The Farm Workers' Strike: It's Far From Over

By Anna Majavu · 15 Nov 2012

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The mines and the farms are two enduring symbols of old white colonial theft, of the minerals and land. Because of the monopoly of the National Union of Mineworkers, whose leaders and officials have long preferred compromise and co-determination over worker control, it has been difficult for mineworkers to strike – until the Marikana massacre.

It has possibly been even harder for farm workers to strike.

Human Rights Watch estimated recently that less than 3% of South African farm workers are organized. Most farm workers earn the minimum wage or well below, with many in the Western Cape still paid partly in alcohol even though white farmers claim that the ‘dop system’ was done away with years ago. Striking farm workers often face losing their homes on farms, where they have buried family members and where their children go to school.

Yet this week, farm workers went on strike in their thousands in rural towns in the province, with the added promise by Groot Constantia workers in the city of Cape Town of an imminent strike there.

Yesterday, COSATU and acting Labour minister Angie Motshekga declared the strike suspended for two weeks. This is not the case. Much like Marikana, COSATU and the ANC have no influence over this strike, which the farm workers have vowed to continue.

When the farm workers strike began in De Doorns last week, it took the ANC, DA and Cosatu by surprise. The farm workers in this small town 140 kilometres east of Cape Town blocked the N1 highway, set fire to the vineyards, and demanded a wage of R12 500 per month. This was a clear reference to the Marikana workers’ demand for the same monthly wage, which has since spread throughout the mines.

The Zimbabwean refugee rights group, PASSOP, rushed to the scene because the De Doorns farm workers had also allegedly looted Somali-owned spaza shops in the town. PASSOP officials who lived in the town for a year after the 2009 xenophobic attacks there, pointed out that the strike appeared to be spontaneous and not organized by any union.

In the Western Cape, farm workers tend to belong to non-COSATU unions, namely Sikhula Sonke – a women led farm workers union, and the independent and more leftist Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU).

The press is now reporting the Black Association of the Wine and Spirit Industry (BAWSI) as saying farm workers have suspended their strike. BAWSI is not a farm workers union, but a pro-ANC lobbying association with workers and businesspeople in it ranks, which aims to increase the levels of Black ownership in the wine and spirit industry. BAWSI has no authority to speak for 15 000 farm workers in the region.

The COSATU farm workers union, the South African Agricultural, Plantation and Allied Worker's Union, collapsed more than ten years ago. The Food and Allied Workers Union, another COSATU affiliate, was then designated to organize the farm workers but never did.

However, the De Doorns strike presented an ideal opportunity for COSATU to strike a blow against the DA, and COSATU quickly positioned itself as the voice of the strike, downgrading the farm workers demands to a modest R150 a day, or just R3300 per month.

COSATU claimed credit when workers on other farms as far as 70 kilometres away quickly took up the call for a R150 minimum wage. And after a general meeting in Franschoek, hundreds of workers affiliated to Sikhula Sonke downed tools on 13 November in solidarity with the De Doorns strikers, spreading the strike further.

However, these solidarity strikes were not of Cosatu’s making. By November 13, thousands of farm workers in Prince Alfred Hamlet in Ceres, in Wolseley and in Robertson had set up burning barricades, were setting fire to farm equipment and were being attacked by police. The workers were also calling for an end to labour broking on farms.

COSATU and ANC leaders had by then changed tactics and insisted that farm workers suspend their strike for two weeks while the government gazettes the new minimum of R80 per day on offer from the white farmers association.

The Cape Town-based Workers International Vanguard League has had activists on the ground in the area for the past week and reported that after the farm workers refused and vowed to continue the strike, police and militias made up of farmers then invaded De Doorns on the night of 14th November, opening fire on workers.

According to the activists, farm workers have agreed to be paid R150 per day and say they will strike until president Jacob Zuma gazettes this amount.

COSATU and the ANC have clearly not learnt any lessons from the mineworkers’ strike where their bid to crush workers who attempt to self-organise and take militant action, has been a flop.

