Thursday, 15 November 2012

The Farm Workers' Strike: It's Far From Over

by Anna Majavu, SACSIS

The mines and the farms are two enduring symbols of old white colonial theft, of the minerals and land. Because of the monopoly of the National Union of Mineworkers, whose leaders and officials have long preferred compromise and co-determination over worker control, it has been difficult for mineworkers to strike – until the Marikana massacre.

It has possibly been even harder for farm workers to strike.

Human Rights Watch estimated recently that less than 3% of South African farm workers are organized. Most farm workers earn the minimum wage or well below, with many in the Western Cape still paid partly in alcohol even though white farmers claim that the ‘dop system’ was done away with years ago. Striking farm workers often face losing their homes on farms, where they have buried family members and where their children go to school.

Yet this week, farm workers went on strike in their thousands in rural towns in the province, with the added promise by Groot Constantia workers in the city of Cape Town of an imminent strike there.

Yesterday, COSATU and acting Labour minister Angie Motshekga declared the strike suspended for two weeks. This is not the case. Much like Marikana, COSATU and the ANC have no influence over this strike, which the farm workers have vowed to continue.

When the farm workers strike began in De Doorns last week, it took the ANC, DA and Cosatu by surprise. The farm workers in this small town 140 kilometres east of Cape Town blocked the N1 highway, set fire to the vineyards, and demanded a wage of R12 500 per month. This was a clear reference to the Marikana workers’ demand for the same monthly wage, which has since spread throughout the mines.

The Zimbabwean refugee rights group, PASSOP, rushed to the scene because the De Doorns farm workers had also allegedly looted Somali-owned spaza shops in the town. PASSOP officials who lived in the town for a year after the 2009 xenophobic attacks there, pointed out that the strike appeared to be spontaneous and not organized by any union.

In the Western Cape, farm workers tend to belong to non-COSATU unions, namely Sikhula Sonke – a women led farm workers union, and the independent and more leftist Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU).

The press is now reporting the Black Association of the Wine and Spirit Industry (BAWSI) as saying farm workers have suspended their strike. BAWSI is not a farm workers union, but a pro-ANC lobbying association with workers and businesspeople in it ranks, which aims to increase the levels of Black ownership in the wine and spirit industry. BAWSI has no authority to speak for 15 000 farm workers in the region.

The COSATU farm workers union, the South African Agricultural, Plantation and Allied Worker's Union, collapsed more than ten years ago. The Food and Allied Workers Union, another COSATU affiliate, was then designated to organize the farm workers but never did.

However, the De Doorns strike presented an ideal opportunity for COSATU to strike a blow against the DA, and COSATU quickly positioned itself as the voice of the strike, downgrading the farm workers demands to a modest R150 a day, or just R3300 per month.

COSATU claimed credit when workers on other farms as far as 70 kilometres away quickly took up the call for a R150 minimum wage. And after a general meeting in Franschoek, hundreds of workers affiliated to Sikhula Sonke downed tools on 13 November in solidarity with the De Doorns strikers, spreading the strike further.

However, these solidarity strikes were not of Cosatu’s making. By November 13, thousands of farm workers in Prince Alfred Hamlet in Ceres, in Wolseley and in Robertson had set up burning barricades, were setting fire to farm equipment and were being attacked by police. The workers were also calling for an end to labour broking on farms.

COSATU and ANC leaders had by then changed tactics and insisted that farm workers suspend their strike for two weeks while the government gazettes the new minimum of R80 per day on offer from the white farmers association.

The Cape Town-based Workers International Vanguard League has had activists on the ground in the area for the past week and reported that after the farm workers refused and vowed to continue the strike, police and militias made up of farmers then invaded De Doorns on the night of 14th November, opening fire on workers.

According to the activists, farm workers have agreed to be paid R150 per day and say they will strike until president Jacob Zuma gazettes this amount.

COSATU and the ANC have clearly not learnt any lessons from the mineworkers’ strike where their bid to crush workers who attempt to self-organise and take militant action, has been a flop.

In the farm workers strike, the DA at first openly sided with the farmers after arrogantly assuming that the disorganized farm workers’ strike would not last more than a few days. Once the strike spread, as the mine workers’ strike did, Helen Zille blamed COSATU for inciting violence, declared that only president Jacob Zuma could end the farm workers strike by increasing the minimum wage on the farms and repeatedly implored Zuma via Twitter to send in the army to crush the strike.

There is no reason why the white Western Cape farmers could not raise the wages of farm workers immediately - if they wanted to. In fact, Zille has known for a long time that the white farmers in the province are reluctant to pay even the existing minimum wage of R1500 per month. She is also aware of other abuses against farm workers – they are regularly transported like cattle on the backs of open trucks, and die in well-publicised accidents.

The DA, COSATU and ANC are all aware that Sikhula Sonke camped outside parliament three years ago in protest against a white farmer who forced workers to live in pigsties, and that CSAAWU is campaigning publicly against farmer Willie Dreyer from Leeuwenkuil farm in Agter-Paarl.

Dreyer allegedly evicted farm worker Patrick Philander, his wife and four children and laid false charges of attempted murder against him and another CSAAWU activist, Amos White, after they recruited other farm workers into the union.

And the internationally-publicised Human Rights Watch report into South Africa’s fruit and wine industries last year found farms to be “ripe with abuse” – with farm workers having their water and electricity disconnected, being harassed in the middle of the night by farmers’ guards and their dogs, being exposed to pesticides and being prevented from joining unions.

The ANC has previously fostered disunity between workers in De Doorns instead of trying to improve the workers’ lot. Three years ago, ANC ward councillor Mpumelelo “Poyi” Lubisi was named in affidavits supplied to the Legal Resources Centre as being a mastermind behind a xenophobic attack, which displaced 3000 Zimbabwean farm workers.

At that time, PASSOP spokesperson Braam Hanekom described De Doorns then as a “cut-throat environment that is a recipe for tension” with farmers hiring workers through “a thousand labour brokers” who took the lump sums and paid farm workers whatever lesser amount they were desperate enough to accept on any given day.

The farm workers can expect no help from the party, which rules the province – the DA, because the DA supports labour broking and white farm ownership monopolies specifically and the free market in general. The ANC and COSATU are only using the workers to score temporary political points against the DA and now seem as eager to end the strike, as they were to end the Marikana miners strike. As in Marikana, De Doorns represents the worst of South African party politics. Like the mineworkers, South Africa’s farm workers have long lived in slavery-like conditions and deserve the support of all to continue their strike and keep blocking the highways.