Cape Town - War-like scenes erupted on Wednesday as violence raged in Wolseley, De Doorns and other towns in the Boland farming district as striking farmworkers clashed with police.
In Wolseley on Wednesday morning, a farmer drove into town and was attacked by a crowd of stone-throwers.
His bakkie was then overturned, and set alight, but police rescued him before he could be attacked.
A police van was also attacked and overturned.
Shopkeepers shut their businesses and parents were told to collect their children from schools.
A local farmer, who asked not to be named, said he had been phoned by the local school, with urgent instructions to fetch his children.
But this proved difficult since the main road into town, crossing a bridge, had been blocked by rioters.
“It’s chaos here,” another resident said.
Police in the area pleaded that they were too busy to give a detailed update on the situation.
One resident said about the old hotel in the town’s main road: “All the glass is broken, all the doors are broken.”
He said the crowd numbered “thousands”.
“They’re now setting the town alight. They’re burning the fields, and it’s now burning close to the houses. We’re trying to save the farms,” he said, out of breath, before hanging up. More windows were broken at a fast-food outlet in Wolseley.
On several streets, barricades of burning tyres smouldered.
A bottle store’s windows were all smashed and parts of the town resembled a ghost town.
“I saw a few faces peeping from inside shops, it looks like they are very scared,” reported Cape Argus Chief Photographer Henk Kruger.
In Elim, near De Doorns, a pensioner’s skull was fractured when he was attacked with a panga. Rocks were strewn across the N1 highway near the town and tyres were burned on the bridge which links the Stofland informal settlement to De Doorns.
In Ceres, there were reports of factories and fruit bins being set alight, as well as fires in the informal settlement of Nduli and in Prince Alfred Hamlet.
There have been rumours that a striking worker died after being shot by police on Monday, but police could not confirm this.
The growing unrest comes after Cosatu and Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat-Petterson on Tuesday called for calm, pending the outcome of negotiations with President Jacob Zuma to raise the national minimum wage for farm workers.
Joemat-Petterson was to meet Zuma on Wednesday at noon.
“The minister was asked by the farmworkers to intervene and to speak to the president to escalate their demands,” her spokeswoman Palesa Mokomela said.
“Joemat-Pettersson will basically act as their messenger when she hopefully meets with President Zuma on Wednesday. She will ask the government to re-determine the wages of farm workers.”
The N1 highway leading into De Doorns was closed during the violence, in which vineyards were set alight and stones thrown.
The highway was opened later this morning, with trucks passing through with fruit and other cargo. Fruit stalls and roadside shops were closed.
The remains of a burnt vineyard could be seen outside the town centre.
Food and Allied Workers’ Union president Attwell Nazo and general secretary Katishi Masemola were to address workers in Ceres and De Doorns on Wednesday afternoon. The leaders are expected to tell the crowd about the government’s response to their demands.
Jan Jonkers, a pensioner from Elim, was hospitalised after being hit by a panga.
Jonkers was apparently on his way to the local clinic, but was mistaken for someone going to work because of his backpack, said Glen Williams, who arrived on the scene shortly after the attack and assisted Jonkers.
Williams said the wound had fractured Jonkers’s skull.
Grape harvesters in the Hex River Valley had been protesting for a week over their wages, demanding R150 a day. Most earned between R69 and R75 a day, with R80 being the highest and only offer from farmers.
Several workers had been arrested for public violence.
On Wednesday morning, Joemat-Pettersson called on the labour department to intervene in the farm workers’ strike.
“I have no capacity to advise or influence the employment conditions commission,” she told SAfm.
“That is a matter for the department of labour or the minister of labour. We have done what we could as the department of agriculture and we will continue supporting workers.”
She said she had helped “restore relationships” between striking farmworkers and farmers.
“I think we’ve [the department] acted as a facilitator to allow that these negotiations and talks stay on track... We cannot afford this sector to lose jobs... that is why we decided to participate in normalising the situation.”
“We call on all workers to stop the violence, to stop the vandalism,” the minister said on SAfm.
Meanwhile, the ANC in the Eastern Cape called for a boycott of South African wines, since people would be supporting workers’ exploitation if they continued buying South African-produced wine.
Eastern Cape ANC spokesman Mlibo Qoboshiyane said: “Next time people binge on wines from the Western Cape, they must know that they support exploitation of black workers,” he said.
He said farmers could afford to pay the workers what they wanted.
“The South African wine industry is making a lot of money locally and internationally; therefore, the wage demands of the workers are realistic and can be met by the employers.”
Western Cape Premier Helen Zille on Wednesday wrote to Zuma, asking him to intervene in the crisis.
De Doorns municipal officials said on Tuesday that violent strike action had resulted in damage estimated at R500 000.