Real story behind farm strikes
Share this article:
The life of a seasonal farm labourer is a very difficult one. Thousands of poverty-stricken people come to the Western Cape from across southern Africa for the fruit-picking season, desperately seeking work in one of the few remaining sectors that employ unskilled labour.
Many of these migrants have remained in the province permanently and have set up “home” in shack settlements on the outskirts of rural towns. Unemployed for most of the year, they rely on the short fruit-picking season to earn some income, much of which disappears immediately into the coffers of loansharks on whom they depend to keep their families alive.
And as growing numbers of desperate work-seekers arrive, the competition intensifies between them for the shrinking number of jobs available, a result of the consolidation of farms and escalating mechanisation. As happens worldwide in situations of conflict over scarce resources, individuals band together in groups to protect and advance their interests. In divided societies, the fault line between groups is often determined by ethnicity.
There there are four distinct groups of seasonal work-seekers on the province’s deciduous fruit and grape farms: Zimbabweans, Basotho, amaXhosa and traditional Western Cape farmworkers, who would (in terms of the old apartheid designations) have been classified coloured.
This is fertile ground for exploitation. And so it is easy to see how the dominant (but entirely misleading) narrative arose: “heartless white farmers and labour brokers make ‘super profits’ by using ‘divide-and-rule’ tactics to drive down workers’ wages as their lives deteriorate”. It is easy to see how this fuelled the anger and rage that led to the destruction of tens of millions of rand worth of farm infrastructure in an orgy of violence lasting weeks.
And one can discern the ANC’s interest in fuelling this narrative. It was a golden opportunity to drive a wedge between two strong sectors of DA support – farmers and farmworkers – while seeking to position the DA on the side of “heartless farmers” and the ANC as the “champion of exploited workers”. Unsurprisingly, this narrative was parroted by many observers, reinforcing stereotypes and creating conditions conducive to disinvestment and job losses in a sector that is the backbone of the Western Cape’s economy.
I have rarely come across a case study that so graphically illustrates the disjuncture between perception and reality.
Some of the key facts (that explode this narrative) are as follows:
The workers’ protests started on a farm called Keurboschkloof, previously a model farm in the Western Cape where workers were paid far above the minimum wage. When the farmer, Pierre Smit, died, his farm was taken over by a BEE consortium that immediately cut wages from an average of R14.51 to R10.60 an hour.
This, understandably, elicited protests by workers, further aggravated by the fact that a former ANC councillor, who is also a labour broker, tried to bring in “scab labour” at the behest of this BEE consortium to replace the protesting workers.
Braam Hanekom (nephew of an ANC cabinet member) and his organisation “Passop” sought to unionise the workers for the Cosatu affiliate, Fawu. He was challenged by Nosey Pieterse, a rival unionist, who claimed sole right to organise workers in the area. When the protests spread to the Royal Mushroom Farm and Normandy Farm in mid-October, I was tipped off about an ANC strategy to “bring Marikana to the farms of the Western Cape” – a phrase used repeatedly by the ANC, and particularly Tony Ehrenreich, who combines a role as Cosatu provincial general secretary and the ANC caucus leader in the City of Cape Town.
As the protests spread, ANC Western Cape Leader Marius Fransman made his presence felt, announcing “Die Boere gaan k*k”, while Minister of Agriculture Tina Joemat-Pettersson, also visited the area and used inflammatory language. But the one minister actually responsible for labour matters, Mildred Oliphant, remained abroad for weeks, and did not bother to cut her trip short despite the protest against the minimum wage she had set. All the while, the ANC sought to blame the farmers.
So the truth is exactly the opposite of the prevailing narrative. In fact, the best option available for unskilled, seasonal farmworkers in South Africa is to secure a job with a farmer like Pierre Smit, who is not a rare exception in the Western Cape. In fact, research by Ben Stanwix of UCT’s Development Policy Unit shows that on average, farmers pay significantly higher wages in the Western Cape than other provinces.
