It was a shock to hear that large numbers of protesters had descended on the farming town of Robertson in South Africa. Road blocks were set up with burning tyres, mobs armed with pangas and machetes marched on farms intimidating the workers into protesting against their employers. The reason? A demand for higher wages. Why now? Only the unions know.
I have been visiting this small town, a 90 minute drive from Cape Town, since 2003. It is the home town of my wife and an important wine making centre.
As an outsider, the inequality gap between rich and poor is obvious and disturbing. It is not simply the fault of apartheid and the solution is not simple. While there are some wine makers who have lucrative international outlets, most farmers (grapes and fruit) are struggling to break even and many run at a loss. Long term, their future is far from guaranteed. However, more can be done and needs to be done.
As an economist, I am aware of the impact of a national minimum wage, and its sensitivity to market conditions. The UK, a far more developed nation, is also debating the difference between a minimum wage and living wage. I am also aware of the demands on the farmer competing on the world stage against heavily subsidised nations.
As a pastor, I have been involved in helping to build a truly multi-racial church. This takes time as the differences between people’s are not only skin colour, but cultural, educational and economic. ‘Bird of a feather flock together’ applies all around the world regardless of race.
The church has started to model something different to the extent that farm owner, farm manager and farm worker, labour side by side every Sunday to host 800 children at church. All of them have been born into the new, free and democratic South Africa. Many of them come from the poorer communities and surrounding farms. Most of them have been eye witnesses to the ugly scenes unfolding over the past two weeks. There is no future in stirring up racial tensions when the challenge is complex.
What hope is there for them when politicians fight among themselves for power, the unions coerce workers to protest on their behalf and the police are left helpless in the face of a mob?
What hope is there for the farm owner who is doing his best to turn a profit in order to pay his workers and keep their families. They rightly feel unprotected and victimised when songs such as ‘kill the Boer (farmer)’ are led by a leading ANC figure and get sung with no repercussions yet the fact remains that 3000 farmers have been murdered since Mandela came to power and two are killed each week.
I was on a remote farm, one hour from a tarmac road, when news that Eugene Terreblanche had been murdered in April 2010 just before the World Cup. He may have been a controversial and racist figure but his death highlighted the vulnerability people feel and why an assumption of self defence is very real.
The only hope is for the church to be the church and for people of faith on both ‘sides’ of the dispute to live by faith and not the fear of a mob. Only when the heart of the farmer owner is turned to the farm worker and the heart of the farm worker turns to the farm owner can there be lasting change.