Last Wednesday Western Cape Premier Helen Zille sent a text message to ANC provincial leader Marius Fransman in which she wrote: “It is essential that we remove politics from this matter and stabilise the situation”. But removing politics from the farmworkers’ protests seems easier said than done, with finger-pointing and mudslinging happening in all directions – at the expense of the underlying issues.
The DA has claimed virtually from the outset of the strike in De Doorns that some third force has been operating to exploit the situation to its benefit. Last Tuesday, Premier Helen Zille tweeted: “Just received info that buses have just arrived in Wolseley from CT to stoke the strike there”, although no further information was forthcoming about the buses.
On the same day, DA shadow minister of agriculture Annette Steyn released a statement in which she claimed to have witnessed firsthand that Cosatu was running an “intimidation campaign” in De Doorns.
“Cosatu organisers were standing on street corners and telling workers that their houses would be burnt or their wives raped if they went to work,” Steyn alleged. “It is clear that these ‘strikes’ and intimidation are politically motivated. They are the latest instalment in the ANC’s ‘Project Reclaim’ which aims to make the Western Cape ungovernable… The reality is that this ‘mass action’ is a Cosatu-ANC orchestrated campaign to intimidate workers and destabilise rural communities in the Western Cape.”
Last Wednesday Zille also got stuck into Cosatu, strongly condemning Cosatu Western Cape secretary Tony Ehrenreich’s statement that: “The ill treatment and under-payment of workers by some farmers must stop, otherwise we will see a Marikana in De Doorns”, which she interpreted as tantamount to incitement.
Last Friday, DA leader in the Western Cape Ivan Meyer released a statement reiterating the claim that busses were bringing people into the winelands to participate in the protest. “The police station commander in Prince Alfred Hamlet has confirmed that a high volume of reports were received of busses carrying outside elements into the area at the height of the protests on Wednesday,” Meyer said. “In Worcester, police stopped a number of busses at a petrol station just outside of the town on Wednesday. The busses were carrying people from outside the area to swell the protests. Similar reports were received in Paarl.”
Then the story emerged of a pamphlet being distributed in Villiersdorp, which the DA at first seized on eagerly as it appeared to prove that the ANC was paying people to participate in the protests. “Aandag alle ANC comerade” (Attention, all ANC comrades), the pamphlet reads. “Dankie vir almal wat aan die proteste deelgeneem het. Ons het oorwin. Ons het vir elkeen van julle wat deelgeneem het so ‘n ietsie by die volgende persone gelos. 3 X R150-00” (Thank you to everyone who participated in the protests. We were victorious. We have left something for each one of you who participated with the following people. 3 x R150-00). A list of ANC councillors and community members from the area follows.
The pamphlet seemed fishy from the outset, but that didn’t stop the DA from greeting it as truth. Meyer said it testified to “a deliberate attempt to escalate the chaos in certain areas, backed by ANC resources”. But the ANC strongly denied having anything to do with the pamphlets – and in turn suggested that the DA had produced and distributed them in order to frame the ANC.
“The DA is once again fabricating so-called confirmation to support its agenda to blame the ANC for its own failures… The DA has now produced a hoax pamphlet and made dishonest claims about the ANC,” ANC provincial secretary Songezo Mjongile told the Sunday Argus. One of the ANC councillors listed on the pamphlet, Johanna Nellie, said scores of people queued at her house for money after receiving the pamphlet. “I immediately went to the police,” she said. “This is not something the ANC would ever be a part of.”
Another ANC member whose name was on the pamphlet as a money collection point, Hilton Witbooi, made the assertion that “in my view this letter was written by a white person. The language they used is not the language of a comrade”. And so CSI: Villiersdorp was born.
Meyer of course strenuously denied the claims that the DA had produced the pamphlet, reiterating the DA’s conviction that the ANC was involvement in stoking the violent protests. ANC Overberg chairman Manie Damon meanwhile suggested that perhaps a far right group like Boere Krisis Aksie (farmers’ crisis action) was behind the pamphlet, since it was being circulated on the group’s website. (The Daily Maverick could find no sign of it as of Monday on the group’s extraordinarily badly-designed website. Boere Krisis Aksie previously hit headlines when it was accused of having leaked photos of the Eugene Terreblanche murder scene on Facebook.
