Whose strike to whose gain? | by Christian Selz

by Jan 21, 2013Magazine

amandla-28-whose-gainAlongside the prominent demand for R150 a day, striking farm workers in the Western Cape are demanding an end to labour brokering – an uphill battle that they are likely to lose given that some of their perceived leaders appear to trade in that very business.

It is only the seventh demand on their list of eight, but it is clear and straightforward. ‘Labour brokers must be banned,’ says Ida Jacobs. ‘We don’t want any labour brokers anymore, because they violated workers’ rights,’ her comrade Bettie Fortuin adds. Fortuin is a farm worker in De Doorns, the epicentre of the recent farm worker strikes, and chairs the local structure of the NGO Women on Farms Project (WFP). Jacobs is the Labour Rights Programme officer at WFP. Passionately, they tell of gruelling incidents of eviction, assault, and of police siding with farmers. It’s a clear picture of good against evil, of old power models, of exploiters against the disenfranchised. ‘We know what we talk about,’ Jacobs says.

The only issues that remain blurred are the identities of strike leaders – and those of the hated labour brokers. For clarity one has to delve into De Doorns’ political power structures.

The small town is divided into three wards, all run by ANC councillors. One of them, Mpumelelo Lubisi, was suspended by the party for stirring up xenophobia in 2009. The other two, Pat Marran and Patrick Januarie, are involved with strikers but try to avoid being perceived as organisers. Both avoid talking to me. Marran hasn’t responded to a written request for an interview and Januarie diverted me to Nosey Pieterse, general secretary of the Building and Allied Workers Union of South Africa (BAWUSA), the chief negotiator for the farm workers. Pieterse calls the employer body Agri Wes-Cape’s offer of R80 per day ‘disgusting’ and at a rally encourages workers to keep up their struggle. Januarie stands next to him, but doesn’t speak. ‘The ANC leaders are behind the strike but they told the people to never mention their names,’ says Owen Maromo of human rights NGO People Against Suffering Oppression and Poverty (Passop).

This would appear to be in order to avoid providing fodder for the Democratic Alliance (DA), the provincial agriculture ministry and Agri Wes-Cape, who have all tried to discredit the protest as a mere political manoeuvre to destabilise ‘their’ province. It isn’t, of course, even though the ANC is involved. In the dusty township streets of De Doorns, farm workers – black and coloured, South African and foreign alike – emphatically claim they started the strike themselves. No doubt their issues are real. Daily wages below R70 don’t need political interference to cause rage. But why would the ANC not openly lead their struggles? Is the revolutionary party afraid that the South African public could think it sides with suppressed workers?

Maromo gives another explanation that starts with a successful strike at a farm called Keurboschkloof in October. Workers there had their daily wages cut from R127 to R64 after the old farmer died and a new corporate management took over. After two protests wages were reinstated at the old level. The good news spread quickly and brought in new dynamics. To understand them one has to go back to an unsuccessful farm worker strike in 2008, which Maromo says was led by ANC leaders in the town. ‘Nothing came out of that strike, so when people saw us striking successfully, politicians had to do something not to lose [their] grip.’

According to him this happened for a simple, yet mind-boggling reason: ‘ANC councillors are the same people who are the labour brokers, they survive on that.’

Could that be true? I asked Jacobs. ‘There are policemen in the De Doorns area that are labour brokers, people that used to work on farms, the councillor’s wife…,’ she answered, almost biting her lip on the last one. For Maromo, it’s the councillors themselves who matter. ‘I believe these people are corrupt,’ he says. ‘They’re not supposed to be labour brokers. How can you solve a problem, if you are [the problem]?’ The nervous seeming man now considers himself ‘a target of those politicians’. To talk he prefers to drive out of town. The air still smells smoky here, brown vines tell of recent fires. Maromo’s outlook is equally darkened; he lost his job because he was involved in the Keurboschkloof strike.

It seems predictable who will gain from these strikes: ‘The labour brokers will benefit, because as soon as this thing is over, the farmers will need workers.’

Christian Selz is a free-lance correspondent for German media, writing on politics, economics and society.

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