A protester stokes a burning barricade during a strike by farm workers at De Doorns on the N1 highway, linking Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Threats of a renewed outbreak of protest action came yesterday, just 24 hours after seasonal workers were reported to have returned to work on the table grape farms in the Hex River Valley.

The epicentre of the latest problem is again De Doorns, where the N1 was finally reopened on Wednesday morning after strike action.

Renewed strike activity at this stage of the season is likely to cause extensive damage to this season’s harvest.

A late season, due to weather conditions and a limited ability to delay picking, gave the farmers some scope to deal with the protest action in the early weeks of January.

Recently released statistics from the South African Table Grape Industry showed that the intake of table grapes up to the second week of this year was down on last year’s intake for the same period, by about 50 percent.

Industry sources said the reduced intake at this stage of the season was not critical, as farmers had scope to catch up, but the fruit would be destroyed if it was not soon picked. In addition, for each week of delay farmers would receive a lower price for their crop in the export market because of increased supplies from other countries.

The current weakness of the rand means that export conditions are particularly favourable for South African suppliers.

The inability to take advantage of this currency benefit adds to the potential loss facing farmers if they fail to resolve the labour crisis.

News of a possible flare-up came from Cosatu, which was instrumental in persuading workers to return to work earlier this week.

Cosatu’s Tony Ehrenreich warned yesterday that the “strike is set to explode into trouble again because farmers are firing workers for daring to protest against low wages”.

Cosatu said it had observed that farmers in the De Doorns area were taking punitive action against workers for telling the world that they could not sustain their families on R69 a day.

Business Report was unable to get comment from Michael Laubscher, who is the De Doorns-based chairman of the Hex River Valley Grape Growers’ Association.