Towards an immediate programme of action in defence of farm workers in the Western Cape winelands


We salute the heroic farmworkers who stood united and forced the ANC government to legislate a minimum wage of R105 per day. At each and every democratic advance it has not been the ANC that leads but the working class. At every stage the ANC stands in the way of preventing full democratic demands of workers being achieved. This is one of the central lessons to be learnt from the recent uprising on the farms in the Western Cape.  R150 per day is not a lot to ask for, considering that food prices rise almost every week on the back of almost constant slave wages for farm workers. Yet the ANC government could not even legislate this measly wage.

It does not take a rocket scientist to work out that if the big retailers put up their prices every second week but farm workers’ wages stay the same, that most of the massive profits on food is going to Pick ‘n Pay, Shoprite, Spar and Woolworths and international retailers. These are profits made from continued slave relations on the farms. Yet the ANC government does nothing to act against them.  International banks control these major retailers behind the scenes and are the ones who are really responsible for high food prices (see our article The crisis of the banks is responsible for high food prices). The ANC sits on the boards of the major banks that operate here- no wonder they turn a blind eye to the massive profiteering by them.  

The working class and Cosatu rank and file members in particular have long been demanding that the provinces be disbanded and the wealth of the country centralised so that all areas can receive their proportionate share according to the size of the population in each area. The North West, Limpopo, Kzn, Mpumalanga and Eastern Cape are just extensions of what the old apartheid bantustans were-   Most of the masses in the ex-bantustan areas are starving, dying of hunger, the land is exhausted, the crops have collapsed, the livestock are dying off. These provinces are still cheap labour reserves- the ANC government has seen to that.

9 out of every 10 empowerment farms are collapsing- this is because water rights, fertilizer, seeds, farming equipment, access to markets are all controlled by monopolies. Yet the ANC government is unwilling to act against these monopolies and large commercial farms that are associated with them.  In the days of apartheid, the commercial farms used to pay 2.5% interest to the Land Bank while everyone else had to pay 20% interest- in other words, public funds, that is the blood and sweat of generations of workers subsidised the white commercial farmers, the agro-monopolies and large retailers. The big commercial farmers did not even declare their crimes at the TRC. [Did the TRC even ask them?].

The question is: is there a hunger for land or just simply hunger? Already agriculture in SA is very highly mechanised. For example there are only 2 companies that are producing the pasta for the whole of the country. The only reason why grapes and fruit farming is not as mechanised yet is due to the production process (try building a machine that recognises an unripe peach and a ripe one of more or less the same size- not so easy). 2 million farm workers have been retrenched since 1994, showing that mechanization is operating where possible, already. The farmers who are threatening mass dismissals and retrenchments are relying on making the remaining workers work harder- this is open for contestation by the working class. Already the share of the labour force involved in agriculture in SA is similar to the USA and EU, namely about 8%. Thus the weight of what peasantry or small farmers there are, is very small- 95% of food is produced by the commercial farmers- when we consider that 30% of wheat requirements are imported, then the small famer is producing very little. Thus the land question is reduced to one of expropriation of all the commercial farms without compensation, setting up farm workers committees and for these committees to take over control of them, similarly workers committees in the transport, water, seeds, fertilizer, agro-processing (Tiger Brands, Pioneer, etc), the banks and large retailers, for workers control after expropriation without compensation. Within this framework then maximum assistance to the small farmer, with real assistance in scientific methods, seeds, water, fertilizer, access to markets, but encouraging them to become incorporated voluntarily in the worker-controlled state farms in the future.

This is just an outline of work which we are preparing for a future proposed agrarian programme for the revolutionary working class party.  Such a programme cannot be seen as separate from the struggle to overthrow the capitalist system and to establish Socialism.

Immediately, however, we propose some steps to consider when combatting the current mass dismissals on the farms and the threat of retrenchment, as well as some ideas for the way forward:

Immediate steps- a proposal

1.       A campaign for the unionisation of all the commercial farms, setting up of workers committees to control elected worker leaders, subject to instant recall and with no privileges for being in leadership;

2.       For immediate Department of Labour inspections of all commercial farms, starting with those who have dismissed workers and those who are threatening to retrench workers (this is possible because only 34% of farm workers are paid leave, only 64% have UIF deducted, about 60% have contracts, many have tax illegally deducted even though their earnings are below the tax threshold).

3.       The setting up of health and safety committees that can take up the transport issues, exposure to hazardous chemicals, etc

4.       Campaigning for an 8 hour day, without loss of pay, and a ban on overtime (this will help force the reinstatement of the dismissed workers as well as create more jobs for other workers)

5.       A campaign for the farmers to open to their books to workers inspection so that workers can bring their own experts to check if the farmer has been engaging in tax avoidance (a widespread practice in SA, rest of Africa and internationally); the workers’ experts can also check the scale of mislabelling of goods to pay less tax and smuggling value out of the country;

6.       Workers in the cities to set up price committees to monitor major retailers opportunistically raising prices due to the wage raise. (retailers should be forced to absorb the slight extra cost due to a) many farm workers already earn more than R105; b) a study by Philip Martin of the lowest paid migrant workers in the USA showed that a 40% increase in the minimum wage of migrant farm workers resulted only in a 4% increase in certain food- considering that the prices of food in SA is set at international levels, in dollar terms, but farm workers here earn 7 times less than the lowest paid farmworker in the USA, the 50% increase in minimum wages should only result in a 0.5% increase in grapes and other fruit, something the retailer can easily absorb- let them open their books and justify their level of profit); retailers that refuse to absorb the cost and who continually raise prices should face a mass action campaign

7.       Finally, last but not least, what prevents Cosatu, community organizations and other unions from filing to Nedlac for a regional and national strike against high food prices, against dismissals and for a R200 per day wage for farm workers, which should increase each time prices go up, demanding too that any farm that victimizes workers should be expropriated without compensation and placed under workers control. (Farm workers wages and food costs- Philip Martin. 40% increase results in 4% increase in food price)

see also Synthesis Paper- South Africa:  Dr N Makgetla, March 2010

issued by Workers International Vanguard Party 12.2.2013