South Africa: Western Cape strike leads to protester death and call to order

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South Africa: Western Cape strike leads to protester death and call to order

Farm labor unrest in South Africa's Western Cape province raged on Wednesday as calls to return to normal operations were juxtaposed by media reports of violence and possible fatalities.

Western Cape police spokesman Col. Andre Traut confirmed to that police action to control protests Wednesday morning resulted in the death of a 28-year-old, male protester in Wolseley. He could not provide further detail, as the occurrence had become a matter of the independent police investigation unit.

Agri Wes-Cape communications manager Porchia Adams denied reports the protester had been a farmer and also rejected claims that a farmer had been killed in Wellington.

The day's events came after more than a week of vineyard protests in the Hex River Valley where workers have asked to earn ZAR150 (US$16.84)  a day, up from current rates that range from ZAR69 (US$7.75) and ZAR80 (US$8.98) a day.

South African agricultural trade association Agri SA warned against the implications of ongoing labor unrest. In a press conference scheduled prior to reports of violence, the association called for a resolution to the strike to avoid a negative impact on food security, employment and trade.

Agri SA President Johannes Möller encouraged individual farmers to negotiate with workers, explaining that agricultural organizations do not have the right to negotiate wages. He also commented on political elements that have confused negotiations.

“Outside influences with little interest in the welfare of agriculture and workers are abusing the minimum wage issue to promote labour unrest, which in the short to long term will have dire consequences for those who have a direct interest in agriculture,” Möller said in an official media statement.

Agri SA and other agricultural organizations met with Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Tina Joemat-Pettersson in Pretoria on Monday, concluding the seriousness of the situation could not be seen only as a wage issue.

From early on, speculation of political manipulation has circulated. Desire to influence regional politics has been touted as a cause of the strike.

"Other factors include ... a strive for competing unions to get a foothold in agriculture, tension between the work status of Lesotho and Zimbabweans due to a differentiated position by the government in this regard, the mobilising of unemployed and persons unrelated to the issue for political gain and unsatisfactory service delivery by local government structures in the informal sector," Agri SA said in a media release.

Following Monday's meeting, Agri SA and Joemat-Pettersson publicly requested government action to provide aid in preventing violence, engage in direct negotiations between farmers and workers, give attention to issues not related to minimum wage and an overview of local government, while rejecting inflammatory politics.

Agri Wes-Cape CEO Carl Opperman said he was satisfied with Monday's meeting with the minster and stood by the discussion's conclusions.

"We are standing with the constitution. And we are also standing firm by saying this is a political issue. It is not a wage issue at the moment," Opperman said.

"Each farmer with his laborers do their own negotiations. There’s no bargaining council. And there are no groups getting together to say this is what’s going to be placed. It is per farm, per region to do their own discussions and their own negotiations."

The Mail & Guardian reported that amid the day of confusion, the government supported calls to order and asked for a two week suspension of the strike.

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