AN EXPORT fruit farm in the Wellington area suffered several million rands’ worth of damage in a suspected arson attack related to the agricultural strike in that province, Western Cape Disaster Risk Management Centre spokesman Colin Deiner said on Wednesday.
Mr Deiner said the attack on the farm Sandrivier took place in the early hours of Wednesday morning. A barn and several vehicles were destroyed.
"We believe that this attack was related to the strike," he said. "It seems that strikers are increasingly using fire as a means of action and it is causing us a big problem at the moment."
The height of summer is the Western Cape’s dry season, making the region particularly vulnerable to bush fires that can spread rapidly.
The provincial government has a standing contract with firefighting company Working on Fires, which has placed on standby 24 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. At least three aircraft are used for each call-out, at a cost of R60,000 an hour per aircraft.
Since December, there have been 32 call-outs to fight fires. Mr Denier said most were to fight suspected arson attacks.
"What we have been seeing is that arsonists are starting small fires in fields but so far we have had no reports of vineyards being set alight," he said.
He said intermittent arson attempts were seen in the Grabouw area as well.
The N1 freeway through the flashpoint town of De Doorns remained closed on Wednesday due to continued stone throwing.
During the first wave of agricultural strikes in November last year, some vineyards were set alight by striking farm workers, causing an estimated R100m worth of damage.
Mostly seasonal farm workers have been striking to demand an increase in their daily minimum wage to R150 from R69.
Western Cape education department spokesperson Bronagh Casey said on Wednesday that initial reports were that the first day of the new school year was incident free but the department was still awaiting full reports from various districts.
About 970,000 learners are expected to be enrolled in all the grades this year.
"So far we don’t know of any incident relating to the strike that has stopped learners from going to school," she said.
Many of the demonstrating farm workers so far have appeared to be of school-going age.
Western Cape health department spokesperson Hélène Rossouw said four clinics in the De Doorns area would remain closed until further notice.
The department closed the clinics on Tuesday, saying staff were being intimidated by striking workers.
Ms Rossouw said emergency medical services would still respond but outpatients were asked to go to Worcester Hospital.
The Department of Labour will hold a public hearing on farm workers’ wages in De Doorns on Wednesday evening.