Manipulating the causes of the poor

Posted on March 22, 2013


The causes of South Africa’s poor and dispossessed continue to be manipulated by politicians and unscrupulous individuals bent on accumulating power, personal wealth or both. As a result, there is much cynical use and distortion of the evidence and of statements emanating from painful occurrences such as the deaths at Marikana or the conflict in the Boland winelands.

That, in a nutshell, is the view of many of those who participated in the strikes and disturbances in the lands of the Bafokeng and the farms of the Boland. But, perhaps much more importantly — and certainly from an economic viewpoint — is the view from Europe about what has happened, and is happening, particularly in the wine and fruit producing areas.

Because, in the world village in which we all now reside, the drinkers of our wine and the eaters of our table grapes and fruit have been made fully aware of the claims and counter-claims, the protests and the pleas about South African farm labour. As a result there are already surveys completed and surveys underway for groups in Britain, the Netherlands and Scandinavia. Perhaps elsewhere as well. These seek to discover the facts behind claims of exploitation and the reality of the value chains that stretch from the soils of South Africa to the supermarket shelves of overseas markets.

Earlier this month a delegation from Systembologet, the state retail alcohol monopoly in Sweden visited the Western Cape. “System” as it is commonly called, handles all off-premises alcohol sales in Sweden in an operation in which South Africa has become the major wine supplier. Many Swedes, it seems, are keen to ensure that their wine is not only of top quality, but is also produced in a manner that is not grossly exploitative.

Like the Netherlands and, to a lesser degree, Britain, Sweden has a recent history of active anti-apartheid support and it is the conscience of this constituency that appears again to have been rekindled. Activists seem to have rallied behind demands for fair treatment of workers in general and farm workers in particular.

“What I want to see printed on the label of a wine I buy in Amsterdam, is: ‘This was produced by workers enjoying fair wages and conditions,’” a Dutch fair trade campaigner noted in Cape Town this week. However, he has already discovered that, although conditions on some farms in the Western Cape are wanting, unions report worse conditions in provinces such as Mpumalanga, the North West and Limpopo.

But the Western Cape is the scene of the most intense political division, being the only province held by the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) and therefore one that the ANC is determined to regain. So the concentration by the ANC and its Cosatu ally tends to be on the Western Cape as all political parties start to focus on the elections 12 months ahead.

The Cape Town-based SA Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (Sactwu), for example, has made a donation of R1 million to the Food and Allied Workers’ Union (Fawu) to help in a drive to recruit farm workers. However, the money — to be administered jointly by Sactwu and Fawu — is earmarked solely for the Western Cape.

Not that Fawu — very belatedly, many officials admit — is not extending recruitment and operations into other areas. An office has been opened in Malelane in Mpumalanga and others are planned. However, funding for these “comes from our own resources”, says Fawu general secretary Katishi Masemola. Announcement of a major drive to organise rural workers is likely to be made on May Day.

However, there is little evidence that union membership has grown much in the winelands and that “trusted, competent and committed leadership” has emerged. It is a similar situation to that highlighted by Witwatersrand University researcher Jean-Pierre Misago after the 2008 xenophobic violence: an absence of institutionalised and trusted leadership.

As Misango found in 2009: “Community leadership is an attractive alternative for the largely unemployed residents of the informal settlements.” He pointed out that such leaders “often charge for services, levy protection fees, and sell or let land and buildings, and take bribes in exchange for solving problems”.

The unions, along with local, provincial and national government all bear responsibility for the vacuum that existed and which allowed such a situation to develop. And it has developed in an environment where rising prices and greater competition for available jobs make for a particularly volatile mix, fuelled further by simplistic stereotypes.

DA leader Helen Zille this week correctly highlighted these as “heartless farmers” on one side and “exploited masses” on the other; the former supported by the DA, the latter by the ANC. These are the propaganda battle lines that distort reality although it is probably true that most farmers would prefer the DA and most workers the ANC.

But the situation is much more complex. And it is further complicated by the fact that there are labour brokers and others capitalising on the situation and who are identified with one side or the other — or none at all. Largely ignored — although admitted by Zille — is the crucial fact that farmers and their workers are at the very bottom of the value chain.

She correctly noted, in broad terms, that 42 per cent of the retail price of SA table grapes sold in Britain goes to the retailer and 32 per cent to the distributor. Out of the remaining 18 per cent, the farmer had to meet all costs including labour.
Even more dramatic figures emerged in a confidential survey completed this year relating to exports of bulk wine sold to to Sweden. Just 3 per cent of the final retail price goes to the grape growers and wine makers after paying 2 per cent for labour.

Given these facts, perhaps unions, farmers, government and European campaigners should argue for a fairer distribution at the top end of the value chain. The Swedish state, for example, takes up to 64 per cent of the value in taxes.