Western Cape - Journalists were attacked, vehicles torched and the N1 outside De Doorns was closed by a group of 7 000 striking farmworkers on Wednesday while police retaliated with rubber bullets.
It will go down as the most violent day of strikes in De Doorns since November 5, when vineyards were burned and shops looted in the Boland town.
Shortly after 10am, Nosey Pieterse, general secretary of the Building and Allied Workers Union of SA (Bawusa), lead a crowd of around 3 000 people from Stofland informal settlement onto the N1 outside De Doorns.
At that time the road had already been closed due to clashes between police and strikers.
The crowd on the N1 swelled to an estimated 7 000 people. Veld fires were lit along the way and buildings were damaged.
Police drew the line when strikers started moving down the main road leading into De Doorns.
They pushed the crowd back with armoured vehicles and foot patrols firing rubber bullets at will.
The injured were taken to De Doorns local clinic and some were transferred to a hospital in Worcester.
Strikers responded to the shooting by pelting police with stones. A police captain was injured in the violence.
During one of these exchanges, a car owned by Independent Newspapers was caught in the crossfire. The two occupants were journalists with the Cape Times – Xolani Koyana and intern Aw Cheng Wei.
An eyewitness to the attack, who asked not to be named, said the vehicle was obstructing strikers from reaching a police caspir – which they apparently intended to torch.
“It was unbelievably scary and chaotic. That sight is still haunting me – people just lost control. I have never seen anything like it,” she said.
The two reporters inside were forced to huddle on the floor of the vehicle while protesters smashed the windows and jumped on the roof.
They eventually escaped and, with the assistance of ANC ward councillor Pat Marran, were whisked to safety. At the house of Andries Kraukamp, a local pastor, they were treated for minor injuries and lacerations from the broken glass.
When the Cape Argus interviewed them, they were clearly still in shock.
“We are just so thankful to the people that helped us escape. Everything happened so quickly, in a matter of split seconds the situation was out of control,” said Koyana.
A petrol bomb, which was apparently intended for the police caspir, was thrown into the car after it was overturned.
Cape Argus photographer Henk Kruger was hit in the leg by a rubber bullet fired by police.
During an emergency address to strikers at the nearby Stofland sports field, Pieterse condemned the attack.
“The journalists are our messengers and allies. How can we get the message of the exploitation, the attacks by police and the suffering of farmworkers out to the world if we attack the very people who make this possible?” he said.
He simultaneously turned on police, saying that they were the real “enemy” and blaming them for “all of the violence that had taken place”.
This message was echoed by the Food and Allied Workers Union’s (Fawu) representative Sandile Keni.
Asked about these accusations, police spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Andre Traut said that “acts of violence associated with the farmworkers’ strike action in De Doorns and other areas have necessitated SAPS to take appropriate action”.
He said that complaints regarding police actions can be reported to the station commander of the police station where the incident occurred, or directed to Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) for an independent investigation.
Traut added that a total of 44 people had been arrested on charges of intimidation and public violence in the areas of Grabouw, De Doorns and Somerset West.
Meanwhile, strikers remained firm on their demand for a “living wage” of R150 a day. They related anecdotes about the difficult conditions under which they work and the impossibility of living with “decency and providing for our children with the dismal wages which we earn”.
This third round of strikes comes at a time when many farmers are preparing to harvest their annual crops of fruit and grapes. This is the most labour-intensive time in Western Cape’s agricultural sector.
“This has gone completely too far; someone or something has got to give. We’re now seriously beginning to lose money, and I don’t think that the general public has an idea of how this will affect the industry, the availability of employment for workers next season and the economy of the region as a whole,” said Jacques Beukes, owner of Modderdrift table grape farm outside De Doorns.
Beukes admitted that the intensity of Wednesday’s strike took employers in the region by surprise.
“These are the three months that the farms make all the money to sustain themselves over the coming year. Many farmers cannot afford to pay what is being asked of us. We are standing at a cliff with a gun to our heads, either we get shot or we jump to our dooms,” he said.
The strikes are set to continue on Thursday.