by Piet Coetzer

Farm unrest

A strike, a rebellion or just chaos?

Tony Ehrenreich
Tony Ehrenreich.jpg

It is becoming increasingly difficult to find a single description for the ongoing unrest surrounding the agricultural sector in the Western Cape. It is developing into a seemingly unmanageable crisis. One veteran activist this weekend described it as “a historic rebellion, not a strike”.

The leader of the African National Congress in the Cape Town Metropolitan Council, Tony Ehrenreich, seems to be rebelling against his own party. Last Friday, in his capacity as Western Cape secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), he rejected a call from the ANC in the province in a statement by the party’s provincial leader and member of the government, Deputy Minister Marius Fransman.

“The ANC respects the right of workers to organise, but in light of more goodwill among some farmers and unruly elements hijacking the present strike, the ANC calls for cool-off time and room for talks,” Fransman said.

He also made a direct call on Ehrenreich, under “whose leadership Cosatu ... was leading the process of the build-up to the strike”, to “publicly call for immediate suspension of the strike”.

Ehrenreich not only responded by rejecting the call of his provincial party-leader, but further stoked the fires by indicating an escalation and broadening of action, calling on retailers to boycott “bad farmers” who did not heed workers' demands. He added that “Cosatu is calling on its members ... not to handle the fruit and not to load any fruit onto ships for export”.

This situation clearly exposes the highly contentious conflicts of interest that can, and do, arise when individuals serve in leadership positions in both the ANC and in Cosatu. While the two organisations form part of a 'governing alliance', it is important to note that not only the Western Cape ANC but also the government has called for a suspension of the protest actions and warned that it would not tolerate illegal and violent actions.

Ehrenreich, however, is apparently not the only leading figure in the protest actions with a conflict of interest. Nosey Pieterse, president of the Building and Allied Workers Union of South Africa (Bawusa) – which claims to represent the farm workers – is also president of the Black Association of the Wine and Spirits Industry (Bawsi).

The aim of Bawsi is to promote black ownership in the wine sector. It allegedly receives R200 000 per month from the South African Wine Industry Trust (Sawit). It is also part of Phetogo Investments, a black empowerment group with a 27% stake in the KWV.

Bawsi and Phetogo acquired this stake with a R120-million loan from the government-funded Industrial Development Corporation, R40m from Sawit and a further R40m from the KWV itself.

Complicating factors

There are, however, a number of other factors that greatly complicate efforts to come to grips with the present unrest in Western Cape agriculture. Among these are:

·    To identify negotiating parties with credible mandates is hugely complicated by the fact that only about 5% of farm workers belong to unions. Likewise, in the absence of a central bargaining council for the industry, the Labour Relations Act does not apply and agricultural organisations do not have specific mandates to negotiate on labour issues;

·    There is substantial dependence by part of the production cycle in the industry in the province on large numbers of temporary seasonal workers. This not only makes it difficult to unionise them, but leads to serious clashes of interest between them and permanent workers and brings the role of so-called labour brokers into the equation;

·    Recently, workers’ spokespersons such as Ehrenreich have added the highly emotive subject of land ownership to their negotiating agenda;

·    The Western Cape is the only province not governed by the ANC, and  Fransman recently went on record stating that the party’s campaign for the general election of 2014 has already started. Political agendas are clearly feeding into the situation; and

·    During the most recent unrest, there were similar signs of the xenophobia that pervaded De Doorns three years ago, with the shops of foreigners being raided.

The agricultural sector is both economically and socially important, but also highly sensitive.

Research commissioned by Agri SA at the end of last year in the wake of the first round of strike-related unrest under an agreement with a coalition of organisations involved in the strike action, exposed the limited room to manoeuvre.

The result of the research by the University of Stellenbosch and the Pretoria-based Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy, which became known last week, revealed the following:

·    Farmers cannot afford remuneration of more than R104 per day, while organisations such as Bawusa insist on at least R150 per day; and

·    At the same time, it is not possible to properly feed a family of four on an income of only R150 per day. Seasonal workers at present are paid on average R84.90 per day, which is 23% above the statutory determined minimum of R69 per day.

It is widely expected that if pay packages for farm workers should rise substantially, it would result in further job losses in the agricultural sector, which has already seen jobs drop from 1.8 million in 1994 to less than 700 000 presently. This will happen via larger scale mechanisation and a move toward less labour-intensive crops.

There are already signs that this has happened to some extent, and farmers who have gone this route have been less vulnerable during the current turmoil.

Ironically, the recently ANC-endorsed National Development Plan foresees agriculture providing an additional one million jobs by 2030.

There is an additional social risk in the present unrest, especially if Ehrenreich’s threat of boycotts at retailer level materialises. It could put pressure to bear on both food security and food prices.

If this should happen it could, as events on the African continent and elsewhere have already shown, turn the 'strike' into a 'historic rebellion' as foreseen by Mercia Andrews, president of the South African National NGO Coalition.

 

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