BY CONGRATULATING farm workers on their "victory" in staging a wildcat strike in the Western Cape, Tina Joemat-Pettersson, and by extension the African National Congress (ANC), are playing a dangerous game that could backfire and set a dangerous precedent.
On Tuesday, Ms JoematPettersson met striking farm workers in De Doorns, telling them they would go down in history as the people who "changed agriculture forever". Even more bizarrely, she told the crowd that no farm worker would face criminal or disciplinary charges for taking part in the strike and that she would speak to the National Prosecuting Authority and ensure all cases of intimidation and public violence are withdrawn.
One can only surmise that her actions are motivated by a desire to regain control of the events as they unfold and to keep these voters on the side of the ANC. Even so, her actions are opportunistic at best and at worst could lay the foundations for a strategy of destabilisation that could easily spread beyond the Western Cape.
Unlike the events at Marikana, where the ANC called for calm, Ms Joemat-Pettersson has stoked the flames by telling strikers they had "won" their strike because they had made the government listen to them. Aside from the fact that Ms Joemat-Pettersson is speaking out of turn — minimum wages are determined by Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant — she should never encourage illegal strikes. Even if there is scope for a reassessment of sectoral minimum wages, this should be achieved through negotiation or peaceful protest.
Setting a precedent that it is acceptable to use violence and intimidation to gain economic and political ends is extremely dangerous.
From an economic perspective, encouraging illegal strikes, accusing farmers of intransigence in wage negotiations, and tacitly endorsing the destruction of property will have a lasting effect on profitability and investor confidence in the sector. It is very worrying that she asserts that the government cannot ignore the call of farm workers, yet remains deaf to the death rattle of capital.
In a sector vulnerable to external shocks such as drought and currency fluctuations — as well as a depressed export market — many farmers will be unable to afford to pay workers these higher wages. While table-grape farms in the Hex River Valley have historically made a reasonable profit, most wine farms — especially in marginal areas such as Bonnievale and McGregor — have struggled to make ends meet.
The sad irony in Ms JoematPettersson’s assurance to workers that the government understands how important they are to SA is that strike action poses a very real threat to the viability of the sector.
Estimates place the wine industry as the second-or third-largest source of employment in the Western Cape. However, government policies such as the Extension of Security of Tenure Act have meant that farmers are choosing to employ fewer permanent workers and shift to mechanisation where possible.
Given threats by the ANC to make the Western Cape "ungovernable" it is easy to surmise that these protests are politically motivated. Several unions have stepped up in support of the workers’ call for a minimum wage of R150 a day, but the Congress of South African Trade Unions’ Western Cape provincial secretary, Tony Ehrenreich, has said trade unions found themselves playing catch-up with workers and that the strikes originated without the involvement of organised labour.
While it is not impossible for the strikes to have been organised by the workers themselves, given the level of politicisation now observed and the simmering tensions in the Western Cape, it is now largely irrelevant who was responsible.
The ANC needs to step forward and condemn the violent action before it further destabilises the Western Cape and spreads to the rest of the country.