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23 November 2014 07:36 (South Africa)
South Africa

The day the Cape winelands burned

  • Rebecca Davis & Kate Stegemann
  • South Africa
C:\fakepath\police_watch_robertson MAIN PHOTO

By Wednesday, the Cape winelands had morphed into a battlefield. As fires smouldered across the famously scenic fruit-growing region, in the embers of the ongoing labour dispute we found ordinary people who were tired, angry, injured and frightened. By REBECCA DAVIS and KATE STEGEMAN.

The strike which began among grape-pickers in the Hex River Valley a week ago turned violent on Wednesday. Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat-Petterson’s call for calm on Wednesday evening appeared to have little effect. Assurances from unions that negotiations over a new minimum wage for the sector were ongoing also did little to stem anger. With unrest initially confined to De Doorns, by Wednesday protests had spread across the winelands to Robertson, Wolesley, Ceres, Prince Alfred Hamlet and the surrounds.

En route to Robertson, many roads and thoroughfares were rendered almost impassable by rocks heaped by protestors across the road. Tree branches, lead pipes, barbed wire and even the turn-off sign to a winery further blockaded the motorist’s path. A smashed car window was evidence of stones being thrown at vehicles. Close to Robertson, fires burned on both sides of the road. The vines of the “Constitution Road Wine Growers” flickered with flame. A signboard outside the winery proclaimed it to be an “empowerment project endorsed by Robertson Winery”.

Photo: A wine estate's sign presents an informal barricade to the road to Robertson (Kate Stegeman)

A steady stream of farmworkers appeared out of the smoke shrouding the town. “Een-vyftig!” they shouted, a reference to their wage demand of R150. “Die boere wil vir ons fokol gee!” one yelled: the farmers want to give us nothing. On Robertson’s main drag, riot police formed a tight line, with protestors slowly retreating from their view. The ground was littered with the casings of blue riot ammunition, a sign of earlier violence. An estimated 500 people had clashed with police in Robertson that morning, but by early afternoon the situation had simmered into a tense calm. 

Western Cape police had received a directive on Wednesday morning instructing them not to speak to the media. Lieutenant Cynthia Mngcele of the Robertson police would provide only the bare bones of the morning’s events. “They were toyi-toying, throwing stones, and they burned tyres,” she said. “There were arrests, but I can’t say how many.” She gestured to Raimondis, a local wholesaler. “They were trying to get in there to get food,” she said.

Behind the barbed wire providing an inadequate buttress to Raimondis’ perimeter, Operations Manager Jaco van Wyk kept an uneasy vigil. “They started at the tyre place next door; they wanted to burn it down,” he said. “Then they came here. They were throwing stones and they broke down part of the wall.” He said he took his own workers home early to ensure their safety. “There’s definitely people here from outside. These aren’t people from round here. I saw buses outside Worcester this morning.”

Outside, a group of locals sat on the pavement in apparent anticipation of viewing more action. We asked them whether the people who protested were from local communities. “Ja,” they said. Were there any buses?  “Daar was geen busse,” (There were no buses), they said.

Five minutes outside Robertson, the countryside resumed its peaceful dreaminess, as if nothing had ever happened to disrupt it. But elsewhere, worse violence had already taken place. In the small town of Wolesley, a protestor died after clashes with police earlier on Wednesday. By mid-afternoon, the town was abandoned. Rocks lay strewn on the road, and little fires burned smokily. Police perched on van bonnets and in an armoured “Hippo”, tensed for further action.

Photo: A tense stand-off between police and protestors in Robertson (Kate Stegeman)

In Ceres, a crowd of several thousand was addressed by strike leaders and unionists in the early afternoon, and motorists were warned to stay away. A doctor at the Ceres District Hospital who spoke to us under condition of anonymity said he had treated people on Tuesday and Wednesday for protest-related injuries. He estimated that he had seen five to ten cases of patients coming in with injuries from the police’s riot ammunition, including one who had been shot in the tongue. “I am not blaming the police, but it was clear to me that the way they were shot was very painful,” he said.

He claimed further that he had treated “two or three” cases of protestors shot with 9mm live ammunition. “We have also had a number of people who were bystanders and suffered broken ankles and so on while trying to run away,” he said. “Again, I’m not blaming the police, because it must have been a very difficult situation to handle.”

At the Ceres Golf Estate on the edge of the town, golfers teed off as if completely immune to the goings-on a few kilometres down the road. Within the centre of town, all was similarly peaceful, but police warned us that if we drove along to the township of Nduli it would be at our own risk. A ditch had been dug by protestors in the road, they said, and stones were being thrown from shacks.

