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Notes from a Farmworkers Strike

by Ben Fogel / 07.12.2012

Politics is not only about the exploits of big men (and the occassional woman); it’s not only about Zuma vs Motlanthe or Malema vs Zille and the rest of this sorry, but entertaining coterie that our political class consists of. Politics begins with people being able to talk and organise in their own communities or workplaces, it begins with ordinary men and women, rather than the latest Manguang related shenanigans.

The farmworkers’ strike which resumed with a bang and ended apparently without a whimper in the Western Cape this week, is no exception to this. Farmworkers are perhaps the most brutalised and exploited section of South Africa’s working class. Even inhumane and barbaric practices such as the dop system have yet to be fully purged from the agricultural sector. It is for this reason, that the farmworkers’ uprising is of particular significance.

Last Sunday, I attended a farmworkers rally in Ashton called by the small independent union CSAAWU (Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union), the Democratic Left Front (DLF) and the Mayibuye Land Rights Forum. In attendance at the Ashton stadium were about 500 workers, representatives of a range of Western Cape social movements, assorted NGOs, and even Amplats worker’s committee spokesperson Gaddafi Mdoda. Awaiting patiently outside were at least two dozen police vehicles some Nyalas, and over 50 police officers.

The primary demand of the rally was a minimum wage of R150 a day, of which a worker told me afterwards, “was only a start.” For, “who can survive on R3000 a month?” They issued other demands such as a living wage of R12 500 for all South African workers; a call for the formation of democratic workers’ committees in every farm and an end to all abusive labour practices on farms. Such demands have clearly been inspired by the Marikana strike wave. Workers at both this gathering and a parallel one held in De Doorns appear to support the resumption of the strike, following the ‘Farmworkers Strike Coalition’s announcement that the strike would continue last week, before it was ended by a random COSATU decree which surprised both workers and journalists alike.

The difficulties of organising farm workers remain immense. Some of the challenges that farm workers face in trying to organise include the presence of widespread illiteracy, local political party squabbles and the fact that many farmworkers and their families remain vulnerable because of their dependence on housing provided by farmers. It is not uncommon for entire families of farmworkers to be evicted from the housing provided by farmers for joining a union or being too ‘outspoken’ on farms where they have been residing for generations. It remains to be seen if the ambitious goal of organising these workers can be translated into reality.

At the rally, Western Cape COSATU and ANC leader Tony Ehenreich also made an appearance in which he spoke briefly and then quickly disappeared. His speech was received with mixed reaction by the crowd and many speakers criticised COSATU’s unwillingness to take direction from the workers.

Yet, despite the brevity of his appearance and the lack of support he had at the rally, Tony Ehrenreich’s opinions featured prominently in the pages of the Cape Times and assorted wire reports thereby drowning out the voices of workers and other grassroots organisations which have actual popular support amongst the strikers. The commitment of the ANC and COSATU to the struggles of farm workers remains to be seen.

It is crucial that the coverage of the strike focuses on the reality of the activity of workers on the ground rather than attempting to portray the strike as a power battle between the ANC and the DA over the future of the province. The ANC did not give birth to the strike and judging by their reaction to Marikana and their own lack of action during their tenure in control of the Western Cape, they would probably have responded to these strikes as harshly, if not worse than, the DA.

Another attendant at Sunday’s rally was Mario Wanza who can only be described as the Zelig of Western Cape politics. Here, I am referring to the Woody Allen movie in which he played a human chameleon who reappears again and again throughout history opportunistically adapting to whatever surrounding he found himself in.

Wanza was first an ANC politician before being expelled for running against his branch’s chosen candidate a few years ago. He then became the leader of the Proudly Mannenberg ‘social movement’ and then briefly as Cape Town mayor Patrica de Lille’s arch-enemy in the build up to the failed occupation of the Rondebosch common. Then he briefly teamed up with de Lille for a photo-op in front on the Mannenberg Human Settlement Contact Centre before finally ascending to his current status as the leader of a reborn UDF (United Democratic Front).

This current UDF, far from being the mass movement of times past, consists of Wanza and several of his friends, associates, and alleged cronies attempting to suck whatever legitimacy or attention they can from the legacy of the UDF. It’s pretty much the equivalent of me getting drunk on Saturday night and declaring myself the new Tupac, despite being white and unable to rap and then getting media attention on that basis. There are also serious allegations by Manenberg community members and others who have worked with him, claiming that he is hopelessly authoritarian and corrupt.

Legitimacy for such figures as Wanza is ultimately derived from their ability to work the media thereby compensate for the lack of a popular base. Quite often in the media, the viewpoints of the popular base are left out altogether – such as in the case of the Marikana massacre in which only 3% of news stories actually cited the miners as sources of information.

A particularly egregious example of such coverage, can be found in this recent SAPA article carried by City Press, which has the notable achievement of reporting that the farmworkers strike will continue without actually consulting any actual farmworkers. Instead we are left with the words of non-farmworkers such as Wanza and Ehrenreich. We should be more careful to look into the backgrounds of such figures before granting them legitimacy to speak for the strikers.

Too often, focusing on the colourful characters (we should never underestimate Malema’s entertainment value) of our powerful elite and their hangers-on leads journalists to treat their opinions, distortions and curiosities as newsworthy in themselves. This leads to an excessive focus on these personalities to the exclusion of the activities of people on the ground who actually drive political change.

In an age where political reportage is often submerged in an ocean of spin, pressures on journalists to produce quantity over quality leads to the uncritical repetition of elite opinions as news. Distorted narratives can be reproduced in such a way that it justifies state repression or gives credence to our politicians’ favourite habit of blaming a ‘third force’ each time people take to the streets to demand their rights. Just as often, such narratives give rise to political charlatans who suddenly find themselves gifted with the aura of political legitimacy.

It is vital to pay close attention to the manner in which the farmworker strikes have been and will be covered in the mainstream media. The DA continues to use xenophobic references to blame foreign nationals or ANC operatives as the forces behind the strike while ignoring that the real ‘third force’ is the perpetual chain of exploitation and poverty that farmworkers find themselves trapped in. The persistence of starvation wages and feudal living conditions in the agricultural sector is the real reason people are taking to the streets.

Last week, Helen Zille made what seems to be her now habitual call (mostly via twitter), for the SANDF to intervene. She has called it a preemptive attempt to prevent the outbreak of further violence. Perhaps Zille is taking her cues from the Israeli Defence Force’s live tweeting of its attacks during their most recent assault on Gaza?

It is up to journalists to ensure that such dangerous solicitations do not go unchallenged and that the narratives of workers are not subsumed by the petty infighting of our political class. Will South Africa’s media finally rise to the challenge? Or will we continue to claim that reporting on political soap operas (under the guise of freedom of the press) actually constitutes legitimate journalism?

In short, journalistic responsibility cannot be separated from social and political responsibility – they go hand-in-hand.

*All images © Ben Fogel.

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