South African Labor Unions Call for Calm on Farm Strike

South African labor unions and farmer organizations called for calm as police and protesters clashed on the sixth day of a strike over minimum wages.

Police today arrested 16 men on public violence charges, after officers and motorists were pelted with stones and Molotov cocktails near De Doorns, about 150 kilometers (94 miles) northeast of Cape Town, police spokesman November Filander said. Four of those detained were injured and treated in the hospital, he said in an e-mailed response to questions.

The violence is Western Cape province may delay harvesting in South Africa’s biggest table grape-growing region. Thousands of workers downed tools in November to demand an increase in the minimum wage to 150 rand ($17) a day from 70 rand. The strike was suspended on Dec. 5 pending further negotiations and resumed on Jan. 9 as talks deadlocked on a number of farms.

“We are calling for peace,” Sandile Keni, a provincial organizer for the Food and Allied Workers Union, said in a mobile-phone interview. “No union appreciates the fact that there must be violence. The police are not assisting in this. They are merely throwing petrol into the fire.”

The violence, which has claimed two lives, followed a series of pay strikes that began at mines in August and have curbed growth and output in Africa’s largest economy, contributing to three credit-rating downgrades. Last week, a delivery truck and a car used by two Cape Times journalists was set on fire, while police arrested at least 118 people.

“At this stage all the affected farming areas are quiet,’ Filander said. ‘‘Police will remain in these areas to monitor the situation.’’

‘Criminal Behavior’

Most of the recent fighting has occurred in rural towns, and is being perpetrated by unemployed people, according to Agri SA, the country’s main farmers’ organization, which hasn’t had any reports of farms or equipment being damaged since Jan. 9.

‘‘This violent, criminal behavior is totally unacceptable,” Anton Rabe, chairman of Agri SA’s labor committee, said today by phone from Paarl, near Cape Town. “As far as I know, 90 plus percent of farms have reached agreement and they are operational.”

The government says it can only legislate new minimum pay from April when the prevailing rates will have been in place for 12 months, and has called for an end to the illegal strike. Agri SA says it doesn’t have a mandate from its members to negotiate wages.

Grape Harvest

“I can’t tell workers to stop striking without giving them anything,” Nosey Pieterse, head of the Bawsi Agricultural Workers Union of South Africa, said in a mobile-phone interview. Unions will meet later today to see what they can do to end the stand-off, he said.

The harvest season for table grapes in Western Cape got under way this month. South Africa is the continent’s biggest exporter of the fruit.

Agriculture makes up about 2.1 percent of South Africa’s gross domestic product directly and farms produce close to 6.5 percent of the country’s exports, including wine, citrus fruit, corn, grapes, apples and pears, according to government data.

Mechanization has contributed to a 30 percent decline in employment on farms to 680,000 over the past decade, according to Agri SA data. Farms in the Western Cape employ about 200,000 workers, according to the provincial agriculture department.

The ruling African National Congress has also called for an end to the strike.

“I am extremely hopeful we will get a breakthrough,” in the next few days, Marius Fransman, head of the ANC in the province, told the Johannesburg-based broadcaster eNews Channel Africa.

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