Tensions remain following dismissals of workers in De Doorns

| Ben Fogel
Image from the farmworkers strike taken earlier in January. Photo by Kate Stegeman.

Hundreds of farmworkers in the De Doorns area have been fired after the end of the farmworkers strike in the area on 22 January. The strike had been called off by COSATU the week before, but the seemingly dominant union in the area, the Bawsi Agriculture Workers Union of South Africa (Bawusa), suspended the strike days later. Clashes between police and protesters resulted in at least one death, many injuries and 181 arrests of striking farmworkers.

Numerous groups of farmworkers returned home early throughout the day on Thursday 24 January, walking amongst the debris of the previous week’s clashes, on the way back from farms across the Hex River Valley. Speaking to a group of about 12 women that morning the Daily Maverick found that they had arrived at the farm only to find the gates barred and to be told they had been replaced by ‘loyal emergency workers’ from the nearby towns of Touws River and Worcester.

Workers were infuriated at the news of their firing. They told me that they had only gone back to work out of desperation, due to the need to feed their children and purchase the supplies needed for the new school year. There was also widespread fear of further police brutality. Workers told me that following the loss of their jobs they now had absolutely nothing to lose.

Graffiti on the bridge between De Doorns and Stofland which still bore the marks of protest barricades carried the obscene message : “Francois Rousseau ma se bloed poes”, reflecting at least some residents opinion of a local farmer.

In addition to this two more community members came forward with stories of police brutality in Stofland. Mama Joro Ntlama claimed to have been shot in the face with a rubber bullet while pouring out water from her home near the road into Stofland. Her eye was swollen over and she claimed that she couldn’t work due to her injury.

Lutho Qokohe (30) was shot four times on his thigh, knee, shin and pelvis by police at his home in Stofland. According to Lutho, 12 police officers were patrolling by his house. When he looked out from his yard to see what was going on, two policemen opened fire on him, hitting him four times. He says he has yet to see a doctor due to fear of arrest.

According to many locals, those who went to the clinic after being hit with rubber bullets, have been handed over to the police and arrested. As of writing, I have been unable to confirm any instances of this.

Jaurie Scheepers a community leader of sorts in Stofland, was furious upon hearing news of workers being fired. He claimed that “there was deliberate provocation and intimidation” and that “De Doorns will break out into violence again if workers are not re-hired”. According to Jaurie, people were desperate and if they had no jobs, this meant that they would more readily resort to violent tactics out of sheer desperation.

Scheepers took it upon himself to report the mass firings to the police, the reason being because of the potential for another flare up, which neither the community nor the police wanted. After a meeting with the station commander he informed me that the station commander told him that this was a labour dispute not a police matter. He told Jaurie to take the matter up the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) and unions not the police. There have been additional reports of similar mass firings in Robertson, Touws River and Wolesley.

Western Cape COSATU leader Tony Ehrenreich echoed Scheepers’ sentiments in a press statement on Thursday. Ehrenreich claimed that, “farmers in De Doorns are taking punitive action against workers for telling the world that they cannot sustain their families on R69 a day.” He further added that “This is clearly driven by the desire to spite those workers who protested.” He placed particular blame on Hex River Valley Table Grape Association chair Michael Laubscher, who has been described as particularly stubborn in his refusal to negotiate with striking workers. Laubscher in response claimed that COSATU was being “economical with the truth.”

A recent Business Day article which ran on Friday the 25th of January, reports that Laubscher sent a letter to other farmers in which he urged them to be sensitive to the needs of returning workers, although he noted that he could not prevent them from taking disciplinary actions against workers if they felt their crops or property had been damaged.

Not all farmers see such mass firings as a matter of punishment; they see it as a matter of loyalty. Seasonal workers who broke the strike are seen by farmers as more loyal than permanent workers who joined the strike. Farmers consider this both a matter of personal betrayal and fiscal prudence. If workers went on strike, farmers have to regard the possibility of future actions which will further put the farm’s bottom line at risk. But the question remains as to why farmers would expect such loyalty from workers who are being paid what farmworkers describe as “fokkal”; wages in De Doorns for most workers range between 69 and 80 rand a day. Other reasons relating to damage of vines and property also played some role in the firings.

