Commercial farmers' union Agri SA believes that political forces have directed the strikes that have rocked the farming community of De Doorns in the Western Cape for the past month. But evidence suggests that the three consecutive farm strikes that galvanised more than 9 000 farm workers in the Hex River Valley were entirely organic.
The first strike of about 300 workers began on August 27 on Keurboschkloof Farm near De Doorns after farm workers claimed that the farm's new owners asked them to sign a new contract that represented a cut in wages.
This was followed by a strike on Normandy Farm and another on Royal Mushroom Farm, taking the number of striking workers to more than 800. The worker-driven nature of the strikes is perhaps most clearly signalled by the fact that the only organisation working among the first strikers – according to the testimony of several farm workers – was Passop, an immigrant rights non-governmental organisation (NGO) founded by Braam Hanekom, the nephew of Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom.
"The fact that a group of Zimbabweans was on the ground here in South Africa giving the strikers legal advice tells you something about the condition of labour organisation in the agricultural sector," said Petrus Brink, Citrusdal-based representative of the Surplus People Project, a rural development NGO.
"If anything, the initial strikes were reminiscent of the first Marikana miners' strike, in the sense that they were a product of workers being gatvol [fed up] of employers, political parties and the major labour unions."
At the centre of the basket of issues vocalised by the De Doorns farm workers has been the sectoral determination for agriculture. The minimum wage is one of the lowest in the country, at R69 a day. Politicians and union leaders have vigorously taken up the workers' demands for a wage increase to R150 a day, propelling the farm-worker unrest, which had touched 16 Western Cape towns at the time of writing, into the media limelight.
The political jostling has left many farm workers feeling nonplussed. According to third-generation De Doorns farm worker Moses Manisi, the negotiating team that was formed on behalf of striking workers "did not include a single farm worker, but included councillors and union bosses and some known labour brokers, and even some people who wear all three of these hats".
Negotiations collapsed after Agri SA and trade union federation Cosatu announced that they were walking away. The Workers International Vanguard League, which was privy to the first talks, claimed that Nelie Barends, who "is a community leader, has his own trade union, 'Bawusa' [Bawsi Agricultural Workers Union of South Africa], and is also a labour broker for the farmers in De Doorns", was part of the negotiating team on behalf of the farm workers.
Bawusa founder Noseyman Petersen said he knew of Barends, but that "the claim that he is involved with Bawusa is a mistruth from hell".
Patrick Marran, an ANC councillor for the Breede Valley Municipality, confirmed that Barends had been an ANC councillor for ward 5 of the municipality "in the previous municipal term" and that he had formed part of the farm-worker negotiating team.
Barends did not respond to messages left on his cellphone, but several farm workers said that it was well known that Barends provided "labour services" to certain Hex River Valley Farms.
It was from these irregular negotiations that officials from the Western Cape government and organised agriculture appear to have drawn inferences of political involvement in the strikes.
"You can't blame them for that," said Lourie Bosman, a Democratic Alliance parliamentarian and former Agri SA chairperson. "I accept that the unrest may have been organic to begin with, but then, as tends to happen, the politicians piled in without regard for the long-term consequences for the country and people they claim to represent."
As the unrest spreads, farmers are finding, as did South Africa's platinum mine bosses following the labour unrest unleashed by the Marikana strike, that the striking farm workers have no identifiable leadership. Some observers, like Brink, have begged the question: "Would it not have been better to have had credible labour representatives in De Doorns in October? Would the unrest not have been prevented?"
He said that the country's labour unions had as much, if not more, blame to shoulder for South Africa's poor levels of farm-worker unionisation, which the most recent department of labour statistics pegs at 5% of a workforce of about 340 000 permanent workers and 350 000 seasonal workers.
"The majority of small farm-worker unions and civil society organisations have not been effective in organising farm workers, because they say they do not have the money to visit far-flung farms. The Food and Allied Workers' Union, as an affiliate of Cosatu, should have the means to do this, but they're part of the ruling alliance and the people in this province have lost faith in that alliance and in all politicians and unions, for that matter," he said.
The challenges of unionising farm workers are acknowledged in the union's 2011 policy document on organising farm workers and dwellers. The document highlights the union's internal weaknesses, such as a lack of local knowledge of farming areas and a lack of proficiency in local languages.
"We have addressed some of these issues but it's not enough," said the union's general secretary, Katishi Masemola, who admitted that it was owing to the union's failure to penetrate agricultural communities that Cosatu provincial secretary Tony Ehrenreich, and not the union's leadership, had been quoted in the media on the subject of workers' rights.
Fanning the flames
Western Cape premier Helen Zille criticised Ehrenreich for fanning the flames of unrest because he warned that "we will see a Marikana in De Doorns" if worker issues were not addressed.
Ironically, Agri SA had its first-ever meeting with Cosatu on August 7, less than 10 days before the Marikana massacre and 20 days before the De Doorns strikes.
"There's a growing understanding that what we're doing – all our nice policies and statements – isn't working and that we need to put our pride in our pocket and communicate with the unions to move forward in an agri-friendly manner," said Anton Rabe, chairperson of Agri SA's labour committee.
Rabe said Cosatu and Agri SA were coming up with a platform "where we can constructively deal with things, so to have self-interested parties come and pull the mat out from under everything is disheartening, but I trust we will get back on track".
Karel Swart of the Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers' Union, for one, is doubtful whether this will matter to the province's farm workers.
"This thing is going now; it isn't a false start. It will bring the country to a standstill so that farm-worker issues are dealt with once and for all," he said.