Reaping What You Sow: Reflections on the Western Cape Farm Workers’ Strike

The series of strikes and protests that recently took place in and around farms in South Africa’s Western Cape Province was fuelled by the deep-seated anger and frustration that workers feel.  On a daily basis, farm workers face not only appalling wages, bad living conditions, and precarious work, but also widespread racism, intimidation, and humiliation.  The extent of the oppressive conditions run deep and it is not uncommon for workers to even be beaten by farm owners and managers for perceived “transgressions.”  Indeed, life for workers in the rural areas has always been harsh, but over the last two decades it has in many ways gotten even worse and poverty has in many cases grown.

In fact, since 1994, farm-owning capitalists have been on the attack.  Approximately 2 million farm dwellers and workers have been evicted from farms since then in South Africa.1  Many of these people have been forced into townships in the rural areas, where they have become either unemployed or casual or seasonal workers on farms.  Services in these townships are also of an appalling standard, with most people living in shacks or dilapidated Reconstruction and Development houses.  Coupled to this, there has been a proliferation of labor brokers exploiting people’s desperate need for work, and piecework has been re-introduced on many farms.  Farm owners obviously benefit from this situation: many no longer have to provide accommodation for workers, and hiring people on a casual basis or based on piecework keeps wage bills low.  Thus, whether workers are seasonal, casual, or permanent, life in South Africa’s rural areas is defined by exploitation and extreme oppression.  It is no exaggeration to say that farm workers, who are mostly black, are viewed and treated as sub-humans by farm owners, managers, and labor brokers.  It is in this context that farm workers in the Western Cape rose up for the first time in decades.  For once this saw farm owners and managers really reaping what they had sown.

This article examines the issues surrounding the farm workers’ strike, including the workers’ actions and demands, and the responses of the state and bosses to the strike.  It, however, also looks at the role that some union officials and local politicians played and how this impacted the strike, including the sometimes contradictory role of officials from the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).  Finally, it offers suggestions about how the struggle of farm workers can be taken forward in the aftermath of the strike, with a focus of building struggles and movements under the control of workers.


The strikes and accompanying protest actions in the Western Cape’s rural areas initially began on the 27th of August 2012 when workers on farms surrounding De Doorns downed tools.  Poor pay, bad living conditions, and unfair labor practices were their main grievances.  Protests soon erupted in Stofland (Dustland), the township outside of De Doorns where most of these workers live in abject poverty.  As part of this, running battles erupted between strikers and the police and people barricaded the national highway and railway that runs past the township.  The appalling conditions on other farms and rural townships in the Western Cape meant that hundreds of thousands of workers across the province soon joined the strike.  Thus protests spread to almost every rural town in the south Western Cape.

By early November a number of strike committees had been established by mainly, but not exclusively, casual and seasonal workers in many of these areas.  It was clear at this point that the farm workers’ strike had been largely self-organized and had initially taken place largely outside of trade unions and political parties.  In fact, trade unions in the farming sector are relatively small, with as little as 3% of farm workers in the Western Cape belonging to a union.2

Along with the initial formation of strike committees, a demand also emerged from workers that the minimum wage for farm workers should be increased from R69 a day to R150 a day. In addition, workers also demanded paid maternity leave, an end to labor brokers, an end to piecework, rent free housing, a moratorium on evictions, and an end to police brutality in the rural areas.3  In the early stages of the strike, the police were overstretched, and both the state and farmers were firmly on the back foot.  At this point, the real prospect existed that the workers could win substantial gains through the strike as it was gaining momentum and spreading.

