The South African National Civic Organization (Sanco) and the Sundays River Valley Farm Workers’ Forum (SRVFWF) have accused commercial farmers in the Eastern Cape Valley of inciting xenophobia by ignoring the statutory minimum wage of 23.19 rands per hour and bringing in workers from other countries to pick citrus for wages as low as 10 rands per hour.

Farmers responsible for xenophobia

Total stop

The towns of Kirkwood and Addo in the Sundays River Valley citrus growing area were shut down for seven days by farm workers and community members.

They are demanding a minimum wage of R30 an hour in all businesses in the city, promotions and a provident fund for agricultural workers, and a split of 70-30% of jobs between local and migrant workers.

The total shutdown was organized by Sanco, which was banned on April 25 from continuing to lead the strike.

The SRVFWF officially distanced itself from the shutdown, saying it would negotiate wage increases for farmworkers and that a strike should be a last resort.

However, the closure receives strong support and all businesses and schools remain closed. About 3,000 workers and community members moved to blockade the area on Monday, April 25.

Accusations of xenophobia

The closure has been met with accusations of xenophobia because strikers burned down fruit and vegetable producer Habata’s accommodation for migrant workers, but Sanco and SRVFWF executives have denied the claims.

Forum president Vuyisile Sikani said some citrus farms are responsible for inciting xenophobia by employing far more workers – up to 88% of their workforce – from neighboring countries than from South Africans.

“How can local workers get only 12% of the jobs? The biggest farms in our valley do this and create xenophobia. They know exactly that the workers are going to fight because of the bread they put between them,” Sikani said.

ALSO READ: Government must act urgently to solve the problem of poverty lines

Farmers ‘create a divide between workers’

A group of South African and Zimbabwean workers disputed the allegations of xenophobia.

“We are one here. As you can see, we fight together. The problem is that the farmers want to drive a wedge between us and bring in workers from other countries and pay them R10 an hour. It makes our struggle difficult,” said one worker.

On Monday, workers and residents of Moses Mabhida in Kirkwood barricaded the roads leading to the township with broken citrus branches from nearby farms.

Private security guards lined up on the hill opposite, firing rubber bullets and live ammunition at protesters.

Most of the farm workers at the protest did not want to be named, saying farmers in the area had a list of all workers who were protesting or joining unions and would not hire them again.

Deadly turn

A lone group of 14 workers said a security guard shot one of their colleagues in the head with a live ammunition at close range.

They huddled in shock around a large pool of blood on the floor after he was taken to hospital. The guard, who declined to be named, denied the allegation and said the worker was hit by a stone thrown by the strikers.

Sikani confirmed that one of the workers, a member of the SRVFWF known only as Fergus, died Monday night from his injuries. Benito Moses, 35, another farm worker, died in hospital.

A 23-year-old Mozambican farm worker was bleeding from the side and arm from rubber bullet wounds, while other workers recovered rubber shell casings and live ammunition as evidence of the use of the munitions.

“We’re All Bleeding”

A group of workers from South Africa and several other countries said a second worker, a 33-year-old Malawian, had been transferred to Livingstone Hospital in Gqeberha after being shot in the head.

“We are so angry now. They shoot at us. We are all bleeding,” one worker said.

Sikani named Habata responsible for the closure. Habata cultivates 1,700 hectares of citrus, vegetables and melons in the Eastern and Western Cape, and owns the 300-hectare Le Grand Chasseur wine estate in the vineyards.

It is accredited by 10 local and European ethical, sustainable and good agricultural trade associations.

Sikani alleged that Habata demoted permanent workers in March because they joined the Union of Agricultural Workers and Democratic Allies. Casual workers were then promoted in their place.

“This is not apartheid South Africa”

The SRVFWF had met with the Agriculture and Allied Industries Association on March 24 in hopes of reversing the downgrades.

They were told Habata would respond within four days, Sikani said. But a day later, the association emailed Sikani noting SRVFWF’s warning that “social unrest” was likely.

He also acknowledged the forum’s “positive attitude to resolving workplace issues”, but declined to negotiate further with the forum.

“All this chaos was triggered by Habata. How could they embarrass permanent supervisors and tractor drivers by giving them bags and scissors and telling them to pick lemons and oranges and then promote occasional pickers? This is not apartheid South Africa where workers can be treated like that. It is intolerable, but we as SRVFWF remain disciplined,” Sikani said.

Habata did not respond to voicemails, texts or emails.

ALSO READ: Ramaphosa: Anti-foreigner acts echo apartheid past

Tough life

Simon Radebe, who had just been hit in the ear by a rubber bullet, said life is very hard for farm workers.

“I worked for 15 years on the same farm, but there are no promotions. The farmer continues to make empty promises. I only earn R1,200 per fortnight and R300 is deducted by the farmer for transport,” Radebe said.

He pointed out that the workers are transported in the back of a crowded truck.

Broken lemon trees and citrus peels littered the road, with farm workers eating the oranges they usually cannot consume.

“We are not used to eating these fruits. If you eat a single lemon in the packing station, even if you feel sick, you will be fired,” said a worker.

On April 25, the Gqeberha High Court granted a ban preventing several Sanco executives and protesting farmworkers from coming within 500 meters of several farms in the Sundays River Valley, but strikers said that they would continue with the closure until their demands were met.

injured workers

Captain M Fivas of the South African Police Service confirmed that a worker suffered “serious head trauma”, but could not confirm that he had been shot by a security guard.

He said he could not confirm what ammunition the private security guards were using.

Police were only monitoring the situation and would use rubber bullets and pepper balls, not live ammunition, he added.

The last stop in the Sundays River Valley was in 2018, when farm workers earned a minimum wage of R20 an hour, higher than the legal minimum of R18 an hour at the time.

During the shutdown, Xolile Nqatha, then a member of the Eastern Cape Executive Council for Rural Development and Land Reform, also called on farmers to stop employing workers from other countries at lower wages.

This article was first published by New Frame.