When we entered the informal settlement on foot, a crowd gathered quickly, eager to give their side of events. Moleboheng Sedidi, 22, showed us an angry bruise on her arm where a rubber bullet had struck her. Gesturing to a nearby shack, she said: “I was standing there near a photographer yesterday at 3pm. People were throwing stones and the police were shooting. I was doing nothing, no fighting.” She pointed to a spot about ten metres away, from where a policeman had fired on her. “I don’t know why he chose me, I was the only one. I sat down and cried.”

Photo: The Cape winelands were littered with the shells of riot ammunition on Wednesday (Kate Stegeman)

Did the photographer help her? “Everyone was fighting for their life!” she said.

A man called Nkosinathi, a 55-year-old striking fruit-picker, claimed he was sitting in his house when police entered and shot him. He showed us a bullet wound on his side.

Kholisile Ndzakana, 38, displayed multiple wounds on his stomach and back. “They took me in front of the house when they came,” he said. “They held me down and they shot me.”

Photo: Kholisile Ndzakana, resident of Nduli township outside Ceres, has bullet wounds from police 

Startled, we pantomimed his words to make sure we understood. “Yes!” he said, nodding vigorously. A crowd of onlookers chorused in assent. “They held me down and they shot me.”

Photo: Kholisile Ndzakana suffered bullets to the back as well as his stomach

Two mothers came forward with their sons. Andile Manyangaza, 18, had a plaster on his face. He had been supposed to write his Matric exam yesterday, his mother claimed, but he had been assaulted by police and taken to the police station. Lwamkelo Nzondo, 14 years old, showed us what was clearly the mark of a rubber bullet on his arm. “He did nothing!” his mother insisted furiously.

Andile_Mpho: Mpho Methula shows the injuries sustained by Andile Manyangaza which led to his missing a Matric exam 

Most shocking of all was Charmaine Jonkers, 29, who held a cloth against her lower face tearily and removed it to show the injury the Ceres doctor had already testified to: she had received riot ammunition in the mouth. “Ek was hier voor my huis en ek was besig om te was,” (I was here in front of my house busy washing), she said, with some difficulty. “Ek gooi uit die water en toe voel ek iets soos ‘n klip” (I throw out the water and then I feel something like a stone). 

She was not sure from what range she had been fired upon, but she was very certain about something else: Jonkers was no protestor. “Ek toyi-toyi nie!” (I don’t toyi-toyi) she said with indignation. Jonkers works on a fruit farm where she makes R80 per day. “My baas is ‘n goeie man, hy’s ‘n kerklike man,” she said. (My boss is a good man, he’s a God-fearing man.)

Photo: Charmaine Jonkers' tongue shows the impact of police riot ammunition 

Mpho Methula, 24, said that the windows to his house had been shot in while his girlfriend was sitting at the table. Methula, a peach-picker, was one of the few workers we encountered who voiced any kind of political grievance. “We don’t want to fight with [police],” he said. “Yesterday we were there talking. We don’t even finish the conversation. They’re just shooting.” He was adamant that they would not return to work without a firm pay increase. Was he angry with his boss or with the government? “We are angry for our boss, not our government,” he replied without hesitation.

Police watched our interactions from across the road in an armoured vehicle. When we approached them for their account, they cited their gagging order, and refused to give names. “It was chaos,” was all that one would say. “We would never shoot anyone unless we had to. They were throwing stones.” Did any of the protestors have any weapons other than stones? “Not that I know of,” he said.

“Just look around at this place,” he said, sweeping his arm to show the battle debris on the road and the burnt grass verges. “Look what a mess it is.”

We asked what the normal police procedure was in the case of a situation like this, in terms of using weapons. He was silent, and after a word from one of his colleagues inside the van, a man sitting at the wheel turned on his engine so that conversation became impossible. 

Photo: An Nduli resident known as Nkosinathi's wounds are revealed 

Local ANC councillor Reginald Badela confirmed via telephone that he had seen many of the people in Nduli shot without provocation. “We know this is correct,” he said. “People were sitting there in their own homes. Those people who were affected were just running away. They were trying to get to their houses.” He said that while there had been pressure placed on workers, both male and female, by strike leaders to remain away from work, he had arranged for children to be able to go to school.