During the initial phase of the strike wave, local politicians and prominent trade union officials also waded into the battle.  With the entrance of these players into the strike, the situation became far more messy, with political agendas playing themselves out and personalities often attempting to jostle for the limelight to raise their and their organizations’ profiles.  As part of this, the strike was undemocratically suspended several times by certain union officials, the first being in November: the very point when the strike was gaining momentum (how and why it was suspended will be looked at below).  Yet despite repeated suspensions the strike repeatedly flared up.  Indeed, in January 2013 the strike recommenced, protests erupting across rural towns in the Western Cape and battles raging between the police and protestors once again.  What has become clear, therefore, is that despite the strike being suspended several times, and recently called off by the COSATU in late January, workers are going to continue to fight.  In fact, plans are underway by farm workers to march on Parliament.

BAWUSA and COSATU Officials’ Entry into the Strike

While the strike was initially self-organized outside of the unions, officials from the Bawsi Agricultural Workers Union of South Africa (BAWUSA) and the COSATU — along with its affiliate the Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU) — soon entered the arena, particularly in De Doorns.  Their entry gradually led to a shift of power away from the workers themselves and the strike committees that had been formed.  The officials from these unions started to become the public “face” of the strike, and at times they were able to influence the strike in profound and sometimes unhealthy ways.  In fact, their actions were not always to the benefit of workers in practice.

The reason why BAWUSA officials were able to enter the strike is that, although the union is small, it has had a presence amongst some farm workers in De Doorns for a number of years and its general secretary, Nosey Pieterse, has helped farm workers with eviction cases in the past.  Through these connections BAWUSA officials soon gained a foothold in the strike in De Doorns.  In fact, Pieterse along with the COSATU provincial secretary, Tony Ehrenreich, were also soon singled out by the media as the unofficial spokespersons of the strike because of their already existing public profiles.  Both of them, therefore, played a prominent role in the strikes and came to largely overshadow the initial strike committees that had been formed by workers.

Although BAWUSA is a trade union and supported the strike, it was established by aspiring black capitalists within the wine industry through an organization called the Black Association of the Wine and Spirit Industry (BAWSI), to which it is still linked.  The aim of BAWSI and BAWUSA, therefore, has been to ultimately push for greater black involvement in the wine industry across class lines.  It is clear that BAWSI and BAWUSA officials saw the strike as an opportunity to grow the profile of their organizations and themselves.  BAWUSA’s agenda during the strikes, however, was to negotiate a settlement with the state and farm owners through dialogue.  While it oftentimes led demonstrations in De Doorns, these often seemed to be a secondary tactic, with the primary objective being to enter into negotiations among unions, the state, and farm owners (the strike committees having no direct representation in the negotiations).  So the demonstrations it led were often aimed at getting farmers to agree and enter into dialogue.  The cross-class nature of BAWSI/BAWUSA was also evident in the figure of Pieterse himself.  Pieterse is an emerging capitalist farmer, and through BAWSI he has an interest in one of the largest wine companies in the Western Cape, KWV.  Due to its cross-class make-up, the commitment that BAWSI/BAWUSA officials have in building a struggle based on worker control and direct democracy is probably questionable, despite their support for the strike.4

COSATU officials also supported the strike, and through FAWU it had some presence in De Doorns.  COSATU officials viewed the strike as a way of finally making inroads in terms of union membership on the farms.  COSATU from the start, however, made it clear that it did not want a similar situation to what had occurred on the platinum mines, where workers took action outside of the unions and set up their own independent structures.  COSATU made this explicit when it stated: “The unions are trying to avoid a Marikana situation where workers act without guidance from unions, and resolutions are not found in negotiations.”5  Thus, COSATU wanted to gain leadership over the strikes, and its agenda was to push for a negotiated settlement, along with driving the strikes into the confines of the existing labor legislation framework.  Indeed, Ehrenriech himself added: “When workers take their own action without direction and guidance, that is when the danger comes about . . . they don’t understand the parameters of the law and all the other stuff.”6  Hence, COSATU’s interest was not to build a struggle based on direct democracy and militancy.  So although it supported the strike, it pushed for dialogue between unions, the state, and the farmers’ organization — in the form of AgriSA — to resolve the strike.  In the process, though, the workers and their strike committees were excluded from the negotiations.

