WOLSELEY, South Africa — Striking South African farmworkers defied a government call to return to work Thursday and demanded action against police officers involved in the death of one of their colleagues during clashes. Police described the situation as “volatile,” with unrest reported in multiple towns and villages across the agricultural belt, not far from Cape Town. At Wolseley, where one person was killed in clashes on Wednesday, workers rubbished government declarations that their strike was over, as they marched vowing not to go back to work until wage demands are met.
The government and union grouping COSATU earlier claimed workers had agreed to freeze the strike for two weeks while the sector’s 70 rand ($8) minimum wage is reviewed. But protesters insisted they will not return to the fruit-growing region’s farms until they are granted a daily wage of at least 150 rand ($17). “It’s not over for us. We are continuing no matter what. We are going forward no matter what,” said 19-year-old seasonal fruit farm worker Mandla Betshe. “It’s just a wish for them (for it) to be over.” Pieter Opperman, 38, who earns 80 rand a day was also adamant. “The strike is not finished,” he said. “If we get that settlement of 150 rand, I will go back to work with all my heart. Because then I know I can put food on the table for my family and I can sort myself out.”
Amid the protests a worker delegation handed a list of demands to police that included a call for the suspension of the local police captain, after a 28-year-old man was killed in clashes. “The most important thing is… who gave the order to shoot. Obviously someone has to take a responsibility,” said Lamie Mqungquthu, part of the worker delegation. “Our aim today is to make peace with the police, they must leave the people because all of us have a right” to protest, he said. Aside from demonstrations in Wolseley, police reported disturbances in the towns of De Doorns, Ceres and Swellendam.
“Police officers are deployed at all affected areas to maintain law and order, and to protect the public,” said Lieutenant Colonel Andre Traut of the Western Cape police. Meanwhile commercial farming body Agri Wes-Cape was still tallying the impact of the strikes, which are just the latest in a wave of labour unrest that has also rocked the mining and transport sectors. “This is the worst extreme level of worker unrest that the Western Cape has experienced,” spokeswoman Porchia Adams said. “The mines can speak for themselves and all the other commodities but, agriculture, this is the worst one we’ve experienced,” said Adams.