In the farm workers strike, the DA at first openly sided with the farmers after arrogantly assuming that the disorganized farm workers’ strike would not last more than a few days. Once the strike spread, as the mine workers’ strike did, Helen Zille blamed COSATU for inciting violence, declared that only president Jacob Zuma could end the farm workers strike by increasing the minimum wage on the farms and repeatedly implored Zuma via Twitter to send in the army to crush the strike.

There is no reason why the white Western Cape farmers could not raise the wages of farm workers immediately - if they wanted to. In fact, Zille has known for a long time that the white farmers in the province are reluctant to pay even the existing minimum wage of R1500 per month. She is also aware of other abuses against farm workers – they are regularly transported like cattle on the backs of open trucks, and die in well-publicised accidents.

The DA, COSATU and ANC are all aware that Sikhula Sonke camped outside parliament three years ago in protest against a white farmer who forced workers to live in pigsties, and that CSAAWU is campaigning publicly against farmer Willie Dreyer from Leeuwenkuil farm in Agter-Paarl.

Dreyer allegedly evicted farm worker Patrick Philander, his wife and four children and laid false charges of attempted murder against him and another CSAAWU activist, Amos White, after they recruited other farm workers into the union.

And the internationally-publicised Human Rights Watch report into South Africa’s fruit and wine industries last year found farms to be “ripe with abuse” – with farm workers having their water and electricity disconnected, being harassed in the middle of the night by farmers’ guards and their dogs, being exposed to pesticides and being prevented from joining unions.

The ANC has previously fostered disunity between workers in De Doorns instead of trying to improve the workers’ lot. Three years ago, ANC ward councillor Mpumelelo “Poyi” Lubisi was named in affidavits supplied to the Legal Resources Centre as being a mastermind behind a xenophobic attack, which displaced 3000 Zimbabwean farm workers.

At that time, PASSOP spokesperson Braam Hanekom described De Doorns then as a “cut-throat environment that is a recipe for tension” with farmers hiring workers through “a thousand labour brokers” who took the lump sums and paid farm workers whatever lesser amount they were desperate enough to accept on any given day.

The farm workers can expect no help from the party, which rules the province – the DA, because the DA supports labour broking and white farm ownership monopolies specifically and the free market in general. The ANC and COSATU are only using the workers to score temporary political points against the DA and now seem as eager to end the strike, as they were to end the Marikana miners strike. As in Marikana, De Doorns represents the worst of South African party politics. Like the mineworkers, South Africa’s farm workers have long lived in slavery-like conditions and deserve the support of all to continue their strike and keep blocking the highways.

Majavu is a writer concentrating on the rights of workers, oppressed people, the environment, anti-militarism and what makes a better world. She is currently studying for a Masters Degree in New Zealand.

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15 Nov

This Is Superb

This is, by a long distance, the best article that I've read on the farm workers' strikes.

It is clear that, as in Marikana, this is a case of workers' self organisation. The old political certainties are breaking down. We seem to be on the verge of something new.

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Jerry Simo Malebana
16 Nov

Exploitation & Theft

The mines and the farms are the two enduring symbols of white colonial hyper exploitation & theft. Finish & Klaar!

16 Nov

De Doorns Strikes

Majavu remains deathly silent on the comments and challenge from Andre above regarding Old White Colonialists stealing the land and mines and police and farmer militia shooting strikers with only one dead reported. Mi, they shoot skew at illegal strikers and property destroyers. Some of MAJAVU's comments just don't gel. It is clear in what camp she is.

Can we please get more objective reporting!

15 Nov

De Doorns Strike

Majavu, you do bring up some interesting pointers, but are clearly also shooting from the hip.

It would be nice, where you make proposterous claims of abuse etc, that you could add those "links of proof" into your article, otherwise it just comes over as hype, sensationalism, prejudice and unfounded jargon to push radical workers rights. Where is the balance and some farmers, govt, labour depts, human rights entities you interviewed etc. etc? Very one sided, don't you think?

