One name consistently comes up when conversations in the Western Cape turn to speculation about who is driving farm protests: Nosey Pieterse.
A beneficiary of winelands empowerment deals and self-styled champion of the poor, he is an enormously controversial figure, and questions over his presence at the protests will not be laid to rest by the fact that he has been distributing food parcels paid for by the agriculture minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson.
Pieterse, however, is adamant that workers trust him and solicited his help.
The fact that Joemat-Pettersson spent R10-million from the government's food security budget on the food parcels does not surprise him, and he does not find it an anomaly that this is where public funds are being channelled.
A seasoned activist, Pieterse looked genuinely worried during an interview this week that the flames of discontent might not be so easy to put out. Wearing a thick gold chain and cross over his union T-shirt and sporting his trademark Chairman Mao cap, he agreed with some of the farmworkers who believe they are involved in a farming revolution.
"I see it exactly as the workers see it. This is their one chance to get out of their shackles, to be liberated from this yoke," said Pieterse. "No matter what other people want to tell you – and believe me, I have no reason to make this up – this is nothing political."
On Wednesday, Cosatu provincial secretary Tony Ehrenreich announced that the strike had been suspended in most areas for a week, except in violence-torn De Doorns in the Hex River Valley, where workers are holding out for R150 a day. Although Pieterse said he had spoken to Ehrenreich before the strike was suspended and he "respected" that he would like to give negotiations a chance, he is concerned that protection agreements have not been signed with the farmers.
"Right at the top of the agreement is that everybody returns to work. No victimisation, no dismissals," he said. "We have lost track of the number of farmworkers who have been fired during the strikes. Those arrested should all be released on bail."
Although the government has brought forward the announcement of its revised sectoral wage determination for farmworkers to February, the only area in which an agreement has been reached with farmers is in Clanwilliam, Pieterse said. However, on Thursday agricultural trade association Agri SA claimed that only one Clanwilliam farmer has struck an agreement with workers to accept a minimum wage of R105 a day.
The violence perpetuated by the farmworkers came from "deep anger", he said. "I tell them to channel that anger in the right direction. But there are elements that have crept in. The group of people striking is permanent workers, seasonal workers, foreign nationals, unemployed community members. And then the unfortunate thing is the children. I tell the workers that children must be kept in their houses, and we will try to get them a little help with this. I am the only voice they now listen to and that is a serious problem because when I leave the area, they phone me. Forty-one workers were fired by a farmer in Piketberg yesterday. It is not a way to get a job to burn up the place. But they are angry and frustrated."
Politicians, including Western Cape ANC leader Marius Fransman, now consult the popular Pieterse before going out to talk to the strikers. He is a parish pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and some of the farmworkers share his religious beliefs. Others relate to him because, of his long history of activism during apartheid and his ongoing fight for workers' rights.
He also plays two other diametrically opposed roles: as the president of the Black Association of the Wine and Spirit Industry (Bawsi) and the general secretary of the Bawsi Agricultural Workers' Union of South Africa (Bawusa), which has doubled its membership since the farmworker strikes began.
Pieterse juggles two cellphones to cope with the deluge of calls from farmworkers who want him to help with their strike in the many affected towns scattered across the province. Agri SA believes there are roughly 5 000 farmers in the Western Cape, as well as about 200 000 permanent and casual workers, many of whom have been drawn into the strike.
De Doorns strike leader Eldrina Witbooi, who was recently fired from her farm job because of her involvement in the strike, goes to the same church as Pieterse. "We love and trust Nosey," she said. "Whenever help is needed, Nosey is there." Which is why the workers in De Doorns rushed to help him when police shot him in the arm with a rubber bullet last week.
Now there are fresh concerns about his safety. "There are vehicles following me and people who were overheard saying they want to eliminate me. I can be very stubborn," he said. "The leadership of all the organisations involved in this strike said they want Nosey alive, not a martyr."
Rumours doing the rounds that workers were being forced to join Bawusa in order to receive a parcel left him shaking his head in despair.
"It is all nonsense. The media have a critical role to play in what we are doing because we want the message out. But now there is this thing of personalising what I am doing. I start to question whether some people don't have an agenda and they might be advancing the cause of the farmers and others. I think people might want to discredit me so that the farmworkers won't have confidence in me."
Some players in the agricultural sector told the M&G that Pieterse has a farm, but they don't know where. Yet Pieterse is open to questions about his family's farming venture. He bought a piece of land in Hopefield on the West Coast for R79 000 in 1999 with the idea of starting a rehabilitation centre for alcoholics and drug addicts. However, the project has received no support from the government.
"My relationship was not very good with politicians, whether they are ANC or Democratic Alliance. I want people to be there for the people and you are going to get a hiding if you don't deliver. So I thought: OK, let me start something here. One of my cousins had a dependency problem, so he wanted to go and stay on the land and start a new way of life."
Then his son Nathan expressed an interest in farming and they bought some sheep. "But we did not know how to farm. And it didn't work out lekker because we don't really know farming. He was struggling, but he wanted to keep farming. Then he latched on to the idea that pig [farming] is easier and not so complicated."
The farm currently has 70 breeding sows. He readily responds to a query on the amount of money he pays his workers daily. "I pay my workers R120 a day. I can't say that R70 a day is not right for farmworkers and then I pay R80. Nobody else is paying that much in the area."
Although Pieterse hopes to retire to his farm and eventually start a rehabilitation centre, he is currently focusing on his union work. Last year, he stood in the unemployment queue for six months when Bawusa ran into funding difficulties. Claims that he is extremely wealthy are dismissed as ridiculous. "There are some white people who have a problem when black people get into business. But why shouldn't I be in business? I didn't buy my MBA from the Henley Business School in London."
With a BA honours degree in theology from the University of the Western Cape and a string of other business and labour diplomas, he has not struggled to find work in the industry. He spent years working as a human resources manager and labour resource specialist at wine and brandy co-operative KWV.
"Then I was given a choice. I was the president of Bawsi and I led marches against the ANC, against government, against evictions. This is where my role parted with KWV."
Accusations circulating around Bawsi have centred on the R200 000 a month it was given by the South African Wine Industry Trust, which was set up to support transformation in the wine industry. Pieterse said the money has all been accounted for by Bawsi.
He said Bawsi is part of a black economic empowerment consortium that still holds shares in KWV following the wine producer's unbundling. Despite speculation that if Bawsi sold its shares there could be a R56-million profit, Pieterse said he does not know where this "beautiful figure" came from and that the shares have not been sold.
Upset about media attacks on his character, Pieterse phoned after our interview to say a newspaper team was snooping around his farm, "pretending to be researchers". "Why can't they just sit down and ask me questions?" he asked. "Why are they trying to nail me?"