Land activist faces down fraud claims

Nosey Pieterse, the activist preacher behind the Porterville land invasion, who habitually uses mass action to highlight farmworker grievances, has been drawn into the financial scandal over misuse of wine industry empowerment funds. Stephan Hofstätter sp

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Nosey Pieterse, the activist preacher behind the Porterville land invasion, who habitually uses mass action to highlight farmworker grievances, has been drawn into the financial scandal over misuse of wine industry empowerment funds. Stephan Hofstätter spoke to him about his activist tactics and the corruption claims made against him.

Tell me about your background in activist politics.

I come from the labour movement. Our unions got together to form Cosatu in 1985. I became its treasurer in the Western Cape. Then all the food unions got together and formed the Food and Allied Workers’ Union (Fawu), of which I became a national executive member. I later became an executive member of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and member of the communist party underground. I was arrested every year and detained for three or four months.

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You’re also a preacher and president of the Black Association of the Wine and Spirits Industry (Bawsi).

I am a priest in the Lutheran Church. I have always been a theologian. Even when I joined the communist party.

What are Bawsi’s objectives?

The transformation of the wine and spirit industry, but also the rest of the agricultural sector in terms of ownership, having a political voice in the structures of decision-making, and confronting the social evils facing people on farms. We are for fair labour practices and defending people against evictions.

Who does Bawsi represent?

All the unions, NGOs, youth and women’s groups belong to Bawsi. We are the voice of people of colour in the industry, including workers. We have four farmworker organisations that represent tens of thousands of workers. Both the unions related to Cosatu and independent unions are affiliated to Bawsi.

Who funds Bawsi?

The SA Wine Industry Trust (Sawit) and other institutions. Why do allegations of financial mismanagement at Bawsi keep cropping up? All our income and expenditure is audited up to February 2007.

Could I see your audited financial statements?

Die Burger newspaper wanted [Bawsi’s financials] and we refused because of what they wrote about Sawit when they got hold of their financial statements. I can assure you we have nothing to hide. We can never be accused of being financially corrupt. You can call us a bunch of revolutionaries or Marxists, but never corrupt.

Sawit’s critics say it could have done much more for transformation if it hadn’t mismanaged its funds. What’s your view?

I’m not a trustee of Sawit, so I’ve never seen a financial report. What I know is only with the new leadership in the last three years did it start doing something for transformation. But Sawit fell out of favour with industry leaders because it was supporting people like Bawsi, Women on Farms (WoF) and the Rural Development Network (Rudnet). We are demonised by the press and the industry, so Sawit fell out of favour big time. Even Cobus Dowry, the MEC for agriculture in the Western Cape, was attacked by the DA and farmers and had to clarify what support the department gives to Bawsi and WoF. WoF is under investigation by farmers because of the work they do.

So there’s a smear campaign to discredit Sawit?

No, an attack by industry leaders. Sawit did nothing for Bawsi or WoF before. Now they [Sawit] are under serious attack and undermined, with people wanting to know how much money they give to us and for what purposes. It’s surprising, because no one ever asked about the money Sawit gave to [export promotion body] Wines of SA (Wosa) or [research body] Winetech. It was a lot of money. Why weren’t those things investigated and questioned? Why is Sawit suddenly attacked when they start funding the organisations of the masses?

How much money does Bawsi get from Sawit?

We started off with next to nothing. I believe it increased to just over R200 000 a month.

For what purpose?

For the administration of the organisation and its programmes. You need to understand the work that Bawsi does. It defends you when you are evicted. Our security-of-tenure desk employs a full-time lawyer. He’s almost never outside the court because of the number of evictions we handle. We go to court, people have a Bawsi T-shirt on, and they’re immediately swamped by other farmworkers who say we must also defend them. And so the cases heap up. We’re seeking assistance from a number of organisations, including the Legal Aid Board and Human Rights Commission. When workers are dismissed we go to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) with them. We also organise demonstrations. We need to transport people and so on. Activist work costs money. We also have a spiritual desk to look after the spirituality of people on farms. People who live together who are not married, children who are not baptised, funerals, mass services. We are forming youth choirs.

Why are you organising demonstrations?

For the farmworker nothing has changed [since 1994].

I have visited many workers who are well-housed and -treated.

I can also take you to a number of farmworkers who are treated well. Those are farmers who know how to treat their workers decently, even under the days of apartheid. The abolition of apartheid hasn’t changed anything. There were always decent farmers known for treating their workers like fellow citizens. We’re talking about those workers who suffered under apartheid and are still suffering under farmers with the same attitudes.

Don’t more farmers treat their workers like fellow-citizens today?

No, I don’t believe that. I’m not seeing a change of heart in the bad farmers. The onslaught on farmworkers has intensified. Statistically, more farmworkers were evicted under the democratic government than in the last 10 years of apartheid. How has the release of Mandela and the unbanning of the ANC altered their lives?

What is government’s role in this?

They’re on the periphery. The land affairs and agriculture departments aren’t coming to the party. They’re ducking and diving when it comes to evictions. From what we hear now from minister Lulama Xingwana or deputy minister Dirk du Toit [that farmers abusing or evicting workers face land expropriation], we feel encouraged for the first time. I don’t expect them to carry out their threats. But this will make people think about what they do and open the door to talks. We can resolve many things if we admit what’s happening. The problem I have with farmers is the denial about what’s happening and amnesia about the past. Part of my Christian faith is that there has to be confession before we can go forward. As long as there is denial, I cannot continue to talk to you.

Tell me about the reparations suit you’ve launched against the dop system.

We’ve noticed the abnormally high incidence of alcoholism and foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) in farmworker communities. We looked at research and found a connection between FAS and the dop system. Even though it was banned in 1961, it continued unabated. The government of the day didn’t have the political will to stop it because its constituency was practising it.

And today?

It has almost been eradicated. People understand you will be an embarrassment to your peers, who will isolate you because you bring shame upon the industry. That’s a more powerful tool than anything else.

So you’re targeting the legacy of the dop system?


Who are you suing?

The government, the agricultural sector and the wine industry in particular must take responsibility, because they implemented the dop system. We’re identifying specific victims to represent the class on whose behalf we’re bringing the action, and institutions and companies we’ll be citing.

Will you be naming specific wine estates? Which are they?

We have collected evidence [implicating estates] but we cannot name them yet.

Critics say you are trying to wring more funds from the industry now that Sawit has been bled dry. Your response?

We want a fund established to address alcoholism, rehabilitation, and care and special schools for those suffering from FAS. Those children need special education. We will focus on awareness, prevention and care – and research. We as Bawsi won’t have access to the funds as such, unless there is lobbying they want us to do. We want independent trustees to manage the funds.

Surely Sawit’s R369 million settlement from KWV was meant for these activities too?

In the beginning Sawit didn’t fund those kinds of things. Later they did fund Dopstop and other organisations.

So this fund must continue that work?

Yes, but in a more focused way.

Why does Bawsi want to sell its stake in KWV?

Because of what Bawsi stands for, there are very few people who want to fund it. So Bawsi has to become economically self-reliant. Our intention was to reinvest the money, and make sure we have our monthly operational needs covered. But at this stage we’re looking at alternatives.

What is your stake in KWV worth?

It was worth just over R50 million. It has now more than doubled in value – about R112 million. We still owe some money. If we sell now we would make R65 million profit.

Some say you want to sell Bawsi’s stake to enrich yourself and close associates.

There’s absolutely no way any one of us can benefit unless we’ve rendered service to the organisation. No one has shares in Bawsi. The trust is not owned by anybody.