De Doorns has been rocked by violent protests this week as thousands of frustrated farm workers demanded an increase in wages to R150 per day, improved living conditions, an end to illegal evictions and illegal immigrant workers, and labour brokers. The unrest resulted in the N1, a major thoroughfare of the Western Cape, being blocked with rocks and debris for five days, vineyards were set on fire, shops looted and the Premier of the Western Cape, Helen Zille, who travelled to the area to talk with the farm workers was pelted with rocks.
Dissatisfaction over low wages and competition over labour has been building for some time so these strikes are not out of the blue but their size and the intensity of the violence has come as a shock. In 2009 competition between South African and Zimbabwean farm workers resulted in xenophobic violence and around 3,000 Zimbabweans were forced to flee the area. Petrus Brink, an activist and local labour advisor, says that ‘…many of the workers come in to do seasonal work from areas like the Eastern Cape, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and as far afield as Somalia. This creates a condition where permanent workers feel that their employment is under threat – that they might lose their permanent jobs.’ With a cheaper migrant labour prepared to live in squatter camps, farmers have been less inclined to offer housing, education or other social amenities which are not required by law but which clearly would create better working relationships.
The table grapes and citrus that are farmed in the De Doorns area for the export market are earning most farm owners an extremely comfortable income. Farm workers by contrast are not receiving decent wages – the minimum wage is R69 per day which they describe as a ‘hunger wage’. The farm workers know that with South Africa’s massive over supply of unskilled labour there is always a pool of cheap labour waiting if they don’t want to work for those wages. Undoubtedly farmers here have done too little to support their farm workers – it is an untenable situation to have substantial and growing wealth for the farm owner when his farm workers are not decently housed and properly paid or indeed even securely employed.
Not all farms in the Western Cape operate like that. The Land Reform (Labour Tenants) Act of 1996 brought in by the ANC government caused many farmers to overreact. In essence, it became extremely difficult for farmers who provided houses on their farm for their workers to later evict workers from ‘their’ houses should the need arise (following a lawful dismissal for example). This caused farmers in the De Doorns area to rely heavily on casual labour who sought their own housing in squatter camps. Since housing built for farm workers is totally at the expense of the famer and does not even attract tax breaks this made short term economic sense. Self evidently, it does not make good long term sense – most farms in the Robertson area, like Excelsior, chose to continue the tradition of providing onsite housing for our farm workers at our own expense as part of looking after the community who work with us. We also heavily subsidize electricity and water (houses are fitted with solar heaters). It also means that labour is more reliable and the turnover of people is low – we have third generation farm workers who choose to continue to work at Excelsior.
While many workers said the strike was purely a wage issue, there are suggestions that the situation has been exacerbated by the ANC for political gain. Helen Zille, Premier of the Western Cape, claims she was tipped off that the ANC was intent on ‘turning agriculture in the Western Cape into a second Marikana’. Agri-West Cape spokeswoman Portia Adams said the strike was aggravated by the ANC as part of their strategy to destabilize the DA-run province. Gerrit van Rensburg (Western Cape Agriculture MEC) was quoted on the Daily Maverick speculating that a ‘third force’ was behind the violence, protests and strikes. “I am quite sure that it is not the farm workers involved in this strike, its people from Stofland (an informal settlement with a high population of migrant workers) and other areas. I am sure there is a political motive to this strike as well because nobody wants to take responsibility for the strike, and no one wants to come forward and speak to us,” he said.
We believe that, of course, appropriate wages and housing are important, they’re a crucial part of the dignity of the farm worker, but what really makes a difference in ‘upliftment’ is education. Without education people do not have choice and they will continue to be at a disadvantage. We try to support the children of our farm workers by providing remedial teaching, a playschool, after school classes and a scholarship fund (paid for by the profits from the farm) to allow any child with ability to go on to further studies.
It seems that for the moment at least, the politicians, farmers, farm workers and unions are all talking past each other.
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