The past three months have seen wide-scale unrest in the fruit and wine farms of the Western Cape province in South Africa. This is part of a much larger wave of industrial action which has swept the mining sector and other parts of the South African e …

Walton Pantland

The past three months have seen wide-scale unrest in the fruit and wine farms of the Western Cape province in South Africa. This is part of a much larger wave of industrial action which has swept the mining sector and other parts of the South African economy for the past year. At the root of the dispute, which has raged since November last year, is the poverty wage of ZAR 69 (£5) per day that farm workers have subsisted on.

The minimum wage is set sectorally in South Africa, and farmers have long argued that they cannot afford to pay more.

Workers and their unions demanded a wage increase to ZAR 150 (£10.80) per day. This is still a poverty wage in a country which has seen high food inflation over the past decade, but it would represent a significant increase.

Yesterday the South African government announced a new minimum wage for farm workers of ZAR 105 (£7.50). While falling short of the amount workers were arguing for, this still represents a significant increase of more than 50%.

In the short term, this is a great victory for farm workers, who are some of the most vulnerable and exploited in the country, with many still living in semi-feudal conditions. However, in the medium and long term, the battle is far from over: many farmers seem intent on revenge, and have disciplined striking workers and threatened to scale back production or mechanise, and retrench a large proportion of the workforce.

The deeper issue is that the South African economy still relies on Apartheid-era poverty wages, and land ownership patterns disproportionately favouring large scale commercial farmers, who are still mostly white. Until there are deep structural changes to the economy, disputes like this will continue, and the settlements will continue to be at least partly cosmetic.

There seems to be very little recognition from farmers that the current system is not sustainable.

Almost 20 years after the end of Apartheid, South African workers want a share of their country’s wealth. Until they get it, the unrest and instability will continue.

For more analysis see this article.


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Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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