You also make the following very generalised radical statement:
"The mines and the farms are two enduring symbols of old white colonial theft, of the minerals and land."

Can you please explain and give historical proof, pertaining to the WESTERN CAPE, who stole the land from WHO? Radical and discredited Julius Malema tried that one too. By war and by treaty, much happened in our past, carefully documented, so please inform us of your EVIDENCE and the FACT, less you discredit yourself and this article completely. To play on the emotions of unschooled people, leading to violence borders criminality! I repeat, in the Western Cape, who stole what land from who?

Also accusing farmers and police as "militia" attacking farm workers who have illegally destroyed millions worth in property (which farmers incidentally has a legal right to defend life and property against illegal strikers and anarchy causers) sounds like unfounded sensationalism. When farmers shoot, they shoot to kill I'm told. Can you be a bit more specific and tell us how many strikers were SHOT DEAD by this alleged "militia" of farmers and Police ?

Majavu, a more balanced article would have been appreciated, too many loose ends from an activist, bordering radicalism, fuelling emotional yet unfounded hype. Your responsible comments will be welcomed, sooner than later.

In the intro you mentioned that the Colonialists stole the mines.

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Daneel Knoetze Verified user
16 Nov

"demanded a wage of R12 500 per month." the similarities between Marikana and De Doorns are striking, but a call for R 12500 is not one of them. From Monday last week R150 a day has been the official demand, this amounts to R3150.

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Father Christmas
17 Nov

Christmas in Cape Town

John Steinbeck's 'Grapes of Wrath' will do nicely for Helen Zille and all the (presumably) white oppression denialists leaving comments here. The Trots might enjoy Steinbeck's 'In Dubious Battle'.

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23 Nov

Illegal Political Motivated Farm Strikes

Jerry Malebane and Majavu,

When you read the following open letter to Tony Erenreich and Maruis Fransman, you might think twice (I hope you understand Afrikaans as I copy the comments of a "White farmer."

'n Ope brief aan Tony Ehrenreich
Deur Wit Boer
17 November 2012

Beste Tony Ehrenreich,

Ek is vanaand baie hartseer terwyl ek hierdie brief sit en skryf. Ek is 'n 40-jarige wit boer. Danksy jou is ek vandag een van 'n groep mense wat gehaat word in hierdie land. Meneer Ehrenreich, in 1994 het ons almal onderneem om 'n nuwe Suid-Afrika te bou.

'n Beter, nie-rassistiese, gelyke, reenboognasie. Ons het so mooi begin, met die beste leier in die wereld. 'n Man wat na 27 jaar in die tronk steeds besef het ons moet die verlede vergeet en saam vorentoe 'n nasie bou. Maar meneer Ehrenreich, vanaand pyn hierdie wit boer se hart.
Dieselfde kleur hart as joune.

Hier rondom my brand die land. Hierdie land waarvoor ek so lief is. Meneer Ehrenreich, ek bestuur 'n besigheid wat opgebou is oor 150 jaar. Ja, hierdie besigheid is ouer as die ANC, so dit is iets werd vandag. Hierdie besigheid is egter uitgelewer aan die internasionale vryemark.

Ondanks die feit dat die regering van Suid-Afrika die grootste deel van die inkomste kry (14% BTW en 30% inkomstebelasting), kry my besigheid geen beskerming teen invoere, oorsese ge-subsidieerde produkte of natuurrampe nie.

Tog produseer ek jaarliks genoeg kos vir 1500 Suid-Afrikaners. Vyftig siele leef permanent vanaf hierdie boerdery. Vyftig mense wat elke aand warm bad en met 'n vol maag in 'n warm bed gaan slaap. Vyftig mense wat nie bekommerd hoef te wees wat more vir hul en hul kinders inhou nie. (Ongelukkig moet hulle van vandag af baie bekommerd wees oor wat jy, Tina en Marius Fransman kwytraak.)

