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Farm workers' strike: Violence was a long time coming

Lynley Donnelly

A community leader says the farm workers in the Western Cape were ignored despite their value to the economy, Lynley Donnelly reports.

The workers also expressed their anger over the role of the police. (David Harrison, M&G)

Farm workers in the Western Cape hamlet of Wolseley are angry. The shattered shop windows that gape along the town's main road, blackened by burnt-out tyres and strewn with debris, are testament to it.

By midday on Thursday, after violent clashes with the police that culminated in the tragic shooting of local resident Michael Daniels (28), the rage was simmering below the surface. Mavis Tsieane, a farm worker who has lived and worked in Wolseley for 12 years, said it would not dissipate because people were fighting for their daily needs. "We work very hard but at the end of the month the money we get is too little."

Unrest has flared up among farm workers across the Boland, drawing parallels with the mining strikes in Marikana in recent months. They are demanding better wages - a minimum of R150 a day compared with the roughly R70 they get.

Tsieane said as a permanent worker she earned R1 600 a month before deductions. Her husband is a factory worker and the money goes to support two children and three grandchildren back home in the Eastern Cape.

She is unhappy about the deductions made from her salary, including a pension contribution. She would rather have that money in her pocket to make ends meet. Tsieane claims that, after deductions, she gets R350 to R400 a month. Part of her battle is a R23 000 debt, which she is paying off in R800 instalments each month.

Proceeded peacefully
Despite a two-week stay on strikes, brokered by trade federation Cosatu and the labour ministry, Tsieane and many other Wolseley workers say they will not return to work. She believes they will be expected to work twice as hard with no overtime to make up for lost production while Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant reviews the sectoral determination that sets the minimum wage received by farm workers.

But despite the violence on Wednesday, workers and community members proceeded peacefully to the Wolseley municipal offices on Thursday morning to meet community leaders and the police.

Six people were reportedly arrested on Wednesday night and their release is among the community's demands.

The workers also expressed their anger over the role of the police, which they claim turned Wednesday's protest violent. They also called for labourers not participating in the strikes to join them.

"We want people to stand together," said James Simani, a farm worker and one of the protesters.

Fighting for their daily bread
Jacob Zalie, a community leader, said the strife came as no surprise. "This has been a long time coming. People were angry with the government. Despite two weeks of protests, officials are only reacting now.

"The economy of the Western Cape comes from farm workers; it's important that you look after these people."

He criticised the request by premier Helen Zille to bring in the army to address the situation. "Why? These people are fighting for their daily bread."

Political "finger-pointing" on all sides has marred the government's response to the crisis. But there was "no politicking here", said Zalie.

Community leaders were there to support the people and their demands.

The police did not respond directly to requests for comment, but in a media statement they confirmed the death of a 28-year-old man and the injury of five other people in Wolseley. The situation on Thursday remained volatile, the police said. 

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