A South African police van weaves through rocks and trash used to barricade the streets of Stofland, as its three occupants monitor a truce brokered with residents of the shantytown after days of violent protests.
Stofland, or Dust Land in Afrikaans, is on the outskirts of the town of De Doorns in the Hex River valley and is home to several hundred families who work as laborers in vineyards. The turmoil that erupted in the area, 150 kilometers (94 miles) northeast of Cape Town, spread to 15 other rural towns in the Western Cape Province this month, claiming the lives of two farmworkers and destroying vines and sheds.
The government says the protests were sparked by workers’ outrage over low pay and inhumane living conditions and agreed to consider demands for the minimum daily wage to be raised from 70 rand ($7.81) to 150 rand. Farmers say the violence is aimed at destabilizing the only one of the nine provinces not run by the ruling African National Congress.
“All of here in this valley, we are crying for more wages,” Phumla Tsheko, 21, who lost her job on a mushroom farm after asking her employer to raise her daily pay of 60 rand, less than the legal limit, said in a Nov. 20 interview in the Stofland shack she shares with five relatives. “We have families to support. This thing has been started by the people on the farms.”
The farm violence followed a series of pay strikes that began at mines in August and have curbed growth and output in Africa’s largest economy, contributing to two credit-rating downgrades.
South Africa’s rand has weakened 9.3 percent against the dollar since labor unrest started at mines on Aug. 10, the worst performance among 16 major currencies tracked by Bloomberg. It gained 0.3 percent to 8.9188 at 8:30 a.m. in Johannesburg.
Agriculture makes up about 2.1 percent of South Africa’s gross domestic product directly and farms produce close to 6.5 percent of the country’s exports, including wine, citrus fruit, corn, grapes, apples and pears, according to government data.
South Africa is the world’s ninth largest wine producer and has Africa’s biggest table grape output. The protests caused about 120 million rand ($13.5 million) in damages, with grape growers hardest hit, according to AgriSA, the main farmers’ group.
Gerhard de Kock, 60, who owns 12 farms in the Hex River valley and employs about 3,000 full-time and seasonal workers, said the violent labor action was the first he has had to contend with in 30 years of farming. He watched some of his workers being intimidated to join a march led by several hundred young men, most of whom were bussed into the area and burned 9 hectares (22 acres) of his vines, he said.
“I’ve never seen this before,” De Kock, who estimated his losses at about 9 million rand, said in a Nov. 20 interview in Cape Town. “It’s a politically driven thing. The population of the Western Cape is getting punished for voting for the opposition.”
Fruit and wine farmers in the Western Cape on average pay their workers 30 percent more than the minimum wage and most are externally audited to ensure they meet required standards, according to AgriSA. It hasn’t received any reports of protests outside the province, the country’s main grape and wine producer.
“We as a farming community are quite convinced that this is not a minimum wage or labor issue,” Anton Rabe, chairman of Agri SA’s labor committee, said in a Nov. 20 phone interview from Paarl, near Cape Town. “There is some other agenda behind this. It’s clear that this has been orchestrated.”
The Congress of South African Trade Unions, the country’s largest labor organization, alleges widespread exploitation and abuse of farmworkers in the Western Cape. Its view is backed up by an August 2011 report by New York-based Human Rights Watch, which found many workers were denied basic labor rights and access to toilets and drinking water while working.
The farmer organizations “would want to suggest that there are a few rotten apples, but unfortunately it’s a lot wider than that,” Cosatu organizer Mike Louw said in a Nov. 20 phone interview from Cape Town. “Allegations that these protests were instigated from outside are totally groundless.”
Trade Minister Rob Davies said black and mixed-race farmworkers who were confined to being laborers and denied access to land under white segregationist rule, which ended in 1994, are still not deriving enough benefit from the farms they worked.
“I’m not surprised there has been an explosion of this sort,” he told reporters in Cape Town on Nov. 14. “I think farmworkers have felt alienated.”
Calm has been restored to most towns since Nov. 17 when Cosatu brokered a two-week suspension of the strike pending the minimum-wage review. Five armored police vehicles stood idle outside the De Doorns police station this week, and police spokesman Andre Traut said no new incidents of violence had been reported.
The truce may not last, with unions and workers warning labor action will resume on Dec. 4 if their demands aren’t met. Helen Zille, premier of the Western Cape and leader of the Democratic Alliance, has called for the army to be sent.
“The military is not the solution,” Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson told reporters in Cape Town on Nov. 14. “This is not a political matter.”
Mechanization has seen the number of workers employed on farms fall about 30 percent to 680,000 over the past decade, AgriSA’s Rabe said. He expects more job losses to stem from the violence, adding to a 25 percent unemployment rate.
“I’m convinced farmers will mechanize more,” he said. “Some production practices will be changed to become fully independent of seasonal workers.”
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