Riot police in South Africa’s Western Cape region fired rubber bullets on a group of striking farm workers, after strikers began throwing stones at passing vehicles.
Farm Strikes Turn Violent
Striking farm workers in the Western Cape region, the heartland of South Africa’s multi-billion dollar wine industry, are demanding an increase in their daily minimum wage from 69 rand ($8) to 150 rand. Many of the workers are seasonal employees from the country’s majority black population, hired to work on farms owned by wealthy white farmers.
“We are struggling. It is very difficult to survive on 69 rand a day. School is starting and we don’t have money for school clothes,” Len Lottering, a 35 year old mother of three told Reuters. “There is no food on the table and my children often go to bed hungry.”
Talks between union leaders and farm owners broke down earlier this week. “We have been met with naked racism and white arrogance,” said Nosey Pieterse, the General Secretary of the Bawsi Agricultural Workers Union of South Africa. A similar walkout in December led to warehouses being burnt down and the death of two strikers in clashes with police.
In the latest incident strikers blocked the main highway with burning tires, and began throwing stones at passing vehicles. Riot police were called in to respond, and fired rubber bullets to disperse the group.
Industrial Unrest Fuelled by Racial Wealth Inequality in Africa’s Biggest Economy
South Africa’s labour unions have become increasingly militant over the last 12 months or so. Last year miners were at the forefront of unrest, with the logistic and agricultural sectors following behind. This year it may be farms workers who lead the way, but in any case it seems that the country must brace itself for another year of discontent. Much of this discontent has racial overtones.
The South African economy has performed well since the end of apartheid, especially in comparison to countries like Zimbabwe (where land and businesses were forcibly taken from the descendants of white colonists following independence). But despite this there is still widespread poverty amongst many of the country’s black workers, whilst the white minority remains relatively wealthy. This continuing disparity of wealth, which could take many decades to balance itself out naturally, is provoking anger amongst many workers poorer workers who are struggling to get by.
With unemployment running at a dangerously high 25%, it can only be hoped that localized anger at specific groups of white business owners does not spill over into a broader backlash against the country’s white minority.