Encouraged in part by violent strikes in the mining sector, hundreds of seasonal workers in the farming belt around Cape Town have gone on the rampage in the last week, blockading roads with rocks and setting vineyards and warehouses ablaze.
Scores of protesters have been arrested, and police said a 28-year-old man in the town of Wolseley, 70 km (40 miles) northwest of Cape Town, had died in an “incident” that was now in the hands of the police complaints bureau.
“We are calling for an end to violence and wish to appeal to the farm workers to give us a chance to attend to their demands,” acting Labour Minister Angie Motshekga told a news conference at parliament in Cape Town.
The opposition Democratic Alliance, which controls the Western Cape, has called for the army to be sent in to support the stretched police force, although defence ministry officials said the military had received no orders.
However, the protests, spurred on by high food inflation and unemployment, have forced the government to start reviewing labourers’ pay under a law that lets it set the minimum wage once a year in sectors such as farming and domestic work.
South African farm workers are among the lowest paid in the country, and often live in squalid conditions with no hot water or electricity.
Some are still paid in alcohol, part of a “tot system” introduced during colonial times, although the wine industry, which exports across the world, has moved to improve pay and conditions.
A Western Cape disaster management office reported fires at numerous farms and fruit storage facilities over the past two days in and around the Hex River valley, where many of the 16 towns hit by the protests are situated. Reuters