Seasonal Western Cape farmworkers wait out the winter with empty wallets

2016-07-20 13:30
Seasonal farm worker Ronel Pieterse from Prince Alfred Hamlet (Jenni Evans, News24)

Prince Alfred Hamlet - Ronel Pieterse drags a massive bunch of dry branches along a road in Prince Alfred Hamlet, the afternoon sun making the perspiration on her face look like droplets of gold.

She stops to rest and waits for another woman to catch up with her.

Pieterse is taking the wood down into the valley for a neighbour who lives in the "hokke" (coops), the disparaging name locals have given to the small houses rural farmworkers call home.

According to research presented to Parliament in February, farm workers are increasingly living off the farms, in the towns closest to their seasonal work.

For people like Pieterse, this means settling in the Witzenberg district, where much of South Africa's fruit comes from. When it is harvest season, the farmers, packers and processors need to drastically increase their staff numbers to cope with the volume of work.

They have moved toward keeping on only essential staff, and hiring contract workers for the busy times, to keep costs and prices down.

The gradual movement to these centres gave farmworkers more freedom, but also put a strain on local municipalities and government departments which have had to scramble to provide housing and services to the newcomers.

StatsSA put the population of Prince Alfred Hamlet at 6 810 in 2011. A draft planning report for 2016/17 by the Witzenberg Local Municipality, whose area Prince Alfred Hamlet falls under, put the current population at around 10 000.

Six-month salary

The hamlet has been prioritised as a development node as part of plans to alleviate poverty and reverse the social problems that come with being very poor.

The highest education level there for most people is some secondary school. Less than 10% move on to higher education. Pieterse said she made it as far as Grade 8, before leaving school to go and look for work.

The wood she is dragging will be used to make a fire to warm up bath water for the neighbour's children, because the schools have reopened and they need to be clean for class.

The house has electricity, she explained in Afrikaans, but money is short at the moment and so it has been cut off.

Temperatures in the picturesque mountain region plummet drastically at night. Tourists from Cape Town visit the nearby town of Ceres to see the snow in winter, but for the farmworkers who cannot afford electricity, it is not such fun.

African National Congress mayoral candidate for the Witzenberg Municipality, Joyce Phungula, said one of the council's biggest problems is revenue collection because many people in the region simply cannot afford to pay their bills.

For the seasonal workers, the last weeks of winter are the most difficult - the bare, pruned and gnarled branches of the fruit trees and grape vines reflecting their dire financial situations.

The processors and packers in town use the down time to do their planning, but for the seasonal farmworkers, they have to make a six-month salary last a whole year.

If Pieterse can just get to September, things will be okay because that is when the seasonal workers spring into action.

'I would not like to work in an office'

First it is thinning season. She is paid R15 a tree, to thin out the peach blossoms so the tree can bear better fruit. Competition is tough to get as many trees done as possible in a day. Over the years, the 26-year-old has honed her skills to finish a tree quickly.

From the end of November, through December, she will pick peaches. The women get R1.10 a basket and the men R1.20. The men get more because they stand on ladders to get the top of the tree. Getting paid by the basket means there is also no time to waste. Pickers drop off a full basket, get their ticket clipped then move quickly to fill another.

The other jobs are summer cutting, pruning and "stokkies krap" (taking unruly twigs off the trees).

Those jobs yield a flat rate of R105 a day. She shrugs her shoulders at being paid less than the minimum wage of R127 a day.

In 2012, a massive strike which centred in De Doorns led to farmworkers' pay being increased from a paltry R69 a day.

Asked whether she dreams of moving into other work, the free-spirited Pieterse shudders and said: "I would not like to work in an office."

She said she will vote in the local government elections on August 3, despite the difficulties she faces.

"I must, I am a South African citizen."

And with that, the elderly woman helping her drag the wood said sternly, "Come, the sun is sinking" and they disappear with their wood over the crest of the hill.

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