Farm workers' struggle

Deneco’s story: ”Now is OUR time”

Deneco Dube is a revolutionary through and through. He has vowed to take down the racist Afrikaaner bosses one by one and has become a leading figure for the local farm worker community. He has been a driving force behind a number of major strikes.

Deneco grew up on a farm in the Robertson area in Western Cape, South Africa. He was raised in part by his grandparents while his parents were working in Cape Town, a two hours drive away from Robertson. When his grandfather became too old to work on the farm, the family was evicted from their home on the farm. Farm workers often experience evictions of that kind, even though there is, in fact, a bill in place which grants farm dwellers the right to stay in their house after a certain amount of time, even though they are no longer employed by the farmer. But Deneco’s family had to leave their home.

Time passed by, and Deneco went to school and got a job in an abattoir, slaughtering animals. However, after some time Deneco was dismissed from his job. Unfairly, he adds. ”That’s how I found my way back to the farms.” However unfair the dismissal, it still became the beginning of a new story: Deneco became a farm worker on a fruit farm like the one where he grew up as a kid. ”I didn’t have a choice at that time, I had to go and look where I can survive […] Something came up in me one day that said: ’go back where you was growing up’”, and so Deneco went to his father, who was at that time working on a farm, and asked him to talk to his boss. The father was bewildered by Deneco’s wish. After all, Deneco was a relatively well-educated person, who could do other jobs. But for Deneco, all other options had run out. It had become a matter of survival to take a job that he very well knew essentially entails low pay, bad living conditions and general marginalization in the South African context.

A continuation of the deep-rooted inequality of apartheid

Taking work at the farm marked the beginning of Deneco’s political activist career. The life and experiences from working on the farm were what led him into organizing the farm worker community and made him one of the driving forces behind a number of strikes against the Afrikaaner bosses.
Deneco started out as a general worker, but was soon promoted – however, ”They do not promote you with money, but they promote you with skills” – Deneco was now the water operator. He was earning 375 Rand per week, ”and you cannot even buy you a pair of shoes […] For that three years that I worked on that farm, I never bought me a pair of shoes.” Many farm workers, Deneco included, live on the farm as part of their contracts. In some places they have to buy electricity from the farmer. However, on Deneco’s farm, electricity was supplied to the workers. In the beginning he considered this an advantage and a good deal, ”but when you look inside your own life you see there’s no advantage for you. Because you are still poor people, you are still a poor person. That is your life, and they are controlling your life.” In essence, Deneco views the control the farmers excercise over their workers as a continuation of the deep-rooted inequality of the apartheid days. Denico rhetorically asks: ”Do you know when you go into work on a January morning and you see that your boss has bought a new truck, but you didn’t eat with your family for the whole christmas and new year. Do you know what it feels like?”

Conditions on the farm were so bad, the farmers’ treatment of the workers so unfair, and Deneco started to engage with the other workers: ”I took initiative to speak to my people who were affected by these inequalities. And they… They have spoken out. And farm workers are not someone who will speak directly to you about how they suffer. They will never do it. But because I was also suffering, and I was one person alone, but I couldn’t survive, so I was asking myself how these people survive, with families of five, six, with 375 or 250 Rand per week. So they started to engage with me and say, ’I cannot survive, Deneco. And I am prepared to fight for what we stand for!’” For Deneco, the tipping point came when he was speaking to an old man on the wine farm. This man was too old to continue working, but could not afford to stop, because then the farmer would not support him. Deneco thought to himself, ’this could happen to anyone, and it is essentially what will happen to every single worker here if we don’t do anything to change our situation.’

Workers risk their lives in the struggle to end apartheid wages

In 2012 came the momentum for action. Strikes started breaking out in the whole area. Thousands of farm workers more or less spontaneously decided to go on a strike in support of the demand of a minimum wage of 150 Rand (75 kr.) a day. The workers on Deneco’s farm also decided to join in the strike. ”When the strike started out in 2012, I tell the people ’Now is our time. Now is OUR time’”.

However, his boss did not just stand by and let it happen. He had Deneco arrested for intimidating the workers into stopping work. But at this point Deneco was determined. And he had realized that the inequality affecting farm workers is not just limited to the agricultural sector, but has widespread consequences for the whole community. As he refused to speak until he was put before a judge, he was placed in a cell with a couple of hardcore criminals: ”When they put me in the cell I go directly to those people and tell them ’I am not here for your bullshit. I am here to defend the interests of our poor people […] You are not here because you want to be a number or something, you are here because of your circumstances’, and they were like ’it’s truth that this guy is speaking!’” In the end the charges were dropped, because his fellow farm workers, who were ”like family”, had told the farmer that ”If Deneco is missing tonight, we will deal with you in the evening!”

