There were signs of calm in the rural town of De Doorns yesterday as about a third of workers started to return to work, but this happened as the ruling party’s alliance partner, Cosatu, started a campaign to ramp up protests on South African farms.

In the Western Cape, Cosatu warned that the week-long strike was just the start of “a call to action in solidarity with farm workers of De Doorns and Wellington and farm workers across the country”. It, together with the De Doorns workers’ committee and Sikhula Sonke, pledged rolling mass action across the country.

While Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson held talks with farmers represented by the National African Farmers’ Association, which represents black farmers; AgriSA, which is largely representative of white farmers; and the Transvaal Agricultural Union yesterday, Cosatu held a “steamrolling” mass action press conference in Stellenbosch.

While AgriSA president Johannes Moller said there was definitely “a political element” to the protests in the Hex River Valley – a wine and grape product producing area, he did not want to criticise any particular political organisation.

He said there were reports of a smattering of farm protests in Mpumalanga and Limpopo – concentrated around Tzaneen – as well.

He did note that politicians such as ANC Western Cape leader Marius Fransman and ANC Cape Town caucus leader Tony Ehrenreich had been voluble about their support for mass action by farm workers.

Protest action that turned violent started last week when workers from about 110 farms blockaded the N1, pouring rocks across the road that runs through De Doorns. They set fire to 50 vineyards, which is estimated to have cost the industry between R12 million and R15m.

Ehrenreich, who is the regional secretary of Cosatu, led a media briefing attended by a range of organisations last night. He noted that the worker unions, community organisations, NGOs and farm worker committees had formed “a coalition” that would co-ordinate a campaign for a living wage and decent living and working conditions on the farms in the country.

It was an indication that there were differences in the alliance on how to proceed, with the national minister seeking a solution to the call for a doubling in wages to R150 a day for workers. She pledged at the meeting with farmers’ organisations that she would consult with the labour and rural development department to form an inter-ministerial committee to deal with the wage issue.

Last week she appeared to back a farmer resolution to raise the minimum wage from R70 to R80 a day, some R70 short of what is being demanded.

But worker organisations allied to the ruling ANC last night announced that Ehrenreich had been appointed “coalition chairperson” and the minimum wage rate would not be accepted. “Farm workers are saying they want an end to poverty wages and slave conditions on the farms,” he said.

Ehrenreich said on Saturday that negotiations between Joemat-Pettersson, the leadership of AgriSA, Agri Wes-Cape, the Hex Valley table grape farmers, the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), unions including Cosatu and the farm workers from De Doorns and Wellington, failed to reach a decision on the demands for a living wage and for better living and working conditions.

While Joemat-Pettersson’s spokesman could not be reached for comment, Moller said the minister had undertaken to write to the Departments of Labour and Rural Development and Land Affairs.

“They will look again at the minimum wages in agriculture, based on sound research and affordability with inputs from the different sectors.”

Moller said, however, he was concerned that the agreed-to minimum wages that had been gazetted by the Labour Department were now being flouted. He noted that the costs for 1 hectare of table grapes was about R350 000 a year and any change in costs could put farmers in trouble.

Meanwhile, the farmers groups, including Agri Wes-Cape, undertook to ask the regional government to look into improving the living conditions in the De Doorns’ informal settlement.

Moller noted that the farms in the Hex River Valley were “routinely audited” before they exported their goods to Europe and elsewhere. The farm workers’ living conditions had to be up to scratch. However, many of the workers lived in the informal settlement at De Doorns.

Measures to improve service delivery at this township were therefore considered urgent, Moller said.

Western Cape agriculture department spokesman Wouter Kriel said MEC Gerhard van Rensburg did not wish to get involved further as worker-farmer negotiations were now taking place with the facilitation of the CCMA.

However, it is understood that about 6 000 of the 16 000 workers who do “seasonal” jobs were back on the lands.

Sapa reported that 11 people were arrested early yesterday, when a group of some 80 people carrying sticks and pangas tried to prevent farm workers from going to work.