by Piet Coetzer

Farm workers' protest

A truce settles the crisis for now

Tony Ehrenreich
Tony Ehrenreich.jpg

A potentially explosive crisis involving farm workers in the Western Cape, with the threat of spreading to the rest of the country, was averted last week. But the unanswered questions remain: where and with whom did the unrest that erupted in the middle of November really start and what does the future hold on this front? It is an extremely complicated situation and single answers are not possible, bar to say that the farming industry is bound to change in many respects. 

To date the only known possible source for the ignition of the unrest that flared up at De Doorns on 12, 13 and 14 November is the African National Congress’s previously announced ‘Protect Reclaim’ campaign in the Western Cape, aimed at unseating the Democratic Alliance government in the province by making it ungovernable. The tactic is a revival of one used against the National Party Government before the 1994 constitutional settlement.

Despite claims by leaders of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and others, it is highly unlikely, and there is evidence to the contrary, that De Doorns was a case of ‘spontaneous combustion’. The De Doorns area has a recent history of violence fueled by the competition for work between established local residents and (both legal and illegal) immigrant workers.

Amid the finger pointing and blaming in the wake of the November unrest, it is not easy to identify who the original instigators or organisers were and who the opportunist bandwagoneers were. An attempt to identify all the players involved in the drama and list the most important factors at play quickly reveal the complexity of the situation.


Whose interest?

For starters it is dangerously simplistic to treat the farm workers, whom so many now claim to represent, as the monolithic group some pretend they are. At least six categories of farm workers, each with their own particular interests and often in conflict with the interests of other groups, can be identified:

  • Permanent, career farm workers and families of farm workers, most of whom have been living on farms for generations. For this category much more is at stake than just monetary considerations; 
  • Increasing numbers of permanent farm workers who do not live on farms but can still be regarded as career farm workers; 
  • Local seasonal workers, both on and off farms, who are employed on a casual basis during harvest time and for some produce processing that might take place on the farm; 
  • South African seasonal workers, from other parts of the country, also employed on a casual basis, but who increasingly tend to settle in the farming districts, often in informal and sometimes illegal settlements; 
  • Immigrant workers from neighbouring countries, many of whom (especially Zimbabweans under recently granted amnesty) have some legal status in the country; and 
  • Illegal immigrants/refugees, who tend to exert downward pressure on wages.

It is clear that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to accommodate the concerns, aspirations and needs of all these categories of workers is unlikely to be found. The announcement on 4 December of an agreement that there will now be negotiations on individual farms between farmers and workers is also unlikely to address the concerns of all categories.



Similar to the farm workers, farms as places of employment are also not a monolithic group. They vary from multimillion rand corporate entities of international standing, as found in the Ceres area, to what can hardly be classified as much more than medium-sized family businesses.

Besides the very few farming corporations generating turnovers in the hundreds of millions, according to figures supplied by the deputy minister of agriculture, Dr. Pieter Mulder, only 12% of farmers generate turnovers of more than R2 million a year and 52% less than R300 000.

It is only the really big farming undertakings that can offer workers meaningful career paths and opportunities of upward mobility –  both factors crucial to social stability.

This fragmented environment calls into question whether a sector-wide centrally negotiated wage determination, a key factor in the most recent events, is realistically possible or even wise. A total rethink of how labour relations are managed in the agricultural sector might be necessary.

Symptomatic of this fragmented sector is the fact that trade union organisations like Cosatu have been unable to establish a foothold in the industry. Farm workers have increasingly begun organising themselves in workers committees, with some claiming the farm workers’ plight has been exploited by outside forces for their own political agendas.

The extent to which Cosatu is out of touch with farm workers was starkly illustrated when on 3 December it was still all war talk by its Western Cape provincial secretary, Tony Ehrenreich and other spokespersons for a planned strike the next day. They also, using apartheid era tactics, threatened to mobilise ‘international partners’.

The next day not only did 90% of farm workers pitch for work, but Cosatu had to scramble to try and position itself as part of the deal (of individual farm-based negotiations) that was struck.


Long-term implications

At best the situation after the deal of 4 December can be described as a truce for the holiday season. It can easily, and probably will, flare-up again in early January when an important harvest for many Western Cape farms will still be in full swing.

How leaders from all stakeholder groups manage the process of reshaping the industry will have important implications for the economy, for food security, the international reputation of the country as a reliable supplier and above all for job opportunities in the agricultural sector. 

Since 2004 the number of people employed by the agricultural sector has come down by a massive 46% from 1.1 million to about 624 000. In many parts of the world, for different reasons such as local labour shortages, farmers have increasingly switched to less labour-intensive farming practices and mechanisation. Labour costs might just force South African farmers in the same direction.


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Issue 392


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