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Cape Town -
Protests by farm workers spread across the south-western corner of the Western Cape on Tuesday morning, erupting in a dozen towns, but with very few incidents of violence.
A crowd was dispersed with rubber bullets in Somerset West, where workers tried to barricade the entrance to Lourensford estate with a row of burning tyres.
Protesters said they were demanding a daily wage of R150 and were striking “in solidarity” with farm workers in De Doorns.
The workers could not, however, identify a leader among them and had earlier argued furiously among themselves outside the estate’s gates.
One worker said he wished agricultural unions would represent them.
Police spokesman Andre Traut said there were further reports of road closures, arson, violence and unrest from towns across the province.
On Tuesday, the Cape Argus watched a fire response vehicle speeding out of Nduli, outside Ceres. All the windows had been smashed with bricks, and sticks were sticking out of the fender.
Minutes earlier, the vehicle had driven into Nduli to respond to a fire.
“But there was no fire. As we were parked wondering what was going on a mob of people just came out of nowhere. They started stoning us, we had to flee for our lives,” said Hermie Visser of the Cape Winelands district municipality.
“Had it not been for the protection of the tinted windows we would be dead.”
The intersection where Visser found safety from the protesters pursuing him had a heavy police presence – a line of armed officers and two Caspirs.
“The R46 has been the detour when the N1 at De Doorns has been closed. Without it there is no way to Cape Town,” said an officer on the scene.
At around dawn, protesters had blocked the road. This led to violent clashes as police tried to reclaim the road.
Some 100m from the police line about 100 protesters rolled two freight containers into the road, adding to the barricade of rubble and burning tyres.
The Cape Argus asked individual strikers to state their grievances. The answer was consistent with what was reported from De Doorns last week.
“I have four children, they’re all in school. I get R300 a week – there’s no Christmas bonus, no pay for overtime. We work with chemicals and when we get sick the boss doesn’t accept our notes from the clinic. They call us liars,” said Majalefa Malangabi, 40, who works on a fruit farm.
As the Cape Argus moved back to the police line, protesters advanced despite police warnings that they should stop.
The group came to a standstill about 30m from the police line. After a tense half-hour standoff, the strikers moved forward. When they came within 10m of the intersection, protesters started jeering and gesturing at the police.
This prompted the police to open fire with stun grenades and rubber bullets. The crowd dispersed and regrouped behind the containers.
One officer was hit on the head with a rock and was taken to hospital.
On the other side of Ceres, in Prince Alfred Hamlet, similar scenes unfolded.
Tyres were burnt sporadically on the R303, one of the three main roads into the town, and police faced off with protesters at the informal settlement’s entrance, firing rubber bullets.
Farm workers in Villiersdorp also downed tools on Tuesday and vowed not to return to work until their wage demands are met.
When the Cape Argus visited the area at around 2pm, farm workers, most of them from apple farms in the area, were blocking the road with burning tyres.
They are demanding R200 a day; they are currently earning R70 a day.
Meanwhile, Western Cape Premier Helen Zille has written to President Jacob Zuma asking him to require that Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant intervene in the wage dispute in De Doorns and bring together the relevant stakeholders to begin negotiations towards establishing a new minimum wage for farm workers.
“The consequences of the current crisis in the Hex River Valley will be very severe for the Western Cape and South Africa as a whole if they are not immediately addressed,” Zille said.
“I’m also calling on President Zuma to require that Cosatu enters the discussions in good faith and ends its incitement and intimidation.
“This matter can only be resolved through Minister Oliphant taking this urgent step.”