At that point our phone call ended rather abruptly. About twenty metres down the road, some protestors had gathered by the ditch they had dug. The police van roared into action. “You must go!” people shouted at us. It was impossible to make out what was going on, but as we drove away the unmistakable crack of a gun being fired several times rung out. 

Back in Ceres, at a watering hole, the locals were trying to make sense of what was going on. A man who would not be named, the finance manager for a local farm which was currently on fire, sat drinking beer to mark the fact that he did not have to go work the next day, or for the foreseeable future. He spoke of a farming community who felt terrified and under siege, with no way of knowing whether the reports they were hearing were accurate. He read us a series of text messages from a hysterical friend, one of which claimed that farm houses were being taken over by protestors.

Photo: Jaco van Wyk, Operations Manager at Raimondis Wholesalers in Robertson, stands guard  (Kate Stegeman)

“We don’t know what’s true and what’s people riling each other up,” he said. Local farmers had hired private security firms, including helicopters, to guard their property, he said. They were most concerned about protecting their packing crates – worth R250 each – and their packsheds, with fridges still full of the previous harvest’s fruit. “My boss who owns the farm is a really good guy. His workers always seemed happy. They live on the farm, they have nice houses,” he said, shaking his head to make sense of it. “If he has to pay them double what they get now, he won’t make any profit whatsoever.”

In tiny Prince Alfred Hamlet, fires flickered on the hillside as night fell and there was the sense of a community battening down the hatches. We spoke on the telephone to Hannes Hanekom, 36, who owns an apple farm in the nearby Wittenberg Valley. He sounded exhausted. “They set alight one of the sheds and some of the fields,” he said. “This morning I tried to put out a fire and they chased me away with knives and sticks. I had to drive away in my bakkie with my brother because I would have been in serious danger.”

Hanekom says it is not his own workers who are setting his fields alight. He doesn’t know who they are. There are two dominant theories doing the rounds in the regions – the first, expressed by Robertson’s Jaco van Wyk, hints at a dark political motive, and believes people have been brought in by buses (even paid, one local suggested) in order to disrupt the region. The second is that they are seasonal workers, mainly from Lesotho, who have no permanent status to damage through their actions, unlike longer-established workers. Currently, there is no evidence for either, which is why speculation runs amok among the frightened wineland locals.

Photo: 14 year-old* learner Lwamkelo Nzondo claims he was beaten and shot by police

“Most farmers here are very good to the people,” Hanekom says. This view is contradicted by the Human Rights Watch report released in August 2011, which detailed labour abuses within the sector ranging from inhuman housing to a lack of toilet facilities. NGOs such as the Women On Farms Project continue to deplore the living and working conditions of farmworkers generally and the security challenges facing women and children in particular. 

Hanekom doesn’t see the current wage negotiations as likely to bring about a positive outcome. “How are you going to restore these relationships? They are shattered.” He said he is trying to get a private security firm to protect his land, but there are too few of them to meet the needs of all the farmers. Hanekom supports Helen Zille’s call to bring in the SANDF. “It’s a war zone,” he said. “Where do you start to clean up this mess, or protect people?”

Hanekom said that he couldn’t estimate the value of the damage to his farm. “A lot,” he said wearily. He said that a group of families had come together in one house for safety, and that some wives and children had been sent to other towns for protection. “Otherwise we are just waiting at home,” he said. “Of course we are scared.”

The only individual in the province permitted to talk on behalf of the police on Wednesday was provincial spokesman Andre Traut. He told us via phone that he could provide no specific information on the Ceres policing situation until he had received a report the next morning. What is the usual police procedure for handling a crowd armed with stones? we asked. “It is to respond to circumstances and use the correct procedure,” he replied enigmatically.

When we cited the cases of people who claimed to have been shot while not engaging in any violent action, he said he could not comment on the specifics of individual cases. “We are dealing with widespread unrest,” Traut said. “Our endeavour is to restore order. If there are complaints regarding specific procedure, they must be referred to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate.”

By late on Wednesday, Acting Labour Minister Angie Motshekga announced that an agreement had been reached with workers to return to work on Thursday and desist from violence in exchange for the minimum wage of farmworkers to be renegotiated next week. It was unlikely that this news allowed many in the winelands to sleep peacefully, and indeed it wasn’t clear how successfully the information had been communicated to those on the ground. As the fire continues to creep up the Prince Alfred Hamlet hillside, the question for many may be: where will the sparks ignite next? DM

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Main photo: The eyes of the law are fixed on Robertson (Kate Stegeman)

  • Rebecca Davis & Kate Stegemann
  • South Africa


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