Pretoria - As beleaguered Cape fruit farmers brought in helicopters and private security to guard their crops from sabotage by strikers, the country’s top cop said the police were buckling under the strain of dealing with protests.
“The country is experiencing very challenging circumstances in policing,” national police commissioner General Riah Phiyega warned yesterday.
She was speaking at an SA Police Union (Sapu) central executive committee meeting held in Pretoria.
Her comments come when the reputation of the police has been badly damaged by claims before the Farlam Commission of inquiry into the shooting of striking miners at Marikana, of officers planting weapons on the dead and tampering with evidence.
“Police hands are full... our hands are full. We have our purpose to continue to ensure that South Africans feel they are safe. At the same time, there are a lot of... incidents that are erupting all over...”
Phiyega said police were facing a flood of public disorder incidents, caused by services not being delivered to people and communities across the country.
Books and services were not delivered and “we have no control over these variables”, she told the meeting.
“But when people get angry and when disruptions take place, the people who are expected to bring calmness, the people who are expected to bring law and order, are us,” Phiyega said.
This week the police have been on the front line of strikes and protests at Lenasia in Gauteng, where illegally built homes were bulldozed by authorities, in the mining belt around Rustenburg, and in the Western Cape where farming areas crackled with tension after vineyards were torched and houses vandalised.
In De Doorns, one of the worst-hit areas, farmers have pooled resources to fund private security guards, some from as far as Joburg, to patrol day and night in the air and on the ground around their properties to safeguard 4 500ha of prime table grape vineyards in the area.
The fight to prevent their own and their workers’ homes being torched or vandalised by strikers running amok also included two private helicopters, rented to waterbomb fires , and keep to an eye on hotspots from the air, alerting security teams on the ground.
The response to violent strikes from farmers within a 40km radius emerged this week, with farmers saying they had gone so far as to hire private investigators to compile arson dockets against people suspected of burning down vineyards and properties.
The farmers are also trying to help workers who have pleaded for their help after some of their homes were vandalised, and others were beaten for not joining the strikes.
Some farmers and their workers are also being guarded 24 hours a day as the strike by farmworkers, demanding more than double their current wages, gathers force in spite of a Cosatu call to suspend it.
The workers are demanding an R81 a day wage hike, from their current R69 to R150.
Farmers and their families said they got little sleep as they kept guard throughout the night, dousing flames wherever fires were set.
Several spoke of how alone and threatened they felt when the violence first broke out. They said they watched law enforcement officers take up positions in front of the marchers, while those marching behind were setting their vineyards alight.
One told of how he and his wife watched angry workers march towards the entrance to their farm, off the N1 highway.
“A group of police officers escorted the march while marching strikers set grasslands next to our vineyards alight,” the farmer said.
The couple rushed down to the entrance to try to extinguish the flames, and prevent the fire spreading through their vineyards.
“But police chased us away, shouting warnings that we could get hurt,” he said, adding that they ignored the police to save their farm.
In the Western Cape, one person has died and several have been injured in farmworker protests over wages and living conditions.
Violent protests started in and around farms in the De Doorns area and the protests had spread to 15 other towns by Wednesday.