Playing politics while the fires rage

2013-01-22 00:00

SOUTH Africa’s opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Helen Zille is correct in claiming that there is political interference in the strikes and recurrent violence in the Boland region of the Western Cape. And the DA is as responsible as any other political grouping for being involved — or “interfering” — in the ongoing upheaval among the fruit and grape farms.

Not that there is anything unexpected in this: with any social upheaval, political parties and groups, along with trade unions and human rights organisations, would be remiss in not seizing the opportunity to become involved.

In such disputes, there is always political capital to be made, protected or reclaimed, and even for deeply held principles to be upheld.

So all of those involved in the strikes and clashes with the police have agendas to promote. For example, parties such as the DA and the nationally governing ANC, and others involved in electoral politics, clearly want to improve their images, both regionally and nationally.

Such parties are aware that farmers and farm workers have the vote and that the country at large is concerned about the happenings in the Western Cape. In such circumstances, parliamentary parties try to stress a commitment to fair play, fair wages and economic stability. But, for all of them, this is largely a points-scoring exercise and, in the process, they snipe at one another, often adding to the confusion that exists in an already quite anarchic environment.

The same applies to the major trade union federation, Cosatu, and its affiliates. Like the governing party and the major opposition, the mainstream trade unions have lost much ground among the poor and dispossessed, ground they are desperate to regain.

On the other hand, small independent unions are under pressure to grow their numbers. This they are tempted to do by sounding ever more militant. However, while they and the mainstream unions battle to gain or reclaim membership among the mainly seasonal, unemployed and part-time workers at the core of the protests, they remain essentially bit players in an all-too-often violent drama.

The same applies to the political parties and groups, along with the human rights organisations active in the area.

When Cosatu regional secretary Tony Ehrenreich stated that the federation was not in control of what was happening, he was right. But he could also have added: neither is anyone else.

He could also have noted that the responsibility for creating the conditions that have now, sometimes literally, set the Boland ablaze, should be shared to a large degree by the dismissive attitudes of the provincial and national governments, the mainstream trade unions and the reactionary farming lobby. As a result, the tinder and the makings for what has turned out to be a quite major conflagration have been in place for years.

It is impossible to say who struck the first match, although news of the events at Marikana probably ensured that the fire got fully underway. However, inflammatory statements and calls to blockade roads and boycott farm produce did add fuel to what became a bonfire of anger and resentment, about which several politicians and union leaders continue to prance and posture. This they do while sniping at one another, sometimes adding further fuel to the blaze.

To the forefront of this dangerous exercise is the frequently quoted Nosey Pieterse, who made his media debut as a Boland labour rights activist in July 2011. This followed the release of the Human Rights Watch report Ripe with Abuse: Human Rights Conditions in South Africa’s Fruit and Wine Industries.

The report caused considerable comment at the time and Pieterse spoke out in this column as head of the Black Association of the Agricultural Sector. This organisation, he said, still went under its original acronym, Bawsi (Black Association of the Wine and Spirits Industry). It was, he implied, a body that sought to protect and advance the interests of black farmers and farm workers.

What he did not say at the time was that he had already, in August 2009, officially registered a new trade union under the apparently contradictory name of the Bawsi Agricultural Workers’ Union of South Africa (Bawusa) and was a farm owner. By 2011 he was, therefore, the head of a black empowerment business group, a putative and combined worker/business organisation, and a trade union that claimed a membership of 3 292.

When the Boland erupted toward the end of last year, Bawusa emerged as a self-proclaimed major player, with Pieterse as general secretary. Frequently — and erroneously — referred to in many media reports as the Building and Allied Workers’ Union of South Africa, Bawusa recently underwent another, unofficial, name change. It is now being referred to as the Black Agricultural Workers’ Union of South Africa with Pieterse, a fundamentalist Christian preacher, still in the general secretary role.

This latest move to change names came in the wake of a report by journalist Tony Weaver of the local Cape Times, which documented the highly chequered career of Pieterse and the multimillion-rand empowerment deals in which he and Bawsi have been involved. Weaver noted that Bawsi at one stage held a stake worth more than R51 million in the transforming Afrikaner KWV wine and spirit enterprise.

In his Man Friday column, Weaver asked: “Will the right Nosey please stand up?”

It was a legitimate question, but it has not stopped other media from continuing to feature Pieterse and Bawusa in the role of leaders of the Boland protests.

But it is obvious that there is no clear leader in this fractious dispute.

The internecine squabbling also continues with Ehrenreich, now castigated by Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant for having criticised the minimum-wage agreement, and with other Cosatu-affiliated unions rejecting a R110 pay compromise proposed by Ehrenreich.

So the fires keep burning as the squabbles on the margins go on.

And the 175 black farmers in the region, for the most part trying to make ends meet on less than 20 hectares, face probable ruin if the strikes and disruption continue for another two or three weeks.

• Terry Bell is a writer, editor and broadcaster specialising in political/economic analysis and labour.

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