Of Barricades and Legitimate Opposition
OF BARRICADES AND LEGITIMATE OPPOSITION
By Dave Steward, Executive Director of the FW de Klerk Foundation
Everyone should be relieved that the potentially explosive farm worker crisis in the Western Cape appears, for the moment, to have been defused. During the past few weeks the situation has been inflamed by radical rhetoric and violent protest that has resulted in the loss of two lives and millions of rands of damage.
At the end of November, Cosatu warned that the proposed 4 December strike could "set back labour relations on farms by decades and could see a reversal to the low-level civil war we all witnessed on farms a few weeks ago." It claimed that farmers were "amassing a private army to act against the workers." Cosatu provincial leader Tony Ehrenreich predicted that all this could give rise to another Marikana. A poster - issued in the name of NEHAWU - appeared to welcome the prospect: it proclaimed: "FEEL IT! Western Cape Marikana is here!"
In reaction, the DA’s Western Cape leader, Ivan Meyer, laid a charge of incitement against Ehrenreich - whose photo had appeared on the poster - but Ehrenreich denied that he had anything to do with it.
It was not the first such charge against Ehrenreich. In 2006 Agri-Western Cape accused him of hate speech before the Human Rights Commission, because of incendiary remarks he made to angry farm workers in Rawsonville. The incident arose from accusations by a 22-year-old farm worker that she had been raped by her employer.
While addressing the irate farm workers Ehrenreich had said
"We are here today to declare war … we are opposed to violence, but if that is what it takes to push bad farmers in the right direction, we must smash (“moer”) them in the right direction. If farmers continue, like mad dogs, to violate the rights of our farm workers, then we have to hit them until they stop, however, this is the last resort."
The 22-year-old complainant subsequently confessed that she had lied about the rape at the request of one of the radical organisations involved in the protest.
Incomprehensibly, the HRC did not find Ehrenereich’s words to be hate speech - although it did condemn them as "unfortunate" and "undesirable".
What was behind the latest bout of rural unrest in the Western Cape?
In DA Leader Helen Zille’s view, the unrest had its roots in rivalry between immigrant workers from Lesotho and Zimbabwe. She claimed that local farmers had stopped employing undocumented seasonal workers from Lesotho after a crack-down by Home Affairs. However, they had continued to employ Zimbabwean workers who had been legalised by the recent amnesty. This had caused profound tensions in the area which had quickly been exploited by by Cosatu and the ANC.
Before too long, Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson was on the scene, lending support to the striking farm workers; calling for an immediate increase in the minimum wage (which was legally impossible) and promising protesters that she would intervene with the National Prosecuting Authority (quite unconstitutionally) to ensure that nobody would be prosecuted for their actions during the strike.
Ehrenreich was also quick to climb on the bandwagon - together with another activist, Mario Wanza, previously famous for his attempts to occupy Rondebosch Common. An anonymous activist told West Cape News "the strike was a people-driven uprising but had been hijacked by ANC councillors who wanted to get credit if it became a success…"
Cosatu and the ANC, of course, viewed the strike as a straightforward case of worker exploitation by unscrupulous farmers. They pointed to the unacceptability of the current minimum "slave" wage of R69 per day - even though they had been part of the process that had set the minimum wage last year. Ehrenreich was furious with Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant when she pointed out that it is not legally possible to change the minium wage determination until it is renegotiated in March next year.
In the view of the DA’s shadow Minister of Agriculture, Annette Steyn, the unrest was the latest instalment in the ANC’s "Project Reclaim" which was intended to drive the DA out of office by making the province ungovernable. Steyn claimed that Cosatu was running an "intimidation campaign" in De Doorns. "Cosatu organisers were standing on street corners and telling workers that their houses would be burnt or their wives raped if they went to work." There were also claims by the DA that protesters had been bussed in for the demonstrations.
Steyn’s charges followed similar accusations by the DA earlier this year that the ANC had instigated riots in Grabouw and had adopted unconstitutional methods to oppose the DA’s decision to close 27 schools in the province. On that occasion ANC provincial leader Marius Fransman threatened to "revert to the same tactics that made the 'kragdadige' apartheid government listen to us by ensuring united community mass action in defence of our rights."
Where does this leave us?
Agri-SA and Cosatu have reached an agreement in terms of which farmers have promised to conduct wage negotiations on a farm-by-farm basis. The talks will include not only wage levels but profit-sharing schemes. Cosatu and the farm workers have been demanding R150 per day - more than double the present minimum wage. If no satisfactory agreement is reached by 9 January, workers on the affected farms will strike again.
What is likely to happen?
Freedom Front Plus leader, Pieter Mulder, has pointed out that between 2004 and 2011 the number of farm workers decreased by 46% - from 1.1 million to 624 000. Also, most farmers are not rich: only 12% have a turnover of more than R2 million and 52% have a turnover of less than R300 000.
Moreover, labour costs have increased from 35% of farm income in 2000 to 52% in 2011. This means that a 100% wage increase would raise total input costs by 50% - which would clearly be unsustainable. To put it simply: the present wage demand would result either in the bankruptcy of farms - or a massive increase in unemployment as farmers rushed to mechanise their operations.
Surely Ehrenreich must realise this? It seems that his concern for the poor and disempowered is quite sincere. In his own words:
"I have on many occasions said that as a union official the R30 000 I earn is too much and I still fund jobs and aid projects from my salary, as well as putting other people's kids through school from my salary. I live in the township I grew up in, in a small house I own on a part of my parents property."
"I am a 2nd generation Motor mechanic, that wants nothing more than to have my own business repairing cars and teaching youngsters my craft. I became a reluctant political activist during the struggle against apartheid, because of my abhorrence of injustices and unfairness."
But what about the injustice and unfairness that will ensue if hundreds of thousands of farm workers lose their jobs?
There is another dimension to all of this.
It is the disturbing possibility that the ANC Alliance simply does not understand - or accept - the nature and role of opposition politics in democratic societies. The only paradigm it has for opposition is the kind of revolutionary protest action that it practised during the 80s. Perhaps, that is why Tony Ehrenreich, who is also the ANC leader in the City Council, is seen so infrequently in the Council chamber - and so often on the barricades.
Published in: FW de Klerk Foundation