Leaving the pamphlet aside, is there any truth to the claims that the ANC has been stoking the fire? Well, for its part, the provincial ANC will state that it supports the workers in their protest action, but denies inciting workers to violence. Marius Fransman, provincial leader, is on record as saying that the workers “have been subjected to this form of abuse by farmers for a long time.”
Then again, West Cape News quoted an activist, who would not give his name for fear of reprisals, as saying that “the strike was a people-driven upraising [sic] but had been hijacked by ANC councillors who wanted to get credit if it became a success… He claimed that some ward councillors were doubling as labour brokers in the area and were also party to the ongoing wage dispute discussions”.
The NGO Passop (People Against Suffering Oppression and Poverty), which has been working closely with the community in De Doorns for some time, said it had not seen any evidence of ANC foul play and had not seen any busses in the area. “We have been monitoring the Hex River Valley closely and we have never seen any buses coming in,” Passop director Braam Hanekom told the Daily Maverick.
ANC councillors aren’t the only group being accused of instigating the unrest. The DA believes the protests began in De Doorns because workers from Lesotho were unhappy because farmers would not employ them because they were in the country illegally. Interviewing Western Cape agriculture MEC Gerrit van Rensburg for the Sunday Times, Chris Barron asked: “You’re saying the protests were started by angry people from Lesotho?” Van Rensburg replied: “Yes.”
Premier Helen Zille told the Daily Maverick via email that “the grievances of the Lesotho seasonal workers lie at the heart of the issue.” She explained that she had been to De Doorns to speak to “a significant number of workers”, among whom were seasonal workers from Lesotho. “After the xenophobic unrest of 2008 and 2010, the Department of Home Affairs began to crack down on the employment of job seekers without work permits, and one farmer was recently fined about R150,000 for employing a number of Basotho,” Zille wrote. “The result has been that farmers no longer employ the Basotho while the Zimbabwean workers have been legalized through the recent amnesty. This is the cause of profound tension in the area. I heard this directly from the farmworkers, from the farmers and the police. I was informed in a situational report [from Wednesday] that of the 35 people arrested, 23 were Basotho.”
Passop’s director finds this version of events hard to swallow. He says that contrary to Zille’s claim of “profound tension in the area” because Zimbabweans are getting jobs and Basotho are not, “relations within the community were at their best point ever” before the strike. In November 2009, Hanekom said, thousands of Zimbabweans were displaced from the township of De Doorns after a violent attack on them. They ended up spending 11 months living on a rugby field. But in the years since, Hanekom claims that integration has largely been achieved within the community. Just weeks before the mass strike, Passop held a “healing ceremony”, including slaughtering a sheep, with a feast for Basotho, South Africans and Zimbabweans. Hanekom says that thousands attended.
When the Daily Maverick’s Jared Sacks visited De Doorns last Thursday, his account also contradicted the idea that xenophobic tensions were a catalyst for the protests. In fact, he concluded the opposite. After attending a community meeting, he wrote: “Despite it being clear that xenophobia is a major problem in the area, the meeting, mirroring the strike as a whole, has created a sense of commonality amongst Xhosa, Coloured, Sotho and Zimbabwean residents who all seem to be defying Cosatu and remaining on strike”. One of the most active strike organisers, Sachs found, was a young Zimbabwean.
When Chris Barron asked Van Rensburg why local farmworkers would support Lesotho workers protesting because they couldn’t get jobs, the MEC for agriculture attributed their support to coercion: “The locals were intimidated and told if they didn’t join the protest their houses would be burnt down that night”. While there may have been instances of intimidation, Hanekom says: “The overwhelming majority of farmworkers in De Doorns say they want more wages.”
The ANC’s handling of the protests has been questionable (Has Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant returned from her overseas trip yet?). However, why the DA appears so determined to present disgruntled workers in the region as an aberration, especially as the media has interviewed scores of local workers dissatisfied with their wages, remains a question.
It can also be argued that in a country with a history of xenophobic violence, a great deal of caution should be exercised when citing xenophobic ill-feeling as a cause of unrest. Such remarks, Hanekom maintains, “could provoke tensions and become a self-fulfilling prophecy if continually broadcasted publicly by politicians.” DM
Photo by Kate Stegeman.
"Last century’s magic is this year’s science." ~ Cherie Priest