The current upheavals in the agricultural sector in the Western Cape caught everyone by surprise. Not even the unions were aware of what was already a volatile situation. Its leadership only jumped on the bandwagon once the mass action was already under way in De Doorns.
What few people know is that similar circumstances which fuelled the upheavals at Marikana prevailed in De Doorns. It was a time bomb waiting to explode.
What are the similarities?
Like in Marikana and other mining towns, every year thousands of people migrate to the Western Cape in the hope of finding employment. Many fall victim to ruthless recruitment agents who promise them temporary employment on farms or in other sectors in return for a sum of money, sometimes as much as R3000.
In addition, accommodation in one of the many informal settlements in towns in the Boland is anything but free. In these areas land is controlled by self-appointed agents allotting plots to new arrivals. For the privilege of erecting a corrugated iron structure on one of the plots, many have to forfeit a sizeable portion of their monthly income to these self-appointed agents.
I call them land smugglers, because in many instances this is not the only unlawful activity they are involved in. They are also often the shebeen owners who smuggle with everything from alcohol to drugs. For those who do not have cash to buy a beer, cigarette or a joint, there is always the option of buying on credit.
However, be aware. Buying on credit is not only expensive, but often results in violent encounters. Interest is charged and if the outstanding debt is not settled in time physical assault by guards employed by shebeen owners is on the cards.
Another very ‘appealing’ option is also available and that is to visit one of the many unregistered micro loan providers who offer money on condition that the borrower hands his or her bank card and ID over as collateral until such time as the loan is fully repaid. The standard practice is that the micro loan provider accompanies the “client” to the nearest ATM as soon as the latter’s salary is paid in to ensure that he gets his money. Often exorbitant interest rates are charged leaving the borrower no other option than to borrow again and again.
Add to this expense for groceries, transport, and other family obligations, then it becomes clear why these workers struggle to make ends meet.
A report released by Unisa’s Bureau for Market Research indicates that the majority of workers suffer from an enormous burden of debt. In some cases workers have so many debit orders against their salary that after deductions there is no money left for personal use.
How humiliating it must be for a father or mother to go to work every day and yet not have any money available to buy food or to fulfil other household obligations. Many people are confronted with the reality of having no money and being trapped in dire socio-economic circumstances that offer no hope for a better life. Thus frustration, despair and aggression are mounting until it explodes.
It is no wonder, therefore, they are so easily mobilised by radical elements and become embroiled in illegal strikes without thinking about the implications of their actions. All reason disappears like mist before the sun and violent and criminal behaviour becomes the order of the day. Not to mention the irrational statements that they would never have uttered under normal circumstances. Some of the striking workers make it clear that they do not care whether the fruit on the trees rot or farms are completely ruined, as, according to them, farmers are responsible for the predicament they are in. Hence, farmers must suffer for their unwillingness to agree to a wage increase.
Regarding the latter there is general consensus that farm workers’ wages should be increased. Thank God that in some instances agreements had already been reached between some farm owners and their workers. The questions I ask will a wage increase stop the labour unrest. The answer, perhaps! Many of them desperately want to work but are intimidated and threatened; therefore the sooner farmers and workers can come to a wage agreement the better. However, will it help them to get out of the terrible debt trap and the poor socio-economic circumstances that many are trapped in? No!
This is the challenge, not only for the agricultural community, but for the state, the business sector and the broader public who depend on the farming community for their daily food. Solving it is however not insurmountable provided that all role-players are serious about improving the lot of the farmworkers and ensuring that farming remains economically viable.
Introducing a plan of action consisting of measures to prevent the exploitation of workers by ruthless and illegal recruitment agents, land smugglers, shebeen owners and micro loan providers will be a good start. The police, state agencies such as the Department of Social Services, Labour and Health must also fulfil their respective roles effectively. Strong emphasis must also be placed on the provision of quality education, medical services, housing and other development programmes.
The most important element of such a plan, however, is to bring about economic development everywhere in the country. If South Africa could do this successfully, it would lead to employment opportunities and wealth creation in those poverty stricken areas from which people migrate in such vast numbers.
This is what government, unions and communities should strive for. Not destroying existing profitable agricultural, mining or other business sectors, but taking care of it in order to grow it and duplicate success stories in other parts of the country!