News | Labour / Unions “Solidarity Is the Foundation of any Struggle”

An interview with Karel Swart from the South African agricultural trade union CSAAWU


Photo: Rosa Luxemburg Foundation

It is impossible to understand the agricultural sector in South Africa without taking into account the country’s long history of slavery, land grabbing, and colonialism. Farmers in the Western Cape Province have exploited cheap Black and Coloured labour since the seventeenth century. Later, white farmers would represent an important voter base for the Apartheid regime that rose to power in 1948. As one of the main beneficiaries of Apartheid, white farmers profited not only from access to cheap labour, but from other forms of state support, including subsidies and strict regulation of the supply chain.

Karel Swart is the National Organizing Secretary and one of the founders of the Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU), a South African trade union.

When Apartheid ended in 1994, the privileges that had been enjoyed by white farmers were not the only thing to be abolished. In terms of economic policy, the new African National Congress (ANC) government fell in line with a neoliberal agenda that had already been partially adopted by the Apartheid government in the 1980s. The ending of the international boycott movement that had been a response to Apartheid, as well as new ANC policy, meant South Africa also opened itself up to the world. The agricultural industry was now pitted against international competition and the sector was deregulated. In spite of all this, one significant victory for the working class in South Africa in the 1990s was the introduction of new labour laws that explicitly included the agricultural sector.

Wine is one of the South African agricultural sector’s largest exports. There are currently almost 2,900 vineyards that make up the industry, the majority of which are in the Western Cape Province. The vineyards are often family businesses which have been owned by white families for generations; these families typically cultivate large tracts of land and have tended to rely heavily on cheap labour by black or coloured workers.

Today, the trade unions in the Western Cape’s agricultural sector are fragmented, and the organization of farm workers is not limited to trade unions. Farm workers engage in forms of self-organization on individual farms which do not necessarily adhere to the structure of a registered trade union. There are no industry-wide collective bargaining processes or agreements in the South African agricultural sector, let alone workplace co-determination. Founded in 2006 as an agricultural workers’ union, the Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural, and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU), was officially recognized in 2012. Jan Urhahn and Benjamin Fogel spoke to Karel Swart, the National Organizing Secretary of CSAAWU, about challenges and the necessity of organizing the workers who grow and produce our food.

To start, can you give us a brief overview of the agricultural industry in South Africa? Who are the farm owners and why are they so powerful?

It is now more than two decades since the post-Apartheid ANC government introduced legislation that recognized farm labourers as workers and granted them some forms of legal protection. This was unprecedented in South Africa’s history, but despite these theoretical gains, the past 20 years have seen very little meaningful transformation of the inherited Apartheid social, economic, and spatial patterns in rural areas.

My father was a farm worker; he worked on a farm for almost 50 years, and he retired with nothing. My entire family is from the countryside too, and there is an emotional attachment that we have to this poor, rural history. We can never forget our history. My own background is in agriculture, I am not an academic. I came up through a union and the union was my education.

Life for farm workers can be a nightmare!

Power relations in the agricultural sector of South Africa are part of the history of Apartheid, the system of segregation which lasted from the late 1940s until the early 1990s. The agricultural system helped keep the National Party (the party of Apartheid) in power, and was a major factor in the impoverishment of populations who were not white. White Afrikaner farmers had a lot of support from the Apartheid government. Land was forcefully confiscated by the government, and people who were not white were denied the right to have land. That is the heart of the problem.

I will never make the mistake of underestimating the power of the agricultural bosses. They are very powerful, in part because they have extremely influential and well-organized lobby groups. They always manage to get access to the government, and they are very determined to protect their own interests. It’s also important to consider the weakness of the trade unions. During the last years of Apartheid, the unions were much better organized, representing around 40 percent of all South African workers. Today that percentage has fallen to around 20. This is a total disaster. If the trade union movement declines, the power of the worker, and by extension everyone in the country, is weakened and the government is freer to make laws that run over us.

CSAAWU is our trade union, and it is recognized as one of the most vibrant, caring unions in the agriculture sector. We have gained the respect of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU), our trade union federation, and we are expanding from the Western Cape Province to the Northern Cape Province and other provinces in South Africa. Our aim now is to build CSAAWU into a massive, national union.

CSAAWU works mainly in the wine industry in the Western Cape Province. What is the situation there?

The wine industry is an important income stream for the Western Cape Province. This is the area where the majority of South Africa’s wine is produced, and the industry is responsible for around 167,000 jobs in the region. As well as wine, the Western Cape Province is one of the main exporters of deciduous fruit for international markets, meaning that it has a large farming workforce spread across different industries.

Commercial agriculture has benefited enormously from the demise of Apartheid, which had led countries to boycott and impose sanctions on South African exports. The end of the Apartheid regime meant that access to Europe, Asia and Africa increased, and therefore profits for the industry increased too. Paradoxically, this change, which was brought about through the struggles of the oppressed masses in South Africa, has not led to change in the material conditions for many of those working and living on the commercial farms. Instead, the neoliberal restructuring of agriculture has made commercial farm work more precarious, through initiatives like casual contracts, and seasonal hiring.

What are some of the challenges that farm workers face in South Africa?

