The South African press has worked overtime to violence-bait the farmworkers, playing up the torching of a journalist’s car on the first day of the strike and attempts to block the main highway through the region. Police dispersed strikers using stun grenades, water cannons, and rubber bullets. More than 167 farmworkers were arrested and charged with “public violence” in the first week of the strike.
But most of the nearly dozen farmworkers, union officials, and farmworker organizers who spoke to the Militant by phone from all over the Western Cape put the blame for the violence on the cops and capitalist farmers.
“The police act like mad dogs,” farmworker Sera, 40, said in a phone interview from De Doorns, where some of the more violent clashes have taken place. “They shoot rubber bullets with no warning. They say, ‘I am not here to talk. I am here to shoot.’ They have the guns. We just have stones.” Sera, who asked that the Militant not use her real name, works on a grape farm that employs about 80 workers.
The government of the Western Cape, which is led by the Democratic Alliance, the African National Congress’ main bourgeois competitor, called on the ANC-led national government to intervene to end the strike.
ANC Western Cape leader Marius Fransman urged unions to suspend the action Jan. 11, claiming that “unruly elements” were “hijacking the present strike.”
“It is difficult to call off a strike when we have nothing to present to the workers,” Nosey Pieterse, general secretary of the Bawsi Agricultural Workers Union, one of several unions that have joined together to negotiate for the striking workers, told the Militant while traveling between towns in the Western Cape. “They talk about the farmworkers intimidating others who are trying to go to work, but no one talks about the intimidation by the farmers, how they have threatened workers with dismissals and evictions of those that live on the farms.”
Porchia Adams, spokesperson for Agri Wes-Cape, the main organization of capitalist farmers, told the Militant Jan. 15 that farm owners “where unions are represented are most willing to negotiate with union representatives.”
But Pieterse said this is not true. “Individual farmers who talk to us have been threatened physically, and have been advised to refrain from negotiations with us,” he said.
“The head of Agri Wes threatened the farmers will mechanize or move their operations to other African countries if workers keep fighting for higher wages,” said Karel Swartz, assistant general secretary of the Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU), after participating in a protest in Robertson. “It is statements like these that fuel violence.”
A December report by the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy, a “think tank” at the University of Pretoria, claimed that if wages were increased by more than 20 rand a day many farmers would go under. But the report admitted that even with a minimum wage of 150 rand most workers’ households would not be able to “provide the nutrition that is needed.”
Permanent and seasonal workersCapitalist farmers have tried to divide permanent workers from seasonal workers to undermine the strike. Many permanent workers live on the farms, while seasonal workers—including native South Africans and immigrant workers from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Lesotho—usually live in nearby towns. Immigrants especially are often hired through labor brokers who take a cut of their wages.
“I get 83 rand a day,” said Hernanus Shiren, 28, a seasonal worker who picks grapes in the Robertson area. “The owner has seven farms. He has his own winery. He cannot claim he will go bankrupt.”
“Highly productive workers can easily earn more than 150 rand during peak harvest periods,” said Adams, speaking for the farm owners’ group Agri Wes-Cape.
“That’s modern-day slavery,” said Ryno Filander, 29, a worker at the Wonderfontein wine grape farm near Robertson and a member of CSAAWU. Only some crops and jobs are paid piece rate, he said, and then only during harvest season. “What about the rest of the year?”
At Wonderfontein, Filander said, some permanent workers “only get 81 rand a day.” Filander drives a tractor and is paid 109 rand.
“I live on the farm,” he said. “Although I don’t pay rent, there’s no toilet and I pay 50 rand for electricity every two weeks. After last year’s strike the farmer penalized us by refusing to pay the usual Christmas bonuses.”
“Last November was the first time in South African history that farmworkers went on strike,” said Simon Jacobs, 53, a permanent worker at a farm that grows grapes, apricots and peaches. Mechanization of the farms is nothing new, he said. “About 12 years back they started mechanizing the vineyards.”
Last year’s strike by tens of thousands of platinum, gold, chrome and coal miners “opened our eyes,” Jacobs said. “We saw that we must get up for our rights.”
Need for land reformSome farmworkers and union activists say the conflict poses the need for land reform. The overwhelming majority of the capitalist farmers in the Western Cape benefited under the white supremacist apartheid system. A few thousand black Africans got land after 1994, but most own smaller farms.
“The richest farmers own 80 percent of the land in the Western Cape,” said Jacobs. “Why don’t they give the farmworkers 15 to 20 percent? They should give us land so we can grow crops too.”
Adams said that no more than 70 percent of the Western Cape’s 108,000 seasonal workers are on strike, and that less than 20 percent of the 85,000 permanent workers have joined.
“The farmers want to create the impression that the strike is not successful,” said John Michels, chairperson of the Grabouw Elgin Civic Organisation. “How can what they say be true when 80 percent of the people who work on the farms are staying in town and not going to work?”
Some individual farmers have said they are willing to negotiate, said Sandile Keni, an organizer for the Food and Allied Workers Union. “We have a meeting set up with a group of them for Jan. 17.”
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