De Doorns despatches – 2

Getting beyond appearances in the strikelands of the Western Cape.

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Cont. from De Doorns despatches – 1

1. Rocks & rubber bullets 
As the group of about 3 000 people led by the likes of ANC councillor Pat Marran and businessperson-turned-union leaders Noseyman Pieterse of the Bawsi Agricultural Union of South Africa (Bawusa), began to advance on the Nyalas, a teargas canister was thrown and the violence started.

Was the tear gas, as many would say afterwards, a reckless and unnecessary action? I don’t believe it was. When the smoke rose, it was suddenly apparent, from a hail of rocks, that dozens of the strikers had split from the main body and gone into the bushes beside the highway to the left of the police, clearly seeking to outflank them. An outbreak of fires in the next few minutes suggested some were even carrying Molotov cocktails.

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Even if it’s claimed the breakaway group wasn’t preparing to fight, its movements need to be judged against broader security concerns, such as the fact that the strikers had made their intention to march into De Doorns quite clear – an unacceptable option, given the violent nature of the November 2012 strikes.

So the police let fly with rubber bullets, pushing the main body backwards, but concentrating on the flanking strikers, whose rocks were peppering the Nyalas. They were soon pushed out of range, but it was clear they would continue trying to flank the police unless something was urgently done.

The Nyalas retreated down the N1 to Voortrekker Road, with one travelling to a farm stall and the other stopping just below the T-junction to form a new line. It was 11.20am and even with the pop-pop-pop rubber bullets going on metres away, it seemed to me the SAPS was gaining the upper hand. Only… 

When I’d re-parked my car, a traffic officer had pointed past me, saying: “Man, look over there, they’re coming from the other direction too.” He was right. Several thousand more workers were marching down the N1 from the direction of the Sandhills location on the other side of the valley.

If the northern mob made it beyond Voortrekker I’d be caught between them and the southern marchers. But I did nothing about it, reassured by the fact that if this happened there would be several others in the same predicament. And within seconds exactly this scenario played out.

2. Between a rock & a hard place
A bulldozer and a building beside Voortrekker Road were set alight, drawing both Nyalas well off the N1 and opening the way for a speedy advance by the northern mob, which became a sprint. Since the only things towards which the front-runners could conceivably be sprinting were my black Renault Clio and a SABC cameraman’s silver Hyundai it seemed a good time to start running too.

We made it to the cars about 100m ahead of the pack, and screeched off with the first of the rioters 20m away; 300m on, I stopped alongside the SABC guy, who smiled weakly and said, “We’re boxed in. We might have to dump the cars and run.” Mercifully, a farmer in a white twin cab motioned us to the entrance of his farm, and explained there was a way across the railway line and into the town.

We took the cars 200m off the road and reviewed the mob dynamics. Deciding nothing was to be gained from advancing further along the N1, the northern group had turned back. The southern crowd, meanwhile, had made it to the farm drive we’d gone down and were clearly interested only in meeting up with their northern comrades.

A few entered the farm to drink water from a bowser. They were friendly and invited me to walk with them back to the centre of the action – which I did in time to see the police advancing to retake the N1 and divide the groups again.

Both began drifting home, the northern mob returning to Stofland location, but remaining restive, leaving burning veld in its wake and stopping occasionally to launch a fresh volley of stones.

As I walked parallel to the road with the retreating strikers, I noticed many were just 13 or 14. When the mob reached the location it splintered, forcing the police to divide themselves once more, although the chopper circling low to the ground lent them an intelligence edge that not even intimate knowledge of the township lanes could better.

3. Dust-up in Stofland
I walked up Almeria Street, chatting to grey-haired aunties and uncles who were leaning on their wire fences, worriedly watching the action. On Wilger Street, a VW Jetta belonging to a Cape Times journalist had been tipped onto its roof and petrol-bombed. Its tyres had already burnt away by the time I arrived, and the two terrified occupants had been spirited away to the safety of a nearby church.

One of the onlookers looked at the gearbox greedily and eventually declared: “I’m going to get my toolbox.” Just then an odd scene played out. By this time, the strikers had been well and truly broken up, but it was clear from the direction in which a journalist was pointing his camera that there was some activity on Dahlia Street.

“Oh yeah,” I heard the journalist yell, “Why don’t you come and say that to my face you fucking chicken shit?”

The reply was a volley of rocks. The journalist backed away, spotted me, waved and came over. It was DH, who I should have identified from the start by the big floppy hat he always wears. We shook hands, then, clearly very agitated, he addressed himself to 40 or so people gathered around us.

“You know,” he shouted, “when the trouble started last year I was on your side. After today you’ve blown it, you’ve gone too far. As far as I’m concerned you can all get fucked, you don’t deserve a thing from anyone.”

I looked around uneasily. “You mustn’t say these things to us,” one guy warned the furious photographer.

“Oh yeah, why not? Because you can’t handle the truth?”

4. Riposte
DH then seemed to get some of his bearings back and muttered: “You know what? Forget it! I shouldn’t have even allowed myself to be drawn into this debate.”

