IT IS unlikely that the agricultural strike that has gripped the Western Cape will result in another Marikana, as some alarmists have predicted.
In the past week, various people from trade-union movements, non-governmental organisations and political parties have warned that the increasingly violent agricultural strike will result in a massacre of farm workers, similar to the events at Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine on August 16 last year.
That wildcat strike by several thousand non-unionised miners resulted in the killing of 34 workers by police on the day — leaving, overall, more than 40 dead, including two police officers.
The Democratic Alliance has laid a charge of incitement against Tony Ehrenreich, Western Cape provincial secretary of the Congress of South Africa Trade Unions (Cosatu), for allegedly publishing a poster that carried the slogan “Feel it. Western Cape Marikana is here.”
Ehrenreich and others have characterised the agricultural strike as a mass uprising that is aimed not only at eradicating low wages, but also at breaking the centuries-old hegemony of the province’s agricultural sector — in particular, the paternalistic relationship between (mainly white) farmers and their workers.
However, a situation that will give rise to a massacre is unlikely to happen for a number of reasons.
First, unlike the mineworkers at Marikana, the striking agricultural workers are not a homogenous group aiming industrial action at one particular employer.
The farming community is spread out geographically and each farm is a separate business entity. That is why there is a sectoral determination made by the minister of labour and no collective bargaining process.
Each farm can only pay what it can afford, and labour costs range from about 30% of total input costs to about 45%, depending on the size of the farm and the commodity being produced.
Second, the emerging Bawsi Agricultural Workers Union of South Africa (Bawusa) is not in conflict with Cosatu.
In fact, the two organisations are co-operating and Bawusa secretary general Nosey Pieterse has made it clear that his ultimate aim is to become a Cosatu affiliate.
At Marikana, a new union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, went head-to-head against Cosatu affiliate the National Union of Mineworkers with disastrous results for both.
Less than 6% of the estimated 200,000 farm workers in the Western Cape are unionised.
Pieterse has said that since the strikes began, his union’s membership has risen to at least 10,000, from 6,000 before.
Another Cosatu affiliate, the Food and Allied Workers’ Union, has reported receiving 2,000 membership applications.
Both of these increases are drops in the ocean of what should be a fertile recruiting ground. There is plenty of space for two potentially rival unions to gain more members.
Then there is the behaviour of the South Africa Police Service itself.
The police’s strategy during this strike has been one of containing the demonstrating strikers and ensuring that lives are protected first and then property.
Unlike at Marikana, where police actively moved on to a position occupied by armed and militant strikers, police in the Western Cape have taken a very different stance.
There has been no sign of the assault rifles used at Marikana. Western Cape police are using shotguns firing rubber-bullet baton rounds and, at times, tear-gas canisters and stun charges.
While the police’s actions, so far, can be characterised as robust, they have not been brutal to the point of callousness.
Some non-governmental organisations have alleged that police intimidated strike organisers just before the industrial action was to start. However, it is not clear what the form that intimidation took, or even if it could be characterised as such.
Two people were killed during the first waves of strike action last year, with reports on Tuesday of a man dying in hospital allegedly after being injured by rubber bullets. Also this month, the African National Congress’s Boland leader, Pat Marran, was allegedly shot in the face by a private security guard. Marran, who was only wounded, still has to lay a charge with the police on that case.
So far, the police have not given the rioters the martyr they need to set their cause aflame.
Another Marikana is therefore unlikely to happen. However, much will depend on the so-called strike leaders and those negotiating with them. What they should aim for is making sure a massacre does not happen, rather than trying to predict it will.