, but she does not know how much she owes. In practice, she often has to rely on contributions for food from Isak’s mother, or from ‘die kind se pa se ma’3 – the mother of another man by whom she has had her five year-old child. They will often lend her a cup of flour or a bit of meat; if all else fails, at least the child is able to sit down with his grandmother at table. Katriena goes hungry.

One woman: one household. The details of Katriena’s life and circumstances are specific to her. Each household in Vyeboomstreet and in all the other bleached, bare roads of Bella Vista Zone 3 will have a different story to tell. But the themes and the relationships will be similar. For Katriena and others like her, living and working in the fertile valleys of the Western Cape has not brought respite from poverty. Survival is possible, and people are resourceful, but hunger, debt, insecurity and dependence have characterised their lives for as long as they have known, and unless the underlying conditions that perpetuate this poverty disappear, it is unlikely that this will change.

And there is very little they can do about it. Katriena and her neighbours survive at the margins of rural Western Cape society. It is an odd kind of marginality: without her and other men and women like her who carry tons of Bon Chretien apples and Granny Smith pears out of the orchards every summer – sometimes at less than R30 (about US$5 at 2004 exchange rates) per day – there would be no fruit industry. But this economic centrality is accompanied by social and political invisibility. From the point of view of those who hold power in Ceres, Katriena hardly exists – except as a potential source of labour. Politically, the poor in Ceres are not a force to be reckoned with. Instead, they are recipients of concern, objects of development, members of what is patronisingly referred to as the agtergeblewene gemeenskap.4 Economically and socially, survival depends on the largesse of those who are wealthier and more powerful. Perhaps it is this brutal fact that is behind Katriena’s striking gentleness of manner – the way in which, from some perspectives, she hardly seems to walk the earth. Her very existence is a tentative one, dependent on a tiny net of fragile relationships. It is a position in which it is possible to dream, hope and plan. But the plans are small.

Chronic and Structural Poverty on a Farmed Landscape

This paper presents key findings from a livelihoods survey of households in four poor neighbourhoods in the Western Cape district of Ceres, one of the centres of South Africa’s deciduous fruit export industry (see Figure 1). It explores the nature and dynamics of the persistence of poverty in the context of continued and relatively sustained economic development and growth, and considers whether the concept of ‘social exclusion’ can help in making sense – especially policy sense – of these dynamics.

As will be seen, the conclusions are mixed. Focusing on ‘social exclusion’ – correctly understood – certainly helps draw attention to power relations, powerlessness, and the processes that perpetuate these. Coming up with workable policy responses to social exclusion requires us, however, to develop a much more nuanced analysis of the social processes involved in what is perhaps more productively thought of not as exclusion but as ‘adverse incorporation’.

Figure 1: Location maps of Ceres
Location maps of Ceres Location maps of Ceres

The paper begins with a short description of Ceres as a centre of Western Cape horticulture and a brief introduction to the key theoretical issues at stake. It provides a schematic overview of social relations and inequality in Western Cape agriculture, summarises some of the key policy responses developed to address poverty and inequality after the transition to democratic rule in 1994, and sketches some of the most important trends in the sector. This provides the background for a discussion of key aspects of livelihood activities and problems among households in the neighbourhoods surveyed.

This discussion draws not only on quantitative surveys and semi-structured interviews with selected households in the survey sample, but also on analyses and insights that flow out of medium and long-term qualitative research and fieldwork on various aspects of deciduous fruit production and social power relations in the area. This sets the scene for a more detailed consideration of some of the underlying theoretical issues at stake, and a short discussion of some important policy issues.


  1. ‘Ceres is hard, and I mean hard, but I think we will survive.’
  2. Roughly translated, ‘my eyesight is not what it was’. The word gesientes cannot be translated into English.
  3. ‘The child’s father’s mother.’
  4. ‘Previously disadvantaged community’, literally ‘the left-behind community’.

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