Vineyards in South Africa’s biggest table grape-growing region were torched for a second day by protesters wanting more pay, the Western Cape province’s agricultural trade association said.
Fifty hectares (123 acres) planted with grapes were incinerated yesterday near De Doorns, about 140 kilometers (87 miles) northeast of Cape Town, Agri Wes-Cape spokeswoman Porchia Adams said by mobile phone from Cape Town today. Farmers are still assessing how much land was burned today, she said. De Doorns, which has 4,800 hectares of vineyards, is the largest producer of table grapes. South Africa is the continent’s biggest grower of the fruit.
“They are looting shops and whatever they can find -- it’s a disaster,” Adams said. “We earlier had helicopters to try and extinguish the fire. The Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration is trying to mediate between the workers and the farmers.”
The protesters want better wages and living conditions, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the nation’s biggest labor federation, said in an e-mailed statement. Labor unrest has rocked the mining and manufacturing industries in South Africa, where a quarter of the workforce is unemployed and almost a third of the population of 51.8 million receives welfare grants.
Members of province’s government met with police and farmer representatives and the town’s mayor will address the protesters later today, the province’s Agriculture Department said in an e-mailed statement. The main national highway, the N1, has been closed outside the towns of Worcester and De Doorns, it said.
“We believe this to be politically motivated action, and not a labor protest,” Western Cape Agriculture Minister Gerrit van Rensburg said in the statement. “It is at this stage very difficult to identify the leadership of the protest, and therefore impossible to engage in dialog with the protesters.”
The Western Cape is controlled by the Democratic Alliance, making it the only one of South Africa’s nine provinces not governed by the ruling African National Congress.
“These exploitative practices of farm workers and their families are going to lead to deepening conflict and growing protest,” Cosatu said in the statement . “People cannot be expected to live on their knees, whilst the farmers profit handsomely from the exploitation.”
The fire could have destroyed about 15 million rand ($2 million) of table grapes yesterday, Adams said. Investigations into the extent of the damage are still pending, she said.
Cosatu called for for calm and for workers to stop the violence and unlawful acts in their protests as it “distracts from their noble struggle for social justice.”
There were 113 demonstrations against poor services and living conditions in South Africa in the first seven months of 2012, more than in any other year since monitoring began in 2004, according to Johannesburg-based Municipal IQ, an independent local government research group. The Western Cape had 24 percent of the protests, the most of the nine provinces.