Police arrested seven armed men on Tuesday as farm workers in South Africa’s picturesque wine lands resumed strike action, with tension enveloping the Western Cape region.
The men, suspected to be members of the far-right Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB), were found with one firearm and 60 rounds of ammunition at a roadblock leading to the epicentre of the farmworkers strike.
Regional police spokesman Andre Traut said the suspects aged between 33 and 66 years “were driving in the direction of De Doorns when their vehicle was searched.”
It was in De Doorns — outside Cape Town — that last month’s unrest began, leaving two dead and vineyards burnt.
On Tuesday, there were however few signs of a repeat of last month’s deadly violence as the strike resumed.
The strike, which comes at the start of South Africa’s grape harvest season, turned violent in November when workers burned vineyards, looted shops and blockaded streets with burning tyres in towns close to Cape Town.
Many of the farmers have since hired private security firms to protect their property while the police have sent hundreds of additional officers to monitor the area.
Mario Wanza, a spokesman for the Farmworkers Strike Coalition, said a number of farm workers and protests organisers were arrested after the police fired rubber bullets in the area of Paarl, in the orange farming town of Citrusdal and near the town of Montagu.
“A number of people were shot,” he said. “We expect the strike to carry on for a number of days.”
Police spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Andre Traut said the situation in farming communities was “under control” late on Tuesday afternoon.
Porschia Adams, a spokeswoman for AgriWes-Cape, which represents farmers in the Western Cape province, said farm workers marched to the group’s offices in Paarl to hand over a memorandum of demands.
“About 200 people came in a group,” she said. “It was very small. Most of the areas today were quiet.”
Workers are demanding that their 70 rand ($8) daily wages be increased to 150 rand ($17).
Adams said a strike was unusual for the farming industry, where wage disputes were normally resolved “on the ground”.
“Farm workers do not normally strike. They are partners in business and they realise what their role is. They sort their issues out on the farm with the farmers.”
Adams said farmers were “reassessing their risks and thinking about alternatives” to using labour.
The fruit industry in the Western Cape employs around 200,000 permanent workers and 200,000 casual labourers.
Michael Loubser, a spokesman for Hex Valley Table Grape Farmers Association, said no violence had been reported early on Tuesday.
“About 95 percent of the permanent staff are at work today,” he said.
The only people who were not able to work were those from the nearby Stofland informal settlement, he said.
“The workers there have been told that if they go to work there will be consequences,” Loubser said.
So far talks to end the dispute have remained deadlocked.
Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant has said that the basic wage may only be reviewed one year after it was put in place, according to legislation, with the current level dating to March this year.
Tony Ehrenreich, the general secretary of Western Cape branch of union federation Cosatu, said discussions with farmers had been fruitless.
“So far our discussions have yielded no results.”