South Africa farm unrest simmers as talks rekindled
DE DOORNS, South Africa (AFP) – Riot police remained out in force and debris blocked roads in South Africa’s picturesque Western Cape winelands on Friday, with tensions high despite a lull in clashes between striking farm workers and the authorities.
After two days of wage demonstrations that saw police unload a barrage of rubber bullets, water cannon and tear gas at hundreds of stone-throwing protestors, a halt to the violence raised hopes for spluttering talks that were set to resume later in the day.
Workers angry at abysmal living standards and vast wealth disparities between white landowners and black labourers are demanding a doubling of minimum wages to $17.50 a day.
But talks to end the violent wage dispute have stumbled amid the constraints of existing wage agreements, power struggles among unions and differing stances taken by individual farmers.
“We remain hopeful to find a solution to the strike,” Tony Ehrenreich, a provincial secretary for COSATU, South Africa’s largest trade union umbrella group, said Friday.
“The strike is continuing, but there are also negotiations that are starting between some of the farmers and the unions.
“About 60 per cent of the farmers in the area where the strike is taking place (are taking part).”
Around 80 per cent of permanent farm workers have shunned the strike according to farmers.
Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant called on unions to “think carefully about what they are exposing workers to and whether in the end it is worth their while”.
“Leaders really need to lead at this time,” she said.
At De Doorns, where police and protesting farm workers fought running battles on Wednesday and Thursday, the N1 motorway which links Cape Town and Johannesburg remained shuttered.
There was sporadic lighting of tyres, but little sign of the violence of recent days.
At least 18 people were arrested on Thursday, bringing the total number of arrests to 62 so far this week.
The protests took place in three towns in the Western Cape which provides 55-60 per cent of the country’s agricultural exports and employs nearly 200,000 permanent and seasonal workers.