The fact that Tony Ehrenreich is also a well-known ANC politician (the ANC is in opposition at the municipal level in Cape Town and headed there by Ehrenreich) with a high media profile gave him a major influence in the strike.  COSATU and Ehrenreich used this profile to suspend the strike on a number of occasions and to ultimately call it off, without consulting or getting mandates from workers themselves.  In fact, COSATU officials unilaterally called for the suspension of the strike when they deemed it useful or necessary.  Perhaps the most important occasion was in November 2012 when the strike was spreading and gaining momentum.  At that point, COSATU suspended the strike unilaterally, in order to try and negotiate a settlement with farm owners and to allow time for the state to supposedly intervene to legally raise the minimum wage.

Thus, both BAWUSA and COSATU wanted to negotiate a settlement through dialogue, with COSATU even unilaterally suspending the strike again and again to follow this path.  Yet, this strategy largely ended in failure and furthermore excluded the workers themselves — they were supposedly “represented” by the unions, but not directly.  The limitations of dialogue by union officials were perhaps best highlighted by the fact that the state pointblank refused to raise the minimum wage — a demand of both COSATU and BAWUSA at the negotiating table — until it became up for review in February 2013.  Likewise, AgriSA refused to reach any national or regional settlement that would see an increase in the minimum wage.  Where there were gains, for instance where some farmers offered higher wages, these could mainly be attributed to the pressure farmers felt from the strikes and protests, not to the negotiating skills of union officials.  When the state finally announced in February that the minimum wage for farm workers would be raised to R105, this was also mainly due to pressure the strike created, not due to slick dialogue maneuvers of union officials.  The problem, too, was that each time the strike was undemocratically suspended by union officials it was difficult, though not impossible, for workers to regain the momentum.

The fact that COSATU could repeatedly suspend the strike unilaterally — to follow a path of what amounted to social dialogue — also reveals much about the strength of the fledgling strike committees.  Although they initially played a major role in starting the strike in a number of areas, the strike committees simply did not have the strength to counter COSATU’s calls to suspend the strike, and workers gradually drifted back to work when the calls were made.  A strike coalition was also established during the strike by unions and progressive non-governmental organizations to build and bring strike committees together so that workers could control the strike.  Some of the unions and organizations in the coalition, like the Commercial Stevedore Agricultural and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU) and the Surplus People’s Project (SPP), have a long history of attempting to build workers’ committees and forums in the rural areas.  However, while the coalition did bring some strike committees on board, and helped strengthen some on the ground, many areas remained without any such committees, and the coalition did not effectively become a platform controlled by workers themselves to coordinate the strike (despite the coalition’s intention to facilitate this).  This meant that there was no strongly-organized and effective counterweight to the COSATU and BAWUSA officials and their agenda.  Indeed, COSATU — despite participating in the coalition — largely ignored the resolutions and the mandates that did emerge out of it.  Rather COSATU unilaterally followed the path that its leadership thought was appropriate, and in effect sidelined other organizations, including in many cases the strike committees and other organizations in the coalition.

Perhaps also playing into this situation was the fact that farm workers do not have a long history of organizing or undertaking major struggles, unlike mineworkers, in South Africa.  When a major organization, in the form of COSATU, suspended the strike, most workers went along with it.  Certainly many workers were confused by these calls to stop and start the strike and many felt disgruntled with it.  Yet they did not effectively mount a challenge to it.  This could be due to a lack of a history of sustained struggle and limited experience with workers’ direct democracy and with the confidence that these bring.  It could also, however, be due to many farm workers, although by no means all, still having some faith in the ANC, especially in the context of the Western Cape where the opposition, and racist, Democratic Alliance is strong.  While most farm workers don’t have formal links to the ANC, many seem to still trust it to some extent.  Many farm workers also, unfortunately, wrongly believe that the state is an entity that would defend them against farm owners, so, when COSATU called for a suspension, and for the state to intervene, many went along with this call.  In short, many farm workers in the Western Cape have not yet come to realize that the ANC’s role in South Africa is to defend capitalist interests and that officials in it have become part of the ruling class, through their positions in the state and as owners of large businesses, and don’t represent the interests of the working class.  This also meant that when a prominent ANC politician, like Ehrenreich, called off the strike, many farm workers listened.  Hopefully, through the experience of the strike, many farm workers will draw important lessons about the nature of the ANC and the role that the state plays in society.