This is one of the reasons why tens of thousands of desperately poor people leave their homes in far more fertile regions across southern Africa to seek work on the rocky mountain slopes of De Doorns and other farms in the Western Cape.
The truth also reveals a number of profound ironies:
Irony number one: while the ANC was slamming “heartless white farmers”, many of them were actually paying their workers more than the minimum wage that had been set by the ANC Minister of Labour, Oliphant, in consultation with Cosatu.
Irony number two: When the workers went on strike in protest, and the ANC was slamming labour brokers, a former ANC councillor, Nelie Barends, who is also a labour broker, tried to provide the BEE farming consortium that took over Keurboschkloof farm with scab labour. In fact, throughout the period that the ANC was slamming labour brokers’ in the Hex River Valley, their own members were playing a key role as brokers of seasonal labour.
Irony number three: As the ANC, Passop, Fawu and Pieterse claimed to be representing the interest of the workers, they were actually at war with one another, causing serious divisions and infighting between different groups of workers, usually divided on an ethnic basis. But they all shared one common goal: to convince workers that their “war” was actually with the farmers. All the while, ANC politicians sought to spread the unrest for their political advantage.
Irony number four: While the ANC accused farmers of fanning xenophobia, it has actually been driven by labour brokers representing differing groups of workers, and exploiting the fault lines caused by ANC policy. While Zimbabweans were legalised through a special amnesty of the Department of Home Affairs (with the support of the farmers), workers from Lesotho were excluded from the amnesty and their employment was deemed illegal and penalised through heavy fines. This meant that thousands of Basotho who had been previously employed were now unemployed due to ANC policies, while the ANC sought to fan and exploit their anger.
Irony number five: While the ANC claims to be against labour brokers, it was the farmers, together with the Zimbabwean workers, who really fought to get rid of these broker intermediaries. The Zimbabweans, in particular, resisted a consortium of labour brokers (including those with ANC links) who sought to extract from farmers R10 a day for every worker the brokers placed in a job. Zimbabweans wanted to contract directly with farmers. This was vehemently opposed by the labour brokers, dominated by ANC public representatives, who were determined to defend the “super profits” they earned.
Irony number six: The ANC and its various allied organisations were happy to drive the conflict between the Basotho, Zimbabweans and local labour to extend the unrest throughout rural areas, in their attempts to present the Western Cape as being exploitative, racist, and ungovernable.
Why should anyone believe me? Go and read the primary academic research such as Stanwix’s article, “Minimum wages and compliance in South African agriculture”, as well as a discussion document by Jan Theron (co-ordinator of the Labour and Enterprise Policy Research Group at UCT) titled “Changing employment trends on farms in the Hex and Breede River valleys” and the research paper “Violence, Labour and the Displacement of Zimbabweans in De Doorns, Western Cape”, written by Jean Pierre Misago of the University of the Witwatersrand’s Forced Migration Studies Programme.
There is much priceless information out there if one is prepared to join the dots.
The best of all of these is an article titled “Oogsten in Afrika” published in the magazine Quote in October 2012, which quotes Anton de Vries, the Dutch co-founder of the BEE consortium that took over Keurboschkloof farm (that cut worker wages as soon as they took over), saying he had set up a venture to “profit” from land reform. He boasted that it was an official partner of the ANC national government and has contacts in the highest levels, which is its greatest asset.
The reality is that while most farmers pay significantly higher than the minimum wage, they are struggling to make ends meet because of the low return on their product. For example, a research project revealed that when it comes to the final retail price for table grapes from Hex River Valley imported to the UK, 42 percent goes to supermarkets, 32 percent to distributors, while only 18 percent is retained by the farmers, who must cover all their costs from this return.
Instead, of falling prey to the ANC’s “divide-and-rule” tactics, farmers, farm workers, civil society and the government need to work together to address this highly distorted value chain so that the individuals putting in the hard work start reaping the benefits.
l Zille is premier of the Western Cape. This is an edited version of her weekly SA Today newsletter.