Recent strife in the Western Cape's agriculture sector has aggravated already tense political relations between the Democratic Alliance-led provincial government and the national ANC government.
Last week, however, a new initiative to address problems in the sector was launched, driven by a cautious alliance of figures from across the political spectrum.
The Future of Agriculture and the Rural Economy (Fare) process was launched by the Western Cape Economic Development Forum, headed by the ANC's Phillip Dexter, and the Western Cape Economic Development Partnership, chaired by former minister Barbara Hogan, and convened by Andrew Boraine.
Marius Fransman, the leader of the ANC in the Western Cape and deputy minister of international relations, attended the launch in support of the initative, along with the Western Cape provincial minister for agriculture and DA member, Gerrit van Rensburg.
The forum and the partnership are independent civil organisations aiming to aid economic growth in the Western Cape.
Despite initially "butting heads" over a "philosophical difference" over how the partnership and the forum were structured, after a set of meetings last year the organisations found that they had identified common challenges facing the regional economy and shared similar ideas about how to solve them, Dexter said at the launch.
Following this, the Fare process was developed. It is aimed at addressing the underlying structural issues facing the sector that led to the recent violent strikes experienced in the Western Cape.
The sector faces a number of long-term challenges, including stagnant growth, farm consolidation, the exodus of farmers, labour casualisation, mechanisation, increased global competition and rising costs chiefly in the form of energy and transport costs and wages. Other problems include farmworker indebtedness, the impact of climate change in the form of water scarcity and food security, potential land policy changes, a lack of skills and housing shortages.
A Fare steering committee has been established, co-chaired by Dexter and Boraine. It will guide a panel of experts whose terms of reference include helping all actors forge a common agenda for the region's agricultural sector, as well as identifying possible projects, resources and partnerships to manage the changes it faces.
The panel includes Venete Klein, vice-president of Business Unity South Africa; academic Karin Kleinbooi, a researcher at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (Plaas); Adrian Sayers, a former unionist and researcher at the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit and Jan Theron, coordinator of the labour and enterprise policy research group at the University of Cape Town.
The Fare panel's first task is to complete a report on the sector by September, with recommendations, to be presented to all interested role-players at a series of indabas.
At the launch, both Van Rensburg and Fransman stressed that the Fare process had to be independent of any political interests to remain credible.
"We must make sure that we protect the independence of the team," said Fransman.
Dexter added: "You've got the ANC national government and the DA provincial government and the tensions are always there."
He said, however, that both he and Boraine had experience in managing social dialogue and the divergent interests of different groups.
According to Dexter, the expected report will identify challenges facing the sector, make recommendation to solve them and where interventions are required, institutionalise them.
He gave the example of the need for a rural incubator to support emerging black farmers, which Fare could support by sourcing funds and setting it up.
Following the strikes, tension in the political sphere has been amplified by the war of words that has broken out between the DA and Tina Joemat-Pettersson, the national minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, in Parliament.
The DA has voiced concerns that the national government may have helped fund the labour unrest in the province.
Call for investigation
In a reply to a parliamentary question from the DA, Joemat-Pettersson revealed that the department had funded the Black Association for the Wine and Spirits Industry (Bawsi), led by Nosey Pieterse, with an amount of R4.1-million, a few weeks before the farmworkers' strike broke out.
Pieterse and Bawsi's agricultural union, the Bawsi Agricultural Workers Union of South Africa (Bawusa), were involved in representing workers during the strikes, which became violent.
The DA has called on the auditor general and public protector to investigate the provision of the funds.
In her parliamentary reply, however, Joemat-Pettersson said that, prompted by a Human Rights Watch report on the abuse of farmworkers in the Western Cape, the department had identified Bawsi as a human rights organisation fighting for the rights of vulnerable workers. It had entered into a signed, two-year service-level agreement with the organisation that included a work plan with expected deliverables.
A report in Business Day quoted Pieterse as saying that a portion of the money was used to buy 20 sets of musical instruments to help workers generate additional income. It also said that Bawsi had already submitted its first quarterly report to the department.
Palesa Mokomela, the spokesperson for the minister, said it was a departmental matter. "We satisfied ourselves that all the correct legal processes had been followed when the allocation was made," she said. The minister was waiting for the quarterly report from the department to assess whether the nongovernmental organisation and the projects it had undertaken met the legal requirements of the service-level agreement, Mokomela said. The ministry welcomed the DA's call for an investigation by the auditor general and public protector.