Picture: THE TIMES
Picture: THE TIMES

THE Western Cape farm strikes made it impossible to create more jobs in the sector, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Deputy Minister Pieter Mulder said on Thursday.

Employment on farms had been steadily decreasing and would continue to do so, he said. Farm labourer numbers have fallen 46%, from 1.1-million in 2004 to 624,000 in 2011.

"Although I am not an ANC (African National Congress) member, the president has told me to find more employment for people in agriculture. However, the strikes in the Western Cape have made this all but impossible," he said.

Mr Mulder, who is also the leader of the Freedom Front Plus, said he has had an increasing number of reports from farmers in other parts of South Africa saying they are mechanising.

"One farmer from Limpopo said he is buying a potato harvester and this will mean he will then let at least 50 farm workers go. He and other farmers say they cannot take the risk that strikes pose," he said.

Western Cape farm workers have demanded an increase in their minimum daily wage to R150 from R69 during a two-week strike.

Mr Mulder said he tried to facilitate talks between farmers and workers during the first wave of strikes in November, but gave up after being accused of trying to make political capital.

His Cabinet boss, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson, has kept mum during the new wave of strikes.

In November she said the wage should be increased by December and those arrested on public violence changes should be set free.

Her spokeswoman, Palesa Mokomele, said on Thursday that Ms Joemat-Pettersson had been heavily criticised then and had decided to take a "step back".

"Although the strike is in the agricultural sector, wages are a matter for the Department of Labour to handle," said Ms Mokomele.

Department of Labour officials are conducting a round of wage public hearings mainly with farm workers in the province.

Meanwhile, a mysterious fire cut short what was otherwise a peaceful march by about 4,000 farm workers in De Doorns on Thursday.