Ceres Valley, South Africa

Another bleary-eyed morning spent rock-hopping in the pre-dawn light to get to a vantage point before sunrise.

This time we drove through foggy streets of Ceres in the Western Cape Province out to Mitchell’s Pass. From there we hiked halfway up a mountain and waited for the sun to come up and burn off the fog in the valley.

The town is named after the Roman goddess of agriculture and the region is a major producer of deciduous fruit. Currently the Western Cape Province is one of the wealthier regions in South Africa but the workers in places like Ceres are still struggling to get their share of the prosperity. 20 years after apartheid laws were dismantled racial inequality still has a marked effect on the region.

In a study of entrenched poverty in the Western Cape author Andries du Toit points out that;

a look at the profile of Ceres at the beginning of the 21st century seems to indicate that the coming into power of a black majority government in South Africa has not signaled the end of white hegemony in the Ceres district or elsewhere in the rural Western Cape. True Ceres now has a black, African National Congress mayor. But the machinery of local government has not fundamentally changed. The white elite that has run the valleys of the Witzenberg since the 18th century have not been displaced.

Labour conditions and pay for South African workers have gradually improved as unions and political representation has increased. But in recent years institutionalized racism has given way to a new sort of wage slavery as business owners shed their employees and permanent staff in favour of guest-workers (mainly from the poorer eastern cape) brought in on short term contracts. By not directly employing workers the big agro-businessess can offset the risks involved with seasonal harvests by having labour-brokers set wages for workers and gamble on recovering their own costs.

for many more workers, the shift from ‘subject’ to ‘citizen’ involves the exchange of the authoritarian racial hierarchies and ambiguous protection of the paternalist ‘contract’ for a formally free but even more uncertain existence as landless seasonal workers.

In a surprisingly poetic description for an academic paper Andries highlights one particular resident of Ceres:

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 pears and Granny Smith apples 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 [literally ‘the left-behind community’]. 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.

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Rocks above Mitchell's pass near South Africa's Ceres valley.

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