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Cape Town - Cape fruit farms will in future employ fewer people, use more machines and battle to attract investment.
These are among the warnings from various agricultural experts in the wake of the recent wave of protests across the province.
The protests have been widely described as “the farm strikes”, but this may be a misnomer, the Cape Argus was told by members of a security team on site on the N2 this week.
There are around 6 000 farms in the Western Cape and one estimate, by the company Hortgro, is that just 100 farms have been affected by the protest action.
It is also believed by many, including farmers canvassed in Grabouw this week, that the protesters’ ranks were largely made up of people who were not “striking”, as such, because they were actually unemployed.
One farmer in the Elgin Valley, who asked not to be named, said: “The rural farming areas have attracted many people who come here in the hope of employment, but find there are only a finite number of jobs. They remain unemployed, but remain.”
Such people were thus not “strikers”, but protesters. Also among the protesters was a “criminal element” responsible for some of the more serious acts of vandalism, looting and arson, according to labour leader John Michaels of the Grabouw Elgin Civic Organisation.
Agriculture expert Anton Rabe, of Hortgro, said he believed 90 percent of the farms affected were now back to normal.
Suggesting that most of the protesters were unemployed, he added they
had used the “farm strike” in rural towns to protest against socio-economic conditions.
Ismail Motala of the Deciduous Fruit Development Chamber (DFDC) said: “That is correct. The farmworkers’ strike is not only about wages, but a range of other social issues we need to deal with - houses, sanitation, alcoholism, etc. The most important thing to realise is that R150 would not necessarily solve all of these problems, so the solution needs to be comprehensive.”
But even if the protest action has not been strictly about farmworkers’ wages, and has affected only a relatively small number of farms, all experts interviewed said the impact on the future of farming in the province could be profound.
Rabe explained: “In the short term, it will be up to the Labour Ministry to proclaim a new minimum wage.”
This is likely to happen in March.
“But beyond that, the priority will be to grow the ability of the sector to pay more.
Most farmers can afford more only if their farms are more profitable.
“You will find farmers looking to pay more, but for more skilled labour, assisted by more technological innovation, including more mechanisation.”
Motala agreed: “Yes, farmers will be asking how they can reduce the number of employees.
This would be an unfortunate consequence as large numbers of farmworkers could lose their jobs. Many farmers have already been looking at mechanisation.”
Rabe continued: “Some farming sectors, like fruit, will always require a significant labour force, but you will have fewer hands doing the picking, assisted by processes which make them more effective, such as the use of picking platforms, for example.
There are also mechanical apple-pickers in some parts of the world now, which pick apples using a hi-tech mix of vacuum systems.”
A move towards more sophisticated skills and more mechanisation could only happen, however, with the input of significant capital into the agricultural sector.
And here was the problem, said Rabe: the recent protests will have the opposite impact - motivating farmers to put their plans on ice, until the future of farm wages was determined.
Similarly, potential new investors would be likely to “wait and see”, too.
This scenario left agriculture in the Western Cape facing something of a stalemate.