South Africa

Winelands protests: More violence, but new talks possible

By Rebecca Davis 11 January 2013

On Thursday, the second day since the resumption of the farmworkers’ strike in the Western Cape winelands, reports suggested that volatility appeared to be growing in the region. Protesters and police continued to clash throughout the day, with a senior ANC regional official allegedly shot in the face by private security in De Doorns. Late on Thursday, however, it was reported that a number of farmers had agreed to wage negotiations with unions on Friday. By REBECCA DAVIS.

ANC Boland chairperson Pat Marran was shot in the face at close range, according to eyewitnesses, while leading a group of protesters who harangued the owners of a De Doorns fruit-export company to come out and face their demands. The New Age’s Rafiq Rohan, who said he was the only journalist on the scene, described what happened: “One of the guards opened fire and shot Marran, who collapsed to the ground face down with blood flowing just below the left side of his chin.”

Marran was unavailable to talk to the Daily Maverick on Thursday evening. His shooting follows that of Bawusa general-secretary Nosey Pieterse on Wednesday, however, with Pieterse taking a rubber bullet from police in his upper arm. Another Bawusa organiser was allegedly shot alongside Pieterse at the same time, wearing a bandage around his arm for the rest of the afternoon. It is unclear whether a deliberate attempt is underway to target strike leaders, but the net effect appears to be an increase in tensions between police and protesters. 

Rohan reported that the Marran shooting caused protestors to erupt with anger: “Within seconds, what was a group of about 50 people grew to 500, with still more streaming in to get to the scene through the vineyards…The farmworkers’ protest grew louder and angrier as they faced down the cocked guns of the guards and the police. Some of the protesters gathered rocks while others armed themselves with makeshift shields of pieces of corrugated roofing.” Similarly, after Pieterse’s shooting on Wednesday, he told the Daily Maverick that the crowd subsequently became impossible to control due to their anger at the shooting of their leaders.

The business that Marran and protesters were targeting, Hexkoel, announces on its website that it provides “the largest of the cold stores in the Hex Valley”, delivering fruit on behalf of 32 exporters. The issue of fruit for export seems to be central to many farmworkers’ unhappiness: it is widely believed that South African table grape producers receive extravagant sums for exported grapes and fail to pass on these dividends in the form of adequate wages. In De Doorns on Wednesday, some farmworkers claimed that exporters received two or three hundred rand for a single box of export table grapes.

In reality, Hex River table grape exporters saw prices drop in 2012 compared to the previous season. Hex Valley Table Grape association chairperson Neil Hamman told Farmers’ Weekly in March 2012: “We expect to earn on average about R50 per carton of grapes, which is between R5 and R10 less than what we earned last year.” This discrepancy between the assumed earnings and the reality is another example of the perception problems faced by farmers entering the ongoing wage dispute.

Journalists on the scene in De Doorns on Thursday suggested that things were, if anything, more volatile than the previous day. The shell of the Independent Newspapers car torched on Wednesday appeared to become something of a symbolic conflict-point: footage from ENCA showed police moving it off the N1, only to have it repeatedly dragged back on to the motorway by protesters. Two tractors commandeered by protesters were also driven on to the N1, with police eventually using water cannons and stun grenades to disperse the crowd.  
In Grabouw and Clanwilliam, there were also reports of stand-offs between protestors and police, with tyre-burning and rock-throwing – the two pastimes which have become the hallmarks of the winelands protest action – taking place in both locations. Grabouw also saw the burning of a farm shed in Rooidak, with a farm manager in the area telling EyeWitness News that farmers were using two-way radios to communicate with each other.

By the end of Thursday, a reported 62 protesters had been arrested during the two days of strike action. Bawusa claimed that nine people had been injured by rubber bullets since the protests began on Wednesday. Winelands Health Department spokesperson Darren Francis told the Daily Maverick that they had not yet received the full report of how many protest-related hospital admissions had been processed.

Carl Opperman, CEO of Agri Western Cape, repeated the assertion on Thursday that the “only way” out of the dispute was for farmworkers to negotiate directly with farmers, on a farm-by-farm basis. It is unclear to what extent this is taking place in practice: De Doorns farmworker Daniel Krotz, 50, told the Daily Maverick on Wednesday that his farmer boss had told them he was willing to pay his workers R150 per day. “Maar ons vertrou hom nie,” [We don’t trust him], Krotz added.

On Thursday evening it was reported that a number of farmers had, however, agreed to sit down to wage negotiations with unions on Friday. SAPA reported that Cosatu’s Tony Ehrenreich explained such discussions would be “separate to the engagements we’ve been having with Agri SA”. Ehrenreich told reporters in Worcester: “What we are now talking here is a deal with the table grape [farmers] and some related groups.” The meeting is expected to be attended by union leaders and farmers, with Cape Orchards Group chairperson Gerhard de Kock saying he had invited 28 farmers to the discussion.

The table grape farmers are particularly vulnerable in the dispute because De Doorns is table grape land. The Hex River Valley is the largest producer of table grapes in South Africa. In a Department of Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries report from 2011, table grapes are described as “one of the most important deciduous fruit grown in South Africa, taking into consideration their foreign exchange earnings, employment creation and linkage with support institutions”. The same report suggested that “transformation in the industry is very noticeable”, claiming that “nearly 9% of table grape land is owned by historically disadvantaged people”.

It is totally unclear what – if anything – is likely to come of Friday’s talks, which clearly will lack sector-wide buy-in. On Wednesday the Labour department announced that they were holding an additional round of public hearings into the sectoral minimum wage issue between 14 and 20 January. The Economic Conditions Commission tasked with advising Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant on what the minimum wage increase should be is only meeting at the end of this month, and the new minimum wage can only come into effect on 1 March.

What farmers have in mind, then, may be some kind of stop-gap measure designed to prevent further unrest at a critical time in the grape harvest. Unions will likely see this concession to talks as a temporary victory, albeit a very limited one. There’s a strong sense, though, that this ain’t over till it’s over. DM

Read more:

  • Western Cape farmers concede to union negotiations, in the M&G.

Photo: Protesters burn tyres on the N1 at De Doorns on Wednesday (Kate Stegemann)

Gallery
0