By Sam Rawson
After not having access to a TV for ten days, I tuned in to watch the local news last night and was shocked by the scenes of violence from the farm strikes taking place in De Doorns, just 30km outside of Worcester. Policemen shooting rubber bullets, people throwing rocks, a car overturned and burning… The images looked eerily familiar to footage taken during apartheid protests. But this is 2013, not the 1980’s. So what’s going on?
The violence seemed all the more shocking coming so soon after the Christmas season, a time which celebrates the arrival of the Prince of Peace. Part of me just wanted to turn the TV off, to return to the state of post-holiday tranquillity I’d enjoyed before turning it on, but at the same time I knew I couldn’t do that. As Christ-followers, these kinds of images, taking place so close to where we live, cannot be ignored. They require some kind of response. But what does that response look like?
On the surface, the situation looks like one that is not going to be easily resolved. The strikes started in November last year with farm workers asking for their wages to be increased from an average of around R80 per day (sometimes less) to R150 per day. The strike was suspended after an agreement was made that negotiations would take place between workers’ representatives and individual farmers, but the unrest resumed yesterday as about 20% of farm workers in the area gathered to protest at a local stadium, a meeting which escalated until strikers eventually shut down part of the N1 highway.
An increase in wages seems like a fair enough request. After all, R80 per day is hardly enough to support one person, yet many of these farm workers rely on their wages to support their families and extended relatives. If you take into account the cost of transport, electricity, food, clothing, shelter, and education, suddenly you can understand why the farm workers are so desperate for a wage increase. I would be desperate too if it meant my children were hungry and I couldn’t afford to buy them school shoes.
But this dispute is far more complex than just a wage increase. According to the Daily Maverick, a report was released on Tuesday by the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy which revealed that farmers would not be able to pay more than R104 per day without having to introduce greater mechanisation on their farms, which would lead to possible job cuts. And the report also stated that even if the farm workers did receive R150 per day it would still not be enough to provide the majority of their households with adequate nutrition.
Obviously, none of this condones the violence which has put hundreds of lives at risk, but it does make it easier to understand why tensions are running high on both sides. But what makes this situation even more heart-breaking is that the people who will suffer the most from it are the people who can least afford it. They’re the children whose parents are too frightened to go to work and now cannot put food on the table. They’re the students who stand and watch the violence from the side-lines unsure of what this means for their future.