GroundUp (Cape Town)

10 January 2013

South Africa: The Battle of De Doorns Round Three

Photo: Wikipedia
Vineyard in South Africa's Western Cape

Tensions between the De Doorns community and the police flared into open confrontation, as day one of the now thrice resumed strike turned into a running battle between striking workers and the police.

According to the police at least 50 people were arrested and numerous injuries were reported: A police captain was hit by a stone, BAWUSA (Building and Allied Workers Union of South Africa) and BAWSI (Black Association of the Wine and Spirits Industry) leader Nosey Pieterse was pelted with rubber bullets and throughout the day, police shot dozens of strikers with rubber bullets. This followed similar confrontations last year which saw at least two dead in the Hex River valley town.

After just over a month's rest, the Western Cape farmworkers resumed their strike following the predicted failure of farm by farm negotiations. Negotiations at a higher level between the unelected strike committee led by Tony Ehrenreich and Agri SA which has been described by Ehrenrich as an "old apartheid organisation unwilling to engage in good faith". Agri SA made the claim that workers were being deceived by their unions and were unaware that their strike was illegal.

During the early afternoon in De Doorns, the epicenter of the strike, two journalists from the Cape Times Xolani Koyana and a young Singaporean intern narrowly escaped serious injury after their car was surrounded by infuriated protesters, who dragged them out, and set the car ablaze. Along with myself, the two journalists were soon rescued by other community members who offered us a temporary safe haven at a nearby chapel. The police at this stage were nowhere in sight.

While I was threatened by violence from protesters, I should also note that I was most afraid of a barrage of police rubber bullets headed in my direction. Throughout the day, police armoured cars continued to drive up and down the now barricaded N1 firing rubber bullets while they themselves were pelted with stones.

The day began with a march of some 6,000 people down the N1. Later, Nosey Pieterse led protesters towards the center of town. The police according to community reports retreated down the road exchanging the occasional rubber bullet with a few stone throwing protesters, who also set up a series of blockades. At some point the police began to push forward again driving the protesters back. This started an almost day long fight between stone throwing protesters moving back and forth from the sprawling informal settlement to the highway and police.

During this time, I witnessed police firing at will into crowds not making any distinction between stone throwers protesters and innocent bystanders. Later, I saw police move into the township and fire directly upon several unarmed community members hiding inside their dwellings. From what I observed many of those engaged in these running battles appeared to be children, rather than striking workers.

The majority of protesters by this stage had gravitated towards the Stofland Stadium which has become the official assembly point for political activity in the town over the course of the last few months. Here, strikers were addressed by BAWUSA leaders, while others continued to battle nearby. BAWUSA t-shirts identified many of the strikers allegances while I also spotted several FAWU members despite earlier reports indicating their opposition to the strike. It was apparent however that BAWUSA was the dominant force on the day of the strike with Nosey Pieterse being the central figure.

Pieterse after hearing of the attack on the journalists' car, gave a speech calling for journalists to be protected by the strikers, on the grounds that journalists were essential to ensuring getting the correct story of the strike across to the wider world.

By the late afternoon the violence had appeared to have calmed down with only the occasional shot fired or stone thrown. The exact number of injured is difficult to ascertain, but the Daily Maverick saw several children as young as 12 and elderly women hit by rubber bullets. Emergency medical services were entirely absent from the area for the duration of my time in De Doorns.

So far, Western Cape farmers have failed to make any substantial offers of increases during the negotiations and this appears to have exacerbated the anger and desperation of many of their employees.

At the time of writing it is difficult to suggest conclusively the scale of the strike in the rest of the Western Cape. Still, the Daily Maverick witnessed at least 1,000 protesters peacefully assembled in Grabouw while in Villiersdorp fires dotted the landscape outside its grape farms. Other reports indicate that rubber bullets were also fired at workers in Wolsley. While unconfirmed, several residents claimed that striking workers had set these fires the previous night. Word of the strike reached many it appears, through rumour and word of mouth rather than via a concerted communications strategy.

I interviewed workers who appeared to have no knowledge of any "farm by farm mediations" and claimed to have heard no wage offers from their employers. Some of the workers in De Doorns claimed to still be receiving around R60 a day and one worker, Peter Baardman in Grabouw, claimed that at times he was given only around R50 in return for a day's labour. Both numbers are well below the national minimum wage of R69 per day.

Violence is endemic in the industry, including by farmers upon farmworkers. A recent report from Human Rights Watch, for example, noted that workers fear being evicted from their homes when they are too old or sick to work and are in some cases denied access to adequate sanitation or safe drinking water while working the fields and are often punished for joining a union.

It appears as if the strike may persist intermittently with workers dissatisfied with Agri SA's approach. It also remains to be seen if the strike committee continues to call for further protests following yesterday's violence. What is certain however is that the anger won't dissipate any time soon.

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