As the strike was not planned or organized by one single entity, it became a symbol of the people’s voice and the people’s power. ”All the farm workers was coming out. And people elected me to be their representative.” Essentially, however, the workers were all leaders: ”So the police was coming and asking ’who is the leader here?’, and I said ’ I don’t know’, and all the people said ’no, we don’t know. We are all leaders, we are all fighting.’” Denico had no leadership experience whatsoever. But he navigated from the wishes of the people: ”All I was saying was that I was going after the mindset of the people, because the people staying on the farms know how to deal with the bosses. That’s what I have used, and that was my advantage.” It was a popular struggle shaped from the people’s wishes. ”For me it was not about credentials and all these things […] For me it was fighting for your people and making sure that they survive”.

When Deneco talks of the strike, it sounds like he is telling war stories. And in a sense he is. The strike was not simple and easy, it was not smooth, and both parties fought hard. The workers used means of destruction of private property and set fire to many a vineyard in the process. Farmers, on the other hand, teamed up with police, who fought the strikers with brutal force, rubber bullets and the likes. Earlier the same year 41 striking mine workers had been killed by police during the Marikana strike, or the Marikana Massacre, as it has later been dubbed. So, for Deneco and the other workers, it was essentially life or death. At one point a big group of workers were trapped in a fenced-in field with big police vans all over. In the end, everyone managed to get out of the field into safety: ”They couldn’t get one of us. No one was leading. They didn’t find anyone. And that was so amazing, because everyone was taking leadership: We will survive here!” Every person would be willing to take responsibility. Therefore, in the end, no one was accountable. In the process, Denico thought more than once that this was a life or death situation, and he had to determine with himself how far he was willing to go. He decided he would go all the way if need be. ”At that stage I was telling myself: If anyone touch me, I am going to touch him back, and I am going to make sure that I survive”. In the end the strike also had major consequences for the workers, as many were dismissed from their jobs, and strike demands were not fully met. However, Deneco still calls the result a victory, not least since it proved that in unison the people do have power.

“We don’t have a choice, we have to fight!”

After the farm worker strike of 2012-13, Deneco continued working with farm workers’ issues. He is now a local coordinator of the independent union, CSAAWU. Currently, Deneco plays a leading role in the ongoing strike in Robertson Winery. The workers, who earn approximately 3000 Rand a month, are struggling for a living wage of 8500 Rand as well as improved organizational rights. In many respects this strike is different from standard strikes in South Africa, as it has been called the most peaceful strike in the history of democratic South Africa. It is organized by the union CSAAWU and is both a legal and protected strike. Recently, a judge has deemed it of national importance because of the aim of reforming the agricultural sector and securing decent wages for workers everywhere, not just for the workers in Robertson Winery. The strike will potentially set a standard for wages in the whole sector, and thus mark yet another step towards the elimination of exploitative apartheid labor structures. ”Even people who are earning more than 3000 Rand are outside today because they say enough is enough. They say enough is enough because they cannot live under these racist apartheid Boers […] It is not a way of making a living for your family. Instead, you are going into something that oppresses you as a human.”

Robertson Winery is just a start: ”We as CSAAWU say no, enough, we cannot tolerate those things. We are fighting for the justice of our people. Even if it means that we must sacrifice, and if you die, you die for a great purpose. I am not scared of any farmer.” And indeed, Deneco has vowed to continue the struggle until he has taken down all the white commercial farmers of the area. During the strike Deneco talked to one farmer: ”And I told him in 2012: ’we are going to deal with you, one by one. We are going to start with you and we are going to finish with all the oppressors.’ And he was laughing, and I said OK, you can laugh, but we will! […] We have warned him: You must not underestimate the power of the workers.” It may be a long struggle, but important, because ”it’s about taking back our power”. Robertson Winery will not be the last company to experience Deneco’s determination: ”I am going to finish Robertson Winery and I am going to finish Roodezandt, and I am going to finish Rooiberg, finish Van Loveren, and then we are putting back the dignity of our people. We don’t have a choice, we have to fight!”