In doing so, he set himself up to receive the riposte of the day. “Meneer,” said someone, “this isn’t really a debate.”

5. Meeting Nosey
The day’s rioting was done. The SABC journalist I’d shared a terror-stricken moment with earlier had flagged down none other than Nosey Pieterse in his white BMW X1, and was interviewing him in the middle of the N1 before a backdrop of stones, shacks and smoke from burning rubber.

The photographer with me had him pose for a portrait amid the rubble, with his sleeves rolled up to show where he’d been struck by a rubber bullet earlier in the day. I was telling her she should ask him to put back on the red, black and green cardigan he’d worn earlier, and which was now lying on the back seat of his car, when he interrupted me.

“You like my car?” he asked menacingly.

“I like your cardigan,” I said, and introduced myself.

“My apologies,” said Pieterse, “I thought you were a Media24 journalist. Media24 has been running a campaign to discredit me for years, and now they’re saying I’m not worthy of being in the position I’m in.”

I didn’t say as much, but I thought much the same thing. After all, as Die Burgher and others have pointed out, Nosey is both the one-time beneficiary of a major BEE deal with KWV and the leader of a farm workers union. Talk about a conflict of interests!

Then again, where the media tended to view Julius Malema’s Breitling watch as sign of his moral bankruptcy, those who supported him saw it as a legitimate dividend of his political success, something to aspire to, and it’s quite possible the De Doorns strikers view Nosey’s X1 in the same way.

What I do know is it’s far too early to tell who’ll come out of this thing intact and who’ll be broken by it. Like Malema, Nosey has entered the politics game aggressively along crude populist lines, and, as with Malema, it seems only a full-tilt revolution could deliver him from falling victim to his own naked ambition.

The coming days look set to be fraught with danger, and not just for farmers.

6. Grabouw & Villiersdorp
Thursday, 10 January. The N1 stole the limelight yesterday, but the N2, which I prefer solely because it travels 2 255km only to end in the coal pit that is Ermelo, was also peppered with rocks. Today I’m with photographer Caroline Suzman, who received an SMS from Nosey at 8am explaining that he’ll be speaking to strikers in Grabouw at 10am, to workers in Villiersdorp an hour later, then it’s on to Worcester to parlay with agricultural leaders about an interim wage agreement (to apply countrywide in the time leading up to the sectoral determination negotiations scheduled for March).

We found Nosey once again in his red, black and green cardigan and black beret addressing a group of a thousand or so people outside the Shoprite/U-Save grocery store, which had been broken into on Wednesday and looted two nights running. His speech was completely at odds with what he’d told us earlier about the interim wage agreement he’d brokered – it was wrathful and packed with incitements to violence.

“We must put an end to slavery in the land of our birth. They have robbed our ancestors,” he said at one point, before yelling: “Two of our comrades were killed in this strike. Did they die for nothing? We will be betraying their blood if we stop now…

“You must understand that those Boers will not give you R150 because they have good hearts. If you want your R150 you better fight for it, you won’t get freedom unless you fight for it. You must be prepared to fight.”

Not liking the mood, we snuck off down Wyngaard Road, minutes before the looting, stone-throwing and firing of bullets resumed. We arrived in Villiersdorp to catch the end of Nosey’s address to a crowd of several thousand on the Goniwe township sports field, high above the town beyond eight or nine burning barricades.

Some fires were started in the orchards adjacent to Goniwe Park and in the forest behind that, sending smoke up against the walls of the Hottentots Holland towards Blokkop peak.

We made it to the edge of the orchards in time to meet the arsonists on their way back to Buitenkant Road. “Why did you do that?” Caroline asked one of them.

“Because,” said the young man.

“Because what?” she persisted, but the youth continued past her to join his friends.

7. When sympathy goes on strike
Later that day I phoned a friend who farms near Botrivier. He said the only uplifting thing he’d heard since the strikes began was how the fire set in Villiersdorp had travelled upslope until it threatened to engulf the shacks in the gulley just before the walls of the Hottentots-Holland.

“The fire department refused to enter Goniwe Park to fight the fire because one of their trucks was torched during protests in March last year, so residents were left to fight the blaze themselves with buckets,” he chuckled.

This was a good-hearted man who’d simply been drained of sympathy by repeated reports of arbitrary acts of destruction. After the first round of violent protests in November he’d sent advertisements to several agricultural colleges in England, offering work experience on a South African farm, including a free return flight and board and lodging. In this way the labour requirements of his small operation have already been covered for the year.

Not wishing to retrace our depressing steps we continued north to Rawsonville, where a fire at the edge of a vineyard once again drew us off the road. From the cover of some bushes we saw that it was the work of a group of labourers standing around a trailer, feeding rubbish into a smouldering refuse pit.

Our mistake was a timely reminder of the truth of one of Virgil’s immortal lines: trust not too much to appearances (particularly to the north of the Dutoitskloof tunnel).

View the farm strikes photo gallery