WAGE DEMAND: Farmworkers march at De Doorns on Tuesday, ahead of a meeting where the Congress of South African Trade Unions addressed the workers. Picture: THE HERALD
WAGE DEMAND: Farmworkers march at De Doorns on Tuesday, ahead of a meeting where the Congress of South African Trade Unions addressed the workers. Picture: THE HERALD

PROTESTS in the Western Cape flared up again on Wednesday when angry farmworkers looted a wholesale store as they tried to march to the Robertson town centre.

It is the third day of farm protests in the Western Cape, where workers are demanding a minimum wage of R150 a day, an increase from the roughly R70 a day they earn now. According to reports on Wednesday, protests were taking place in 16 towns and several workers had been arrested for public violence.

Western Cape Premier Helen Zille on Wednesday tweeted there were reports of a farmer being killed in Wellington and called on Mr Zuma to send in the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), fearing retaliation.

“No reply to my urgent letter to President (Jacob) Zuma last evening. His office also did not return my call. Have written him again calling 4 SANDF,” she tweeted.

Farmers block road into Ceres

Farmers blocked the only entrance into Ceres from Cape Town with piles of rubble, stones and sand on Wednesday.

Kanonkop farmer Hennie du Preez, one of about 10 involved in blocking the R46, about 25km outside Ceres, said they wanted to protect Breede Valley farms from protesters.

"The reason why we stopped this and blocked the road is just to not have any problems near our farms, to protect our families," Mr Du Preez said.

"We worked with the police. The police said we can close it down, they had too many problems in town [Ceres] and we closed [the R46] down... to keep everything under control."

The farmers said none of their workers were involved in protests and blamed the protest on a political agenda.

Western Cape police said there were many reports of road closures in the province due to the strikes, but could not be specific on which roads were closed.

On Tuesday, protesters had burned tyres and placed rocks in an intersection on the road from Robertson to Ashton and Bonnievale. Several roads in Robertson remained closed on Wednesday, including the main road to Ashton and Bonnievale and the road to the small farming community of McGregor.

At about 10am, protesters marched towards the town centre, throwing stones at shop staff as they walked down Voortrekker Road. Some began looting Raimondos wholesale store, and police fired rubber bullets.

Robertson resident Jackie Gardner was at AH Marais agricultural store as protesters entered the town. "We wanted to leave but the police told us to stay inside," she said. "While we were waiting, we heard what sounded like rubber bullets outside."

Police stopped the protesters before they reached the town centre. Shopkeepers along Voortrekker Road and elsewhere in the town closed their shops for fear of looting.

A heavy police presence remained in and around Robertson.

Tyres burn in De Doorns

Meanwhile, residents set tyres alight at a De Doorns informal settlement in the province on Wednesday morning.

A road leading from a bridge into Stofland was blocked by a heap of burning tyres, sending thick black smoke into the air. A few people milled around the tyres, with an armoured police Nyala parked nearby.

Farmworkers have been protesting over wages and living conditions in the verdant Hex River Valley since last week. The N1 highway leading into De Doorns was closed during the violence, in which vineyards were set alight and stones thrown.

The highway was open on Wednesday morning, with trucks carrying fruit and other cargo passing through. Fruit stalls and roadside shops remained closed.

The portion of the highway past De Doorns was marked with black circles where police had earlier removed burning tyres.

Western Cape police said no violence had occurred overnight in the farming community.

"The situation is ... being monitored by police," said De Doorns police spokesman Lindikhaya Mkhontwana said, adding that some arrests had been made on Tuesday.

Food and Allied Workers’ Union president Attwell Nazo and general secretary Katishi Masemola were due later on Wednesday to address workers in Ceres and De Doorns.

The leaders were expected to tell workers about the government’s response to their demands.

‘We have done what we could’

Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson visited the area on Tuesday and said she would pass on workers’ grievances to Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant. She also asked workers to return to farms.

Ms Joemat-Pettersson was also expected on Wednesday to meet Mr Zuma to discuss higher wages for farmworkers. Presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj said he was aware of the proposed meeting, but would not comment as it was an internal matter.

On Wednesday morning, Ms Joemat-Pettersson called on the Department of Labour to intervene in the strike.

"I have no capacity to advise or influence the employment conditions commission," she told radio station SAfm. "That is a matter for the Department of Labour or the minister of labour. We have done what we could as the Department of Agriculture and we will continue supporting workers."

She said she had helped "restore relationships" between striking workers and farmers.

"I think we (the department) have acted as a facilitator to allow these negotiations and talks to stay on track," she said. "We cannot afford this sector to lose jobs ... that is why we decided to participate in normalising the situation."

She added: "We call on all workers to stop the violence, to stop the vandalism."

Few farmworkers could be seen in the vineyards around De Doorns on Wednesday morning.

With Sapa