About 250 farmworkers protested next to Forster Vlei farm in the Western Cape, demanding a R200 wage increase from their employers on November 13. Photo: Cindy Waxa.

A South African police van weaves through rocks and trash used to barricade the streets of Stofland, as its three occupants monitor a truce brokered with residents of the shantytown after days of violent protests.

Stofland, on the outskirts of the town of De Doorns in the Hex River Valley, is home to several hundred families who labour in vineyards.

The turmoil that erupted in the area, 150km northeast of Cape Town, spread to 15 other rural towns in the Western Cape this month, claiming the lives of two farmworkers and destroying vines and sheds.

The government says the protests were sparked by workers’ outrage over low pay and inhumane living conditions and agreed to consider demands for the minimum daily wage to be raised from R70 to R150. Farmers say the violence is aimed at destabilising the only one of the nine provinces not run by the ruling ANC.

“All of here in this valley, we are crying for more wages,” Phumla Tsheko, 21, who lost her job on a mushroom farm after asking her employer to raise her daily pay of R60, less than the legal limit, said in a November 20 interview in the Stofland shack she shares with five relatives. “We have families to support. This thing has been started by the people on the farms.”

The farm violence followed a series of pay strikes that began at mines in August and have curbed growth and output in the economy, contributing to two credit rating downgrades.

The rand has weakened 9.3 percent against the dollar since labour unrest started at mines on August 10, the worst performance among 16 major units tracked by Bloomberg.

Agriculture makes up about 2.1 percent of gross domestic product directly and farms produce close to 6.5 percent of the country’s exports, including wine, citrus fruit, maize, grapes, apples and pears, government data show.

South Africa is the world’s ninth largest wine producer and has Africa’s biggest table grape output. The protests caused about R120 million in damages, with grape growers hardest hit, according to farmers’ group AgriSA.

Gerhard de Kock, 60, who owns 12 farms in the Hex River valley and employs 3 000 full-time and seasonal staff, said the violent labour action was the first he had had to contend with in 30 years of farming.

He watched some of his workers being intimidated to join a march led by several hundred young men, most of whom were bussed into the area and burned 9 hectares of his vines, he said.

“I’ve never seen this before,” De Kock, who estimated his losses at about R9m, said on November 20 in Cape Town. “It’s a politically driven thing. The population of the Western Cape is getting punished for voting for the opposition.”

Fruit and wine farmers in the Western Cape on average pay their workers 30 percent more than the minimum wage and most are externally audited to ensure they meet required standards, according to AgriSA.

It hasn’t received any reports of protests outside the province, the country’s main grape and wine producer.

“We as a farming community are quite convinced that this is not a minimum wage or labour issue,” Anton Rabe, the chairman of AgriSA’s labour committee, said on November 20 in Paarl. “There is some other agenda behind this. It is clear that this has been orchestrated.“

Cosatu alleges widespread exploitation and abuse of farmworkers in the Western Cape. Its view is backed by an August 2011 report by New York-based Human Rights Watch, which found many workers were denied basic labour rights and access to toilets and drinking water while working.

The farmer organisations “would want to suggest that there are a few rotten apples, but unfortunately it’s a lot wider than that”, Cosatu organiser Mike Louw said on Tuesday. “Allegations that these protests were instigated from outside are totally groundless.”

Trade Minister Rob Davies said black and mixed-race farmworkers who were confined to being labourers and denied access to land under white segregationist rule, which ended in 1994, were still not deriving enough benefit from the farms they worked.

“I’m not surprised there has been an explosion of this sort,” he told reporters on November 14. “I think farmworkers have felt alienated.”

Calm has been restored to most towns since November 17, when Cosatu brokered a two-week suspension of the strike pending the minimum-wage review. Five armoured police cars stood idle outside the De Doorns police station this week, and police spokesman Andre Traut said no new incidents of violence had been reported.

The truce may not last, with unions and workers warning labour action will resume on December 4 if their demands aren’t met.

Helen Zille, the premier of the Western Cape and leader of the DA, has called for the army to be sent. “The military is not the solution,” Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson told reporters in Cape Town on November 14. “This is not a political matter.”

Mechanisation has seen the number of workers employed on farms fall by about 30 percent to 680 000 over the past decade, AgriSA’s Rabe said. He expects more job losses to stem from the violence, adding to a 25 percent unemployment rate.

“I’m convinced farmers will mechanise more,” he said. “Some production practices will be changed to become fully independent of seasonal workers.” – Mike Cohen from Bloomberg