South Africans traveling to the US to escape persecution, find jobs
From opposite sides of the ocean, perpendicular needs – one of labor and one of employment – are meeting on American farms. One need due to a changing demographic of the agriculture industry; the other largely due to reverse discrimination.
As the U.S. faces an aging farmer population, larger ag operations and a lack of workers willing or skilled to perform farm labor, on the other side of the world South African farmers, the majority of them white, are suffering what many are calling an unspoken genocide. Politically it’s not declared asylum, but white South African are facing persecution – and wanting out. Job prospects are dismal, if not impossible, as the black majority counters the apartheid system of the ’80s. The result is violence specifically targeting farmers, and it’s largely being ignored by mainstream media.
At the intersection of the needs is the U.S. H2-A program, which began in 1986 to provide temporary, seasonal farm labor from foreign workers. The process is lengthy, expensive and risky, but as more farmers are facing zero applicants for posted jobs, the program is growing in participation – and more South Africans are finding a zone of opportunity.
USA Farm Labor is a workforce agency based in North Carolina, founded in 2003 by Manuel Fick, a South African native who saw a need for skilled farm laborers and knew where they could be found. His dream was to build a connection between South Africa and the U.S. They started with 40 clients; today they have 450 farm clients and place around 1,000 workers per year. Of that total, approximately 800 are South African.
Charlie Boatright works in worker placement for USA Farm Labor. He says the H2-A program continues to grow nationwide, due to the shortage of ag workers. H2-A requirements state employers must advertise and hire U.S. citizens before foreign workers. Boatright says, “Without exception every client I’ve ever visited with says, ‘Charlie, if I could hire a local worker I’d do it in heartbeat – but they don’t exist.’”
Filling this glut is a nation that is technically advanced in agriculture. Most farmers in South Africa use similar equipment and systems to that in the U.S. In addition to having farming experience the majority of the South Africans in their program are educated with a high school and often college degree and all speak English, as it is a required second language.
Gert Lubbe has worked in the U.S. for three “seasons” – the H2-A program allows an employer a defined, up to 10-month window of need, during which they can employ foreign laborers. Lubbe is currently on an Minnesota-based harvest crew that has made its way north combining wheat, and plans to return to a former feedlot employer in Montana in December. H2-A workers can transfer between seasons for up to three years before being required to return to their home country, although plans to streamline program regulations were announced by the Department of Labor in July 2019 and will likely change the rules.
Lubbe grew up in South Africa on a macadamia and avocado farm that has been in his family for 150 years. Like any other “SAs,” as they call themselves, he says he is in the U.S. because there are no jobs or opportunities in his home country.
“Times have changed, it’s difficult as a younger, white person to find a job in South Africa,” Lubbe says. The political tension is taut; Lubbe says a policy called Black Economic Empowerment requires employers to offer a job to a less qualified black person even if a more qualified white person applies.
Boatright says one USA Farm Labor applicant he worked with was a highly-educated college professor seeking work through the H2-A program after losing his job because he was white. “They were replacing him with someone black – he was out of a job because of his race,” says Boatright. The policy is driving a lot of whites to leave and seek employment in other countries, not just the U.S., added Boatright.
Beyond a loss of opportunity, the threat and occurrence of violence is escalating as reverse-apartheid activists have taken power and work to incite radicals. Elections this May were charged with rhetoric of “expropriation without compensation” – a push by black extremists to “take back the land” that was “stolen” by ancestral whites. In many cases their urged solution is to kill the white farmers. Julius Malema leads South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters party; YouTube videos can be found of him leading rabid chants of “Kill the Boer” (Kill the Whites), complete with motions of shooting a gun to a head. Farm killings have become more common and most SAs in the U.S. say the media is bypassing the news. English journalist Katie Hopkins released a documentary in 2018 investigating white genocide in the country. For her efforts she was detained, but later released, in Johannesburg for “spreading racial hatred.”
The issues of land ownership, discrimination and murder are as old as Cain and Abel – yet no one can deny instances of farmers being tortured, raped, strangled with barbed wire, or burned alive.
“Our farmers are not safe anymore,” says Lubbe. “Some of us whose parents are farmers are encouraged to come work over here – as landowners we don’t know what the future is going to hold.”
Lubbe describes how, beyond the threat of their land being taken and being killed, the irony of the land seizures is that those who are taking the land are not keeping them in production.
“The sad part is they take our farms, but they don’t actually do anything with them,” says Lubbe. “It happened just down the road – they take the farm then they just sell the implements, and a year later you have an abandoned piece of land that had been worked on by generations and generations of families.”
Lubbe says he enjoys his work in the U.S. and the money is good – and who could argue that traveling around the country with a harvest crew, driving an 18-wheeler is a great gig for a single 20-something.
But the adventure of the present is still clouded by apprehension of the future.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do someday. Everything is basically going to scratch in South Africa. I have a farm to inherit, but I don’t know – is it going to be mine? Is it going to be the government’s?”
The fear to family members back home looms large. The thought of returning to raise a family seems dismal.
“I don’t know if I have a future in South Africa for myself or for a family,” says Lubbe. “That’s why I’m scared to find someone and get married there. I don’t know what’s going to happen to my family, or to everyone else. At the moment we just have to trust God and hope everything will turn out as it’s supposed to be.”
As the U.S. political system struggles to mold the H2-A program into a solution that fits the changing needs of the ag industry, and farm confiscations continue on the opposite corner of the world, a group of young men enjoy a 4th of July rodeo in Terry, Mont. They stand out among the jeans and cowboy hats in khaki shirts and shorts, yet fit in more than most. In a town with a population less than 500, they are known on a first-name basis, admired and liked, and have quickly integrated into the social fabric of the community.
Even if it’s just for a season.