How the State and Bosses Used the Suspensions of the Strike

While the state and bosses were involved in on-and-off negotiations with COSATU and BAWUSA officials, they used the numerous suspensions of the strike that accompanied them to go on the offensive.  Across the Western Cape, and in the aftermath of the first suspension of the strike, thousands of farm workers were fired or suspended.  Many more had disciplinary actions taken against them.  When the strikes recommenced, some farm owners even locked workers in on the farms, preventing them from striking.  Moreover, some farm owners hired private security to intimidate workers.  In one instance in Robertson, a farmer drove around with a shotgun, threatening to shoot CSAAWU workers who were out on strike.  As part of their propaganda offensive, many farm owners also threatened to mechanize in the future and layoff workers.  Some of the registered unions, such as CSAAWU, now face legal battles in the aftermath of the strike as well, and some farm owners are threatening to use these unions’ legal status to sue them for damages.

The state too used the suspensions of the strike to repeatedly strengthen its forces.  While it was initially overstretched during November 2012, when it was unable to cope with all of the protest actions, it used the first suspension of the strike to reinforce police units in the area and deploy a Tactical Response Team (TRT) to undermine the strike and end the protests.

Many of the police units seem to have relished the task of attempting to end the protests accompanying the farm workers’ strike.  At least 3 strikers were killed at the hands of the police.  Tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber bullets were also fired at strikers in almost every rural town in the Western Cape.  On one occasion during the strikes in Wolseley, the police started using live ammunition when they ran out of rubber bullets.  Townships where farm workers live were also raided at night, and a number of people were threatened and beaten up in their houses by the police.  During one incident workers who had been arrested also reported that police fired tear gas canisters into the police vans in which they were being held.  The National Prosecuting Authority also instructed state prosecutors to oppose bail for workers and activists who were arrested during the latter stages of the strikes and protest actions.

Of course, the role of the police and the state in general during the strikes was to protect private property and the welfare of capitalist farmers.  So, despite the fact that a number of local ANC councillors at times supported the strike, due to the dynamics of local oppositional politics, the ANC-headed state in practice backed the farmers.  Thus, although there has sometimes been tensions in South Africa between sections of the ruling class in the form of top officials in the state (who are mainly black) and capitalist farmers (who are mainly white), the state has played a massive role in protecting farmers against the strikers.  While there may, therefore, be internal squabbling in the ruling class, they have united when faced with workers rising up, and they have used the state, amongst other things, to try and crush the strikers.  As Bakunin pointed out this is what the state is designed to do: “the state is authority, domination, and force, organized by the property-owning and so-called enlightened classes against the masses,”7 and its role is to protect and maintain by force the privileges of the ruling class.  It is, therefore, not a neutral entity or negotiating partner that will simply intervene to help farm workers, as COSATU and BAWUSA officials hoped, but rather an enemy of the strikers.  Indeed, its forces will gun down workers if necessary to protect the interests of the capitalist farmers, as they did at Marikana to protect the interests of mine bosses.  As such, the state has to be forced from the outside by the workers through struggle to meet their demands and not through a reliance on social dialogue.

Forward to Workers’ Power

Despite the internal and external challenges, the farm workers’ strike was both historic and in many cases heroic.  One of the poorest sections of society finally rose up to fight for justice and better wages.  While the strike has been called off for now, it is also clear that farm workers are going to embark on strikes and protests in the near future — many still want R150 and their other demands met.  So while the battle is over for now, the war is still being fought.

