Cape Town – Buying that punnet of grapes along the N1 could cost you a lot more than the R20 price of the fruit.
Motorists travelling on the national road have been warned they could be fined R1000 for pulling over to buy grapes from vendors. Police have warned that buying these grapes is illegal; people caught doing so will be fined.
Police say these fruit sellers are criminals who steal their wares from surrounding farmers, and also assault and rob unsuspecting motorists who stop to buy from them.
According to De Doorns police this is an “annual crisis”, starting with the grape season in December and ending in April, when the harvest is over. Spokesperson Constable Buqwana urged motorists to heed the warning sign placed along the road, for their own safety.
“We have a sign on the road which reads: 'Caution: beware of robbers selling stolen grapes!', yet people still buy nonetheless,” she said “Our members do patrols but cannot be there all the time.
“The farmers in the Breede Valley started their own project called Farm Watch, whereby they patrol in and around the grape farms and highway looking out for these thieves.
“We have made a few arrests and it’s the court’s decision whether the perpetrators get jail time or fined," Buqwana said. "We have, however, painted over the yellow line on the highway and motorists who are seen stopping along the red line will be given a R1000 fine.”
Buqwana said “drug users” from Hex Valley informal settlement were to blame.
“Most of these robbers are drug users from the informal settlements in the area," she said. “We have had incidents where motorists were robbed and badly injured, thus we urge them not to stop to buy these stolen grapes.
“There are legal ways to buy grapes; we have many pit stops along the highway where motorists can purchase grapes legally.”
Hex Valley Tourism has also posted a notice on Facebook, warning motorists not to buy from the illegal vendors.
"The biggest concern, however, is health and safety," it warns. "Crop protection chemicals are routinely sprayed onto the grapes to protect them from pests and diseases.
"Grape farmers keep to strict withholding periods from spraying until the fruit is picked to ensure that the chemical residues have dropped to levels that are safe for human consumption. The grapes are stolen off the vines at any given time with no regard to these levels so they might not be safe to eat."
Louis de Kok, owner of Elim Farm which is closest to the informal settlement, says everyone suffers.
“I work in partnership with my workers. If we supply and package great products efficiently, we all get bonuses, so this not only affects me, but my workers too,” he explained, “I feel sorry for these addicts; many of them are just caught up in the wrong culture."
"The criminals along the roads are even worse. They not only steal our grapes but our equipment, too. We have now started covering our grapes, changing our water irrigation systems and changing all taps to plastic for which costs run deep.”
De Kok said he once had to fork out R250 000 to repair vandalised equipment.
“We try our best to keep these people off the road as they are often killed by big trucks that do not see them, and motorists get seriously hurt,” he added.
Nevertheless, we did not spot any illegal vendors between Worcester and Laingsburg on Thursday.