The voice of the farmer and of permanent farm employees has largely been missing in the wage strikes and associated violence. What we have heard is hate-speech against farmers, broadcast by the media far too many times.

Heather Dugmore offers the ‘other side’ from the voices less heard.

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The broadcast media appears to be in love with its dated image of the white South African farmer as some fat-bellied monster learning against his bakkie, looking like he’s going to whip his workers at the first available opportunity.

Little wonder the voice of the white South African farmer is not being heard. Who wants to hear what slave-driving monsters have to say? Who wants to give them airtime when you can have Cosatu’s Tony Ehrenreich and Bawusa’s Nosey Pieterse stirring up the crowds with their war cry about South Africa’s farmers being apartheid masters living on the fat of the land while their employees are treated as slaves.

Without defending any monsters or slave masters out there, it needs to be emphasised that South Africa has many friendly, intelligent, forward-thinking, even good looking white farmers who empower their staff, treat them well and pay them far more than the minimum wage. What’s more, these farmers want fair and equitable land reform to succeed.

Commercial farmers understand that land reform is necessary for the stability of South Africa, and have extended multiple helping hands to the Minister of Agriculture, Tina Joemat-Peterson in terms of mentorship partnerships and proposed land reform projects that will work. But the door remains closed because when all else fails, including municipal services, land reform and a better quality of life for all, politicians need to be able to point at the white commercial farmers and say: “There are the bad guys”.

White South African farmers are South Africa’s favourite whipping boys, but all is not as it seems. On closer scrutiny, the whipping boys are not always the greedy fat cats they are made out to be.

Official agricultural statistics reveal that 50% of all commercial farmers in South Africa have a gross annual turnover of less than R300 000 and since 1994 the number of commercial farmers has plummeted from approximately 60 000 to 37 000. Thousands of farmers are struggling to survive and are given no support or assistance by the government. Farmers in most food producing countries are given considerable government support because they are, after all, producing the nation’s food.
Farming is “more of a get poor quick scheme than a get rich quick scheme” the President of Agri Eastern Cape, Ernest Pringle, points out.
DA leader Helen Zille adds: “Contrary to common perception, commercial farming is rarely lucrative. In fact, farmers reap the lowest return in the agricultural value chain. Research shows that Hex River farmers who sold their table grapes to the United Kingdom in 2011 only received 18% of the final retail price, while supermarkets took 42% and distributors 22%. Furthermore, according to industry reports the net income per 750ml of wine has dropped from R1 in 2004 to 38c in 2011.”
She emphasises that farmers are a precious resource. “We must seek to extend their number among farmers of all races, not diminish them,” she states. The reality is that the more commercial farmers South Africa loses, the more jobs in this sector are lost, and the faster food security becomes food insecurity, but this is of no interest to politicians and point-scorers like Ehrenreich and Pieterse who did their best to skew organised agriculture’s response to the minimum wage debate.

“They wanted to pressurise Agri SA into wage bargaining with the unions at a central bargaining council. When we responded that it is not up to us to review the minimum wage, it is up to the Minister of Labour who acts according to the Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA), they misrepresented our approach as refusing to engage about the minimum wage,” says the Executive Director of Agri SA, Hans van der Merwe.
Van der Merwe points out that the minimum wage is different to the average wage paid by farmers in South Africa. With incentives, the cash component of low wage workers in the Western Cape is, on average, R84 per day, according to the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy. “Farmers usually have a contractual relationship with labourers, which includes productivity targets and incentives.”

Many farmers paid their permanent staff considerably above the average and minimum wage but at the same time the minimum wage, whatever it is set at, needs to be sustainable across the board.

Sustainability needs to take into account the cost to farmers who hire thousands of seasonal labourers such as the fruit and vegetable farmers who say their farms will fold if they have to pay over R100 per day for seasonal labourers. Many emerging black farmers say the same.

On the 4 February this year Labour Minister Mildred Olifant announced an increase of 52% to the minimum wage of agricultural workers, from R69 to R105 per day, effective from 1 March and applying to all agricultural sectors with the exception of forestry. Business and farmers’ organisations warned that this will result in widespread job losses and put a large number farmers out of business because it takes them into an uncompetitive state.

“When the minimum wage is not sustainable the consequence will be that the larger, mechanised farms will survive and they will take over the small to medium size farms, with substantial lay off of labourers,” says van der Merwe.

The number of jobs generated by the agricultural sector has declined from one million permanent farm labourers in 2002 to just over 600 000 today. That is a drop of 400 000 permanent jobs.

Employers in agriculture also provide far more than  the minimum wage; they provide housing, electricity, water and transport for their employees. Can this be said for other industries? Why is it only the agricultural sector that is expected to look after the social wellbeing of its workers?

“I am worried that the wage increase is going to tip more farmers over the edge with huge implications,” comments Pringle. “It is no good waking up to the realities of food security after food production has collapsed.”