The strike also was successful in highlighting the appalling conditions facing the poor in the rural areas, and it has probably changed the outlook of farm workers forever.  As such, the strikes that have taken place on the farms and rural towns offer a great opportunity to begin to build a militant workers’ movement in the rural areas.  Certainly, there is a massive need for militant worker-controlled structures and radical directly-democratic unions on the farms and in the rural towns that can fight for not only reforms, but eventually revolution.

Perhaps the task for now is for worker activists, other activists, and organizations that are for workers’ power and control to put their energy into contributing to building and maintaining the worker and strike committees that have emerged and expanding them into new areas.  This too includes building the coalition into a structure controlled by workers.  It is important too that a culture of direct democracy be consolidated amongst activists on the farms and in the rural townships as part of this.  Certainly, if the strike and workers’ committees that have emerged are expanded and consolidated, this could enable workers to take the struggle forward in the future and direct it themselves.  A start has been made during the recent strikes and this should be built on.  Even if the current strike does not resume, future battles lie ahead and it is important that worker-controlled directly-democratic structures are there to take this forward.  Hence, the battle must also be seen as a long-term one.

In the aftermath of the strikes there is also an opportunity for militant unions, like CSAAWU, to grow and bring more workers into the union.  The problem faced by such unions in the past is that it has been hard to recruit on the farms due to intimidation and being denied access to the farms.  The climate in the aftermath of the strikes may have changed this.  Unions such as CSAAWU could also use the strategy of recruiting workers and community members in the townships first, where the major battles during the strikes were centered around, and then use this as a springboard to recruit amongst workers who live on the farms.  As battles go forward, strong and militant worker-controlled unions will be vital.

It is also important that within the committees a revolutionary counter-culture, based on working-class pride, be built going forward.  This could help sustain people in struggle and counter any opportunists who may wish to use the movement for their own ends.  Coupled to this, radical popular revolutionary education needs to be built.

What is also important is that in trying to build a worker-controlled movement, the likes of the BAWUSA and COSATU officials would have to be engaged in a political battle.  Their ideology of attempting to work with the state, as if it were an ally or neutral entity, would have to be effectively countered, along with their practices of undermining direct democracy.  Linked to this, the fact that the ANC is also an enemy of the farm workers also needs to be tackled head-on (it is important going forward that the majority of workers come to see the ANC and the state for what they are: instruments of oppression).  This is vital for when new strikes and protests erupt.  Hopefully, workers have also drawn their own conclusions about the necessity of struggles remaining under their control and not under that of high-profile individuals.  An opportunity has been opened by the strikes, and it should not be left for the BAWUSA, COSATU, and ANC officials to fill, but rather it must be filled by workers’ power.


1  “Farm Evictions: Briefings from Deputy Minister, Nkuzi Development, Transvaal Agricultural Union of South Africa, Agri SA & Natio,” Parliamentary Monitoring Group, 4 Mar 2008.

2  Human Rights Watch, “South Africa: Farmworkers’ Dismal, Dangerous Lives: Workers Protected by Law, But Not in the Fields,” 23 August 2012.

3  Mthetho Xali, “Western Cape Farm Workers’ Courageous Struggle,Workers’ World News,February 2012.

4  Henriëtte Geldenhuys, “Strike Leader Is Also Farm Owner,” Independent, 19 January 2013.

5  Faranaaz Parker, “One Killed in Farm Unrest as Cosatu Calls end to Strike,” Mail & Guardian, 14 November 2012.

6 Andisiwe Makinana and Glynnis Underhill, “Farm Unions Pull Together — for Now,” Mail & Guardian, 25 January 2013.

7  Mikhail Bakunin, The Basic Bakunin: Writings 1869-1871, AK Press, 1992, p.140.

Shawn Hattingh works at the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG) in Cape Town.

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