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Black farmers ‘shot in foot’ by protests

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By Donwald Pressly.

Black farmers in the Western Cape may have been hit the hardest by the recent farm disturbances with the agriculture ministry putting the cost to 14 “empowered” farms – damaged during violent protests – at some R10 million, the Western Cape Department of Agriculture has estimated.

Agriculture MEC Gerrit van Rensburg yesterday focused on an empowerment trust, Constitution Road, which had 3 hectares of vines destroyed by fire during the labour unrest when workers demanded wages of R150 a day. The trust, which has 60ha of property hived off from Robertson Winery, includes eight black women farm workers who are employed permanently. The leader, Marta Fielies, is a director as well as a farm worker.

While the number of people employed on the farm is limited, there are 183 women who are shareholders who work on the Robertson Winery’s 35 farms. The worker shareholders in Constitution Road Wine Growers are represented by the Le Chasseur Workers Trust (with 21 percent), the Robertson East Workers Trust (26 percent) the Robertson West Workers Trust (19 percent) along with Robertson Co-operative Winery (34 percent).

While Fielies was in the fields yesterday, project manager and viticulturist Briaan Stipp said the women were “very disappointed at what happened” on the farm, which was established in 2010.

A large crowd marched from the nearby township of Nqubela and some elements set alight the grass under the vines. This occurred when the protests started in November.

Corne Swart, the Constitution Road accountant, said about R50 000 worth of damage was done to the irrigation system. While it was difficult to estimate the total cost of damages to the empowerment farm, turnover was in the region of R200 000 for the burnt area. Stipp said the vines had to be cut back and about 45 tons of grapes that would have been used for winemaking were lost.

Currently, the grapes form part of the Robertson range of wines, but ultimately the plan is for wine to be bottled under the label of Constitution Road, where the farm is situated.

Stipp said the affected area would not produce a crop this season, while Swart said margins were so narrow that every ton of grapes lost was significant. “Luckily only a few of the vines died,” Stipp said.

Stipp said the farm employed no temporary workers and members of the crowd that assembled last year did not work on the farm. There were reports that they had been bussed in to carry out attacks.

The Deciduous Fruit Development Chamber, representing more than 200 “emerging” fruit farmers including about 160 in the Western Cape, said many of its members were small-scale and “marginal”.

Chamber spokesman Ismail Motala, who runs a fruit farm outside Wolseley, said most of the black farmers in the province struggled. His own farm produced fruit and vegetables on 11ha. He was hopeful that matters would return to normal as it seemed the Bawsi Agricultural Workers Union was calling off the strike.

Because of strike action by all eight of his permanent workers on his farm, harvesting was delayed.

Many packhouses – including the one to which he sent his fruit in Wolseley – were closed. Thus the marketing of the fruit held by the packhouses was also put on hold.

He said his farm could not sustain paying farm workers R150 a day. It would render the farm unprofitable.

“It seems we can go back to normal now,” he said, noting that some of the demonstrations in the area had included some of the itinerant workers that he used during harvesting.

Raymond Koopstad, a racehorse and fruit farmer in the Ceres district, said white farms neighbouring his were torched by township elements in November. He lost 9 000 bales of oat hay. “It was not torched but caught alight from the fires.” He said he had suffered damages of more than R1 million and had not been insured. “The cost of insurance is too high for us.”

He said the worker violence had been a case of “shooting black farmers in the feet”.

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