And what of farm labourer productivity? Why is there always talk about what payment farm labourers do or do not receive but when farmers are looking for staff they battle to find young people who want to work on the farms or good labourers with farming experience, which is a skilled position, not an unskilled form of job creation as is often portrayed.

Farm labourers, particularly permanent staff members are aware of all these issues, and at the outset of the strikes and violence late last year they were initially too intimidated to talk for fear of being killed or having their homes destroyed.

This started changing on 22 January 2013 when over 1000 farm workers in the Western Cape gathered to condemn violent strikes and to disassociate themselves from union leaders claiming to represent them when they have little support in the farm worker community, as Denene Erasmus reported in Farmer’s Weekly:

“We do not need Nosey and Tony to speak for us. We do not need unions. That is why we established the Farm Worker Forum (FWF) – so that we can speak for ourselves,” said Magrieta Futhwa, a farm worker from Middelpos Farm in Wellington and FWF spokesperson.

Erasmus reported that one of the forum’s conveners, farm worker Rita Andreas, from Bosman Family Vineyards in Wellington, said the FWF already enjoyed the support of most farms in the Berg River municipal area, which included towns like Wellington and Paarl, while support in other regions was growing fast. “We as workers do believe that the R69/day minimum wage was too low but, at the same time, we want to make it quite clear that many farm workers in the Western Cape earn more than that, and they also enjoy many other benefits provided by farmers, including housing, schools for their children and training,” she said.

FWF members stated that it was mainly seasonal workers and the unemployed who were taking part in the strikes and said that the burning and destruction of farms and infrastructure should be condemned in the strongest possible terms.

Public hearings about agricultural wages have been held throughout the country to address the wage issue. One was held in Barkly East in the Eastern Cape on 13th December 2012 where Eastern Cape farmers Phillip Gxotiwe and Doug Stern represented Agri Eastern Cape, which has a membership of over 3000 commercial farmers.

During the first ten minutes they had to endure a ‘farmer bashing’ session from the Food and Allied Workers representative (FAWU) who accused farmers of a range of atrocities and ill treatment against their farm staff.

“We disputed the legitimacy of the accusations and invited FAWU to meet with our organisation with the purpose of them revealing to us who the land owners were that were guilty of those horrendous atrocities he was eluding to – as we too, do not agree with labour abuse of any kind,” says Stern.

He also emphasised that the Labour Relations Act 66, 1995 gives farm labourers full access to the CCMA (Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration), Labour Courts and Labour Inspectors who have the powers to act on their behalf.

While the wage dispute and debate has become the focal point of agricultural labour relations, it is only the tip of the iceberg, from which all manner of land-associated demons are spilling out.

As Zille points out: “This year is the centenary of the 1913 Land Act. The real goal should not be to make productive farmers the target of attack but to try to understand why the government’s attempts at land reform have failed so far, and what we must do to redress the legacy of the past while retaining and increasing the productivity of our agricultural land.

“It is not reducible to a simplistic black-versus-white/good-versus-evil analysis but the ANC will milk this commemoration for the purpose of racial mobilisation, in order to deflect attention from the real reasons for 20 years of failed land reform. And this diversion will merely perpetuate these failures. Before South Africans fall for this con-trick, we would do well to ask the following questions,” she said.

1. Why is 90% of the 5.9-million hectares of land bought by the state for emerging farmers no longer productive?
2. Why does the government blame the “willing-buyer-willing-seller” principle for its failure to meet its land reform targets, when the money squandered on failed projects could have purchased 37% of all farmland in South Africa at market value?
3. Why, almost 20 years since the dawn of democracy, is the audit of state-owned land (which is needed for the potential release of millions of hectares into productive use), still incomplete? Why has the deadline for this audit repeatedly been extended?
4. Why is 30% of South Africa’s most fertile agricultural land so unproductive that it yields hardly any food and almost no jobs?
If we can use this centenary commemoration to grapple with these questions, and answer them honestly, we will take a significant step towards sustainable restitution, job creation and positive growth in the agricultural sector.

It goes even beyond this, says Pringle: “If the government doesn’t start supporting the farmers, the farming sector will become dysfunctional and we will start seeing massive food inflation. When food becomes unaffordable to majority of the people in this country we will be living on borrowed time and the government will not survive because the country will go into a state of collapse.

“We’re extremely concerned about our country because it is being badly run and violent strikers are being allowed to carry on as they like in all sectors and get rewarded for this behaviour. Yet the government expects to run an orderly country under these conditions.”

Van der Merwe adds to this: If we allow anarchy to dictate policy outcomes and we deviate from the rule of law and procedures prescribed by the law we have nothing to fall back on. When you reward violent behaviour you will have an escalation thereof.”

Do Pringle and van der Merwe sound like the slave masters Ehrenreich and Pieterse warn us about? Or are these the voices we should hear more often?

“We tell it like it is,” Pringle responds. “Which is why we are grateful for our agricultural magazines and to any of the media who do want to hear our voice.”