Superguards protect farms

Farm workers say they were made to join protest

Farmers in the Ceres area hired private security companies this week to guard equipment and provide back-up for a police force stretched dangerously thin by explosive protests across the Western Cape.

But these weren’t run-of-the-mill security guards – they were paramilitary operatives specially trained in handling strike action.

Farmers were reluctant this week to name the companies they had hired, or had been asked by the companies themselves not to mention their names.

Some farmers told City Press they had simply been told security had been provided but had no further details.

The guard outside the premises of Dutoit Agri in Ceres, the largest family-owned farming group in South Africa, had the logo of Vetus Schola protection services on his pullover.

Of military bearing and with a foreign accent that suggested he may be from the DRC, it did not look as if the the stern guard’s services came cheap.

There’s a heading on Vetus Schola’s website that reads: “High Risk Operations – Strike Handling.”

Here the company states that, within 48 hours, it can assemble a team of “former law enforcement personnel, as well as military and security agents to provide executive security, site surveillance and non-striking employee protection”.

Gys du Toit, the managing director of Dutoit Agri, said: “Lots of private security has been brought in.”

Du Toit said he had personally spoken to Western Cape Premier Helen Zille and asked for the SA National Defence Force to be brought in to help police during this week’s volatile strikes.

About 16 farming areas across the Western Cape flared up this week after strikes began in De Doorns last Monday.

But President Jacob Zuma had not authorised the measure, Du Toit said, and so farmers had no other choice.

According to Du Toit, the police simply could not cope with the level of violence and vandalism that was happening in the Ceres area.

Robert Graaff, of Graaff Fruit, said he had also hired private security on Monday.

He said the high cost of hiring security, added to the losses incurred by damages and the inability to harvest, was an added burden on farmers who were now facing a desperate season.

The strikes left a visible scar on parts of the Cape landscape.

Witzenberg was a surreal scene of devastation on Friday.

There is only one way in and out of the Witzenberg Valley.

After passing through Prince Alfred’s Hamlet, a few kilometres from Ceres, one has to go up the Gydo Pass before turning off and descending through magnificent scenes of tortured folded rock into the green fertile valley nestled between two mountainous arms.

But the first thing one noticed on abruptly entering the valley was a burnt-out shed beneath a spreading 100-year-old oak tree.

Smoke from smouldering fires rose in patches across the valley and the farm roads were dotted with the remains of burnt tyres and logs.

Leaves rustled in the wind and doves cooed unperturbed across the virtually deserted Dutoit Agri offices at the end of an oak-lined avenue, while millions of rands worth of equipment lay in smouldering ruins.

The farm workers City Press spoke to in the valley seemed to share the sense of loss and waste.

Sitting outside their homes on the farm, they were willing to speak if their names were not published.

A worker named Peter* spoke while five colleagues sat in on the conversation.

He described how a crowd of about 300 came marching down the road on Wednesday, ordering them to join the protest action or face being beaten and having their houses set alight.

Peter said: “There was a bunch of people I don’t know.

“We could have gone on strike but we didn’t want to destroy property. But you have to pretend to join in. We were intimidated.

“I don’t want to fight. We told our employer that it wasn’t us who destroyed property.”

He said his employer told the workers to stay home on Thursday and Friday to ensure their safety.

According to him, the workers were paid R69 per day and with three children, two of whom were at school, he needed more money.

His wife and children lived in Eastern Cape and he shared a room, one in a row of nine that formed a single long building with a deep porch, with a colleague.

Water was free, Peter said, but they paid about R60 per week into their pre-paid electricity meter.

They were also unhappy about the state of the outside toilets, which were usually blocked.

– Additional reporting by Katie de Klee

* Not his real name

Cape Farms Burn
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