The historical legacy of labour relations in the agricultural sector can’t be removed from this equation. On individual farms widespread resentment, distrust and anger stems from the history of unmonitored brutal punishment on farms and the dop system, both commonplace during apartheid. The psychological scars of the past still remain among older workers, who have relayed stories of these times to their children. Another side-effect of this historical legacy which further dissolves the potential for farm by farm negotiations, is the fact that many farmworkers are still dependent on farmers for their housing.

And the above primarily applies to permanent workers. Seasonal labour brings on a new set of challenges at an organizational level for unions and in terms of negotiations.

It reflects the distorted power relations between workers and farmers on the shop floor, which hamper any possibility of farm by farm negotiations which Agri-SA has been calling for throughout the strike. How can such negotiations take place on equal footing when one side holds all the playing cards?.

COSATU has to shoulder some of the blame for this situation for calling off the strike without firm commitments from farmers’ associations to not impose punitive measures on farmworkers returning to work. Their return to a call for farm by farm negotiations to reach both the desired R150 wage and a proposed profit sharing scheme, which echoes a similar call made in December, appears to be similarly doomed to failure, unless somehow power relations at farm level undergo a fundamental shift in the near future.

Another factor limiting workers ability to respond is the failure of the first organic motion which set off the strike in November to grow into workers committees or strike committees in De Doorns, similar to those that emerged in other areas of the Boland particularly around Robertson or during last year’s wave of strikes across the Platinum belt.

Instead this energy has largely been diverted into the recruitment drive of Bawusa, which as of yet have yet to build any sustainable structures for the battle for higher wages in the area. The bottom up initiative which started the strike, appears to have shifted towards a more traditional populism represented by the likes of Nosey Pieterse and more orthodox unionism represented by the Farm and Agricultural Workers Union (FAWU). This has resulted in large periods of inaction throughout the strike, as workers simply waited for reports from their leaders instead of meeting amongst themselves. Bawusa in particular has claimed its membership has risen to around 10,000 in the province. While FAWU claims to have around 2,500 workers in the De Doorns area, although neither of the unions has produced proof for these figures.

After the DA’s initial rhetoric towards the strike in November, most notably in Premier Helen Zille’s call for South African National Defense Force (SANDF) intervention, the party has been notably quiet since the strike’s resumption in January. De Doorns residents claim that they have not seen or heard anything from Breede River Valley mayor Basil Kivedo a DA representative since the strike began in November. De Doorns is part of the Hex River Valley Municipality which also includes, Touws River, Rawsonville and Worcester.

The provincial ANC’s initial support for the strike has dwindled. Marius Fransman and Tony Ehrenreich have been less visible in De Doorns than during the first round of the strike, further opening the door for Nosey Pieterse and Bawusa to fill the leadership vacancy. ANCYL president Ronald Lamola has recently stepped in as well to voice his support for the R150 demand, only after the strike is suspended, perhaps due to either the young lions extended Christmas break or maybe ex-president Julius Malema’s reincarnation as a Versace clad cabbage farmer in Limpopo.

To further muddy the waters, a divide between COSATU and Bawusa is beginning to emerge. Although publicly Tony Ehrenreich and Nosey Pieterse describe themselves as the “terrible twins” and according to a recent Mail and Guardian story, both Ehrenrich and Pieterse claim that COSATU and Bawusa share a common cause, real differences between Bawusa and COSATU have become apparent. Bawusa suspended the strike days after COSATU officially announced it was over. If the strike resumes for the fourth time, the divide between the trade union federation represented primarily in the area by FAWU and Bawusa could deepen, potentially resulting in yet another political battle in De Doorns.

A combination of the desperation of people with nothing to lose and widespread resentment towards police and farmers in De Doorns could see the town explode once again. The potential for even more violence remains a distinct possibility, unless a solution can be found quickly.

TOPICS:  Economy

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