121105. Cape Town. Farm workers walking on the N1 near De Dorrns whiule farms are burning in the background. After weeks of wage disputes farm worker protesters started burning down vineyards and looting shops near De Doorns. Picture Henk Kruger/Cape Arg

Western Cape - The N1 between Touws River and De Doorns was closed for several hours on Monday after thousands of farmworkers set fire to at least 15 vineyards over a wage dispute.

The farming region surrounding the town of De Doorns was turned into what looked like a war zone.

Wage disputes, which have been ongoing between workers and farmers for weeks, reached a tipping point early on Monday as workers downed tools.

Driving into De Doorns, smoke hung thick in the air. The road was obstructed by rocks, rubble and burning piles of rubbish.

Thousands of people lined the road and were walking in the direction of the Boland town.

Tractors, bearing water tankers on their trailers, were ferrying water from dams to be sprayed on to the blaze.

Jacques Beukes, a fifth-generation farmer on Modderdrift farm, said the farming community was “utterly shaken” by what was transpiring.

On one hand, he blamed ANC agitators for instigating the violence on “political grounds”, and on the other, he implored the government to step in and to bring violent protests under control.

Beukes would not be drawn on the wage grievances of the striking workers. He referred queries to the Hex Table Grape Association and AgriSA.

Speaking on the radio, Agri Western Cape spokeswoman Portia Adams also avoided answering the question of wage disputes by saying that the protests were due to joblessness in the area.

This was disputed by every striking worker to whom the Cape Argus spoke. One worker, who worked as a picker on Modderdrift, said he was only paid R63 a day.

“We don’t like to see the bosses driving new double-cab bakkies and sending their kids to the best schools, and then they come and tell us that ‘no, the harvest was bad this year we cannot pay you more’. I have not personally burnt any vineyards down, but I know how people feel and I don’t blame them for taking things into their own hands,” said the man, who asked not to be named.

He, along with many others, denied the claim that there was a political influence underpinning the strike.

Ward councillor Pat Marran said: “The meetings happened spontaneously. People have come together and said that enough is enough. There are no leaders, there is no organisation or union or political party pulling the strings. These issues have been at play for generations, people have been exploited in this area for decades. They have had enough, and today they are making a point.”

Marran added that workers were demanding a living wage of R150 a day. Many currently earn R63 a day.

Tensions between farmers and workers have been brewing in De Doorns since 350 workers on Keurboschkloof grape farm downed tools and successfully negotiated improved working conditions.

According to Braam Hanekom, from refugee rights NGO Passop and who has been involved with supporting strikers from the beginning, this led to a widespread challenge of the status quo in the Hex River valley.

“We are… concerned over the lack of planning behind this latest strike action and want to make it clear that while we support the workers, we want to see a solution through peaceful processes… strike actions should be led by elected workers or union representatives to ensure that demands are informed and that they have the mandate of the workers,” he said.

By mid-afternoon on Monday, thousands of protesters had moved into the abandoned town centre of De Doorns.

Many businesses had closed shop for the day and windows of shops were cracked and broken where protesters had thrown rocks.

Within a matter of minutes of arriving in a built-up part of town, the mob had broken open the door of a cafe. The shop was looted, the till was ripped out and most of the glass display cases were smashed.

Cape Argus