Meneer Ehrenreich, dit mag dalk vanuit jou perspektief lyk of ek 'n ryk boer is, maar gaan vra gerus my bankbestuurder hoeveel geld daar in my bankrekening is teen die tyd dat my oes klaar voorberei is. Vra gerus die ekonome van Suid-Afrika hoeveel is die skuldlas in die landbou-sektor. Dis nie omdat boere sleg met geld werk nie, inteendeel, dis die aard van die natuur en voedselproduksie waarin ons moet werk.

Ja, meneer Ehrenreich, nes my voorvaders en my mede-boere neem ek elke jaar 'n groot risiko om die oes voor te berei, sonder enige waarborg. Ek gaan leen geld by die bank, gaan koop kunsmis, diesel, onkruiddoder en betaal lone, sonder die versekering dat ek 'n opbrengs op daardie lening gaan kry. Dis hoekom almal boerdery 'n dobbelspel noem.

Jy en jou mede ANC-leiers sal egter nie hierdie beginsel verstaan nie want julle gebruik mos regeringsgeld om al jul planne uit te voer. Daardie geld wat vir die armes bedoel was, wat gebruik moes word om werk te skep in Suid-Afrika. Hoekom doen jy en jou kamerade nie ook dieselfde as ons boere nie? Hoekom gaan leen julle nie ook by die bank geld en woeker daarmee nie?

Hierdie plase en eiendom wat julle nou afbrand was opgebou uit niks. Hoekom wil jul net altyd bestaande bates afbreek of verdeel en belastinggeld mors? Ons moet tog die koek groter maak sodat daar vir almal 'n happie is, nie kleiner nie.

Dis entrepeneurs en bouers soos ek wat dit kan doen, landbouers. Hoekom sweep jy nie ook die werkloses op as ANC-leiers R250 miljoen op 'n huis spandeer nie? Hoekom is jy tjoepstil as die arm kinders van hierdie land nie skoolboeke kry nie, terwyl jou landsleiers in vliegtuie rondrits, van die een partytjie na die ander, om tenders aan vriende en familie uit te deel?

Hoekom hoor ons nie dan van jou of Marius nie? Nee, meneer Ehrenreich, jy verkies eerder om armes en oningeligtes op te sweep om werkplekke af te breek. Die kinders van Suid-Afrika sal eendag van jou lees in die geskiedenisboeke, maar nie soos jy jou verbeel nie.

Die groot ironie is dat daar vele leiers soos jy in die verlede was. Leiers wat burgers van 'n land teen mekaar opgesweep het. Leiers wat mense aangemoedig het om af te breek, eerder as op te bou. Hoe gaan dit nou in daardie lande? Waar werk hulle nou? Jou naam sal in dieselfde hoofstuk as Robert Mugabe se naam geskryf staan.

Sy land se mense werk nou in jou kinders se plek hier in Suid-Afrika. Waar gaan Suid-Afrika se mense heen trek as julle al die werkplekke hier afgebrand het? Jy het duidelik nie na meneer Mandela geluister nie! Gaan vra hom more-oggend of hy trots is op wat jy doen vir die mense van hierdie land.

Meneer Ehrenreich, ek wens die kinders van hierdie land sien jou vir wat jy is en kan my sien vir wat ek is. Ek is lief vir hulle en hierdie land, jy is nie. Jy en jou mede ANC leiers voel niks vir hulle of hierdie land nie. Ek hoop die armes van hierdie land sien dat hul net pionne in jul siek magspel is.

Dat jy en Marius Fransman net aan jul eie politieke posisies, met die gevolglike finansiele vergoeding, dink. Dat niemand meer vat by armes en op hulself spandeer as die ANC leiers van hierdie land nie. Meneer Ehrenreich, ek is 'n beter Suid-Afrikaner as jy. Ek is nie 'n rassis nie,
jy is. Ek het nie 'n verskuilde agenda nie, jy het. Ek wil hierdie land opbou, ek wil kos produseer en vir mense 'n werk gee. Wat wil jy doen?

Wit Boer

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