The Boland upheaval and failing the children of the poor

Terry Bell
Opinion
South Africa has continued to fail the children of the poor and is once again reaping the results of that failure. Nowhere is this more evident than in the recurrent violent eruptions in the fruit and wine farm regions of the Western Cape.

At a time when there is every indication internationally that the average farmer and permanent farm worker is middle aged or older — and South Africa is probably no exception — it is youth that has blockaded roads and battled police. And the overwhelming majority of the protestors are seasonal workers, the unemployed or partially employed who erupt from the shackland sprawls that now festoon the region.

Un or ill-educated and denigrated by poverty, many of these generally young people gained a sense of self worth for the first time by being able to stand up against what they perceive to be the symbols of their oppression. At this level, what happened in the Boland may be categorised as an anarchic celebration of the oppressed.

This does not in any way justify the often senseless vandalism and the short-sighted calls from often self-styled leaders for blanket boycotts of all produce from the Western Cape. What it should do is raise questions of responsibility for what has happened; such questions are essential for a real understanding of the issues — and only by dealing with these can there be any hope of long term solutions, let alone adequate intermediate steps.

It is certainly true that many — a probable majority — of farm owners possess feudal attitudes that are at best paternalistic and at worst akin to the acceptance of the virtual slavery enshrined in the masters and servants laws of apartheid. It is also true, as Cosatu regional secretary Tony Ehrenreich, has conceded, that government imposed the now widely derided R69 a day minimum payment to farm workers.

However, this rate was imposed by government not only in consultation and agreement with the farming lobby, but also with at least the acquiescence of Cosatu. Ehrenreich has said that, during tripartite discussions about the sectoral determination of the minimum wage, Cosatu lodged objections, presumably that the rate was too low. That may be so, but the union federation neither said nor did anything about this until the Boland erupted.

Yet the fact that protests were brewing has been obvious for several years, often evidenced in the emergence of small, under resourced unions fighting bitter and frequently losing battles against the abuse of workers on farms and in abattoirs and related industries in the region. Their fights and their warnings about the possible consequences of ignoring the ongoing exploitation of many in the farming communities were largely ignored.

At the same time, the steady influx of job seekers from outlying rural areas and from neighbouring states continued, adding to a volatile mix that initially exploded in xenophobic violence in 2008. Non-governmental organisations, including tiny political groups pushing ideological barrows, moved in to try to ameliorate or to take advantage of developments. But the farming lobby remained aloof, as did government and the mainstream trade unions.

Long gone were the days reported by Food and Allied Workers’ Union honorary president, the late “Mama Ray” Alexander, and noted in this column in 1997. At that time, Mama Ray bewailed the fact that dividends, commissions, directorships and market ratings had become of great concern to the unions. It was a far cry from the days, she said, when organisers “slept on the floors of labourers’ cottages” as they recruited farm and ancillary workers to the union.

And so, for years, the farming and its related forestry sector remained neglected. Business as usual continued, although this meant a steady increase in the anger simmering beneath the surface of agrarian calm. Then came Marikana, in a South Africa and a world where instant communication is the norm.

The fact that miners at Lonmin had apparently stood up against the might of the bosses and state forces provided an inspiration to the poor and downtrodden. In the Boland the news came as the main harvesting season was about to start and seasonal workers — essential to the process — were about to receive their few months of paid employment.

Whether this work is paid for at R69 a day or R84, as the farmer lobby claims, is irrelevant. At either level, this is insufficient to feed, clothe and house a family in the South Africa of 2013. And even more so when the guaranteed income is available for only three or four months.

So the scene was set when word of Marikana reached the Boland. The small and militant Commercial Stevedoring and Allied Workers’ Union (Csaawu) that has been particularly active in the Robertson area, hailed the Marikana strikers “in their struggle against bosses and a system that steals from us and murders us”. Csaawu pledged to continue the local fight “against exploitation and for a living wage” in solidarity with the miners of Marikana. The slogan raised in September was: “Enough is enough! For a rural land free of hunger and poverty.”

Still, the powers that be, on the farms, in government and in the offices of mainstream unions did nothing, leading to accusations that they all shared responsibility for the continuing oppression of the poor and dispossessed. “Cosatu is part of a government of the bosses,” is a fairly common refrain among the more politically aware among the Boland protestors.

But, for many youth, all authority is anathema and democratic organisation an abstract notion. In a dog eat dog world, they have no hope and live merely to grab what they can, when they can and where they can.

To be able to exercise some power, to cause the police to retreat, to burn and to plunder with apparent impunity, provides a temporary feeling of being in control — and powerful — for perhaps the first time ever. This is the real sadness of the Boland and a glaring example of how the system as a whole has failed, especially the children of the poor.