Farm protests reap the fruits of apartheid
The protests that started in the small town of De Doorns on November 6 and spread to more than 20 towns in Western Cape, galvanised the anger of farm workers and dwellers against decades of “baasskap”, slave wages and extreme poverty.
Like Marikana, in the mining sector, De Doorns has ignited the imagination of farm workers and the rural poor.
What developed was a rebellion rather than simply a strike.
In spite of low levels of union organisation, difficulties in communication between distant farms and confusion created by unions calling the strike on and off, farm workers mobilised from Clanwilliam on the West Coast to Ladismith in the Karoo to demand wages of R150 per day.
The current minimum wage is R69 and many workers do not even receive this.
That the issues underlying the strike go well beyond wages was demonstrated last week Friday when more than 500 farm workers and farm dwellers from the Robertson district farms gathered in front of the Robertson police station.
They were there to lay charges of violence and abuse against the police and their employers.
The SA Human Rights Commission and the Commission for Gender Equality were there to record this remarkable demonstration.
Senior police officers were forced not to just hear these testimonies but accept the charges against their colleagues.
Farm workers were angry at the role of the police.
They provided evidence of police intimidation and brutality.
In one such incident, police allegedly drove into Nkqubela township, shooting indiscriminately at residents.
In another incident, police were accused of entering the Le Chasseur farm premises in the evening before the protest.
It is said they shot at farm workers who were meeting in the open.
Another group of strikers from McGregor described how police shot at them as they marched: “We were peaceful. We had no stones – nothing. Instead they shouted and swore at us for striking. Then they shot at us.”
Farm workers from the Le Chasseur district demanded the immediate arrest of a farm manager who openly brandished his rifle and threatened to shoot at them as they protested peacefully at the farm entrance.
The Robertson station commander refused to fuel the strong sentiment of farm workers that the justice system only exists for farmers.
Ryno Visser, a Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers’ Union shop steward, remarked: “We say to the police, stop this intimidation, we want the farmers to come to us. You (police) are not our bosses.”
Farm workers also spoke out against the working and living conditions on the farms.
“I was told to pack my bags and get off the farm if I did not resign from the union,” says one farm worker who works on a farm outside Ashton.
Another worker complained about the way in which his boss speaks to him and other workers: “I have worked on the farm for 18 years and my wife and son also work on the farm with me. The farmer often humiliates me in front of my son and wife. I cannot even speak back to him. I am treated like his child. I feel so angry.”
Ashton resident Johanna Jonker said: “We have no toilets, but the farmer’s wife says we are filthy pigs because we live in squalor. Yet they are so rich and do so little to improve our living conditions. We have to be bold and fight for change.”
Many of the farm workers spoke of the deductions from their wages.
“I am supposed to earn R340 for the week, but sometimes I only get R80 or less. I have to buy electricity and food, which is deducted from my wages because I made debt at the farm shop,” said Koos from Bonnievale.
Although labour legislation and legal protection have been extended to farm workers, extremely low wages, long hours, dangerous working conditions, victimisation of trade union members and the use of undocumented immigrants are the norm.
» Andrews is director at the Trust for Community Outreach and Education which supports farm workers