Life for farm workers can be a nightmare! Many farm owners control the farm gates, meaning they can close the gates and trap workers on the farm whenever they wish. Sometimes people are not allowed to see their family whatsoever on the farm, say if the farm owners decide extended family members aren’t allowed to come and visit. There is poverty and even hunger on the farms too, and while the government has introduced a national minimum wage, it is still very low. Many workers in full-time employment in South Africa still earn extremely low wages, and farm workers have remained amongst the poorest in the country. There are also consequences for trying to organize; more and more workers recently are being dismissed because they have joined our union. Many are now dependent on food kitchens that we as a union have organized — at present we have between 20 to 30 food kitchens. As a farm worker, if you have a relationship with a trade union, farmers will not give you any work, even seasonal work.

Through unions we can bring some relief to farm workers, but the farm bosses will not change unless workers join trade unions in their hundreds of thousands.

Changes in the large-scale commercial agricultural sector in the form of mechanization and digitalization are impacting farm workers too. These processes are already underway, and they have influenced employment patterns over the past five to 10 years. In the wine, apple and pear, and table grape subsectors, 80 percent of workers during the peak season are employed on seasonal contracts. In the off-peak season on at least half of the farms in the Western Cape Province more than 50 percent of the workforce are seasonal workers. The only way that we can change things is by challenging the balance of power. Farm owners benefit from exploiting farm workers; they increase their profits through exploitation. It is in their interest to keep wages low and working conditions poor, and that is why farmers don’t want a strong, vibrant socialist union.

Through unions we can bring some relief to farm workers, but the farm bosses will not change unless workers join trade unions in their hundreds of thousands. At that point the power will start to shift, and we will be in a position to negotiate with the big capitalists, but we are not there yet. Even today when I meet with CSAAWU comrades, we will still often discuss the 2013 strike. This was a strike over wages, and it changed the way the farm owners treat farm workers. Before the strike, farm workers earned very little money; ZAR 69 per day (which is equivalent to around EUR 3.37 in early 2024), and not more than ZAR 300 a week. The workers’ demand in the strike was that they be paid ZAR 150 per day. This was a rebellion against the conditions they live and work in, and it was the first time in the history of the South African agricultural sector that farm workers rose up. The workers managed to win a 52 percent wage increase, which was a massive success. Typically, when we as a trade union bargain on behalf of workers, we will usually only achieve maybe a five to seven percent increase.

But the farm workers also paid a high price. The government sent police to break the strike, and it was the highest number of police and private security sent in in South Africa’s history. Three of our fellow farm workers were killed, and hundreds of people were jailed, some for up to two years.

How can you grow the power of the union?

We need to organize, this is key, especially as the level of organization in the South African agricultural sector is still very low. It’s also critical to think in terms of area; to be as effective as possible we need to organize the entire community and all the farms in one region. Take De Doorns for example. This is a small farming town known for producing table grapes, which was one of the centres of the 2013 strike. In De Doorns, we used to organize in terms of maybe two or three farms but overall there are probably 250 farms with a workforce of roughly 30,000 workers. We realized that it didn’t work to organize in the old way, and that instead we must target the entirety of De Doorns. By bringing the whole workforce of the table grape harvest into the union, we strengthen our position. It also means we don’t have to bargain on a loose basis with every single farmer separately. If we get the numbers right, we would then be entitled to a regional bargaining council with the table grapes association. So currently that is our mission, both in De Doorns and elsewhere.

How do you approach organizing the workers?

We take the union into the communities actively. For instance, we distribute our pamphlets at the points where the farm owners pick up workers in the morning, so that we can give them out directly and have a chance to speak with the workers too. We use the same approach for different kinds of workers, be they permanent workers, seasonal workers or contract workers, and then we hold meetings in the communities. Under Apartheid, union organizing had to happen underground, and we still draw on this long history of stealth organizing today. We are skilled at operating underground when the conditions don’t allow us to work openly.

Over the last few years, it has become increasingly clear that any intervention needs to organize workers along the entire supply chain to stand united against injustice.

Creating solidarity across different groups is important. We want to build alliances between farm workers, small-scale food producers, rural women, and youth leaders, and empower them to participate in political discussions about the transformation of land distribution and agricultural production in South Africa. In this way, we will also work to prevent social conflict from arising and escalating, by ensuring that people are heard, and that their interests are not advanced at odds with each other.

What are the main challenges you face when organizing farm workers?

Over the last few years, it has become increasingly clear that any intervention needs to organize workers along the entire supply chain to stand united against injustice. This means expanding the reach of the union to go beyond organizing mainly among more permanent and seasonal farm workers at bottling plants and wine cellars. We also need to organise workers in other agricultural sectors, such as on citrus plantations and on grain farms, but also in other parts of South Africa too. It is important that we continue our journey to expand CSAAWU’s presence.

The strategic decision to organize along the supply chain in the wine industry and expand into new regions and sectors has been made on the basis of going where the need is greatest. Expanding our activities will build the collective resilience of farm workers in South Africa to protect and secure their rights as workers and human beings.

How do the farm owners react to your efforts?

The bosses are fighting back, and they have ways of showing that workers will pay a high price for their struggle. As most farm workers must also live on the farms on which they work, farm owners have a lot of leverage in terms of the control they have over living conditions. They can increase prices for electricity, housing and water, remove transport provision, and stop workers receiving visitors on the farms. Farm owners have the power to make life extremely difficult for workers. That is why we must learn from our history how best to fight this enemy. We must be prepared, and we cannot think our opponents will allow the union to do as it pleases.

How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect the farm workers?

While many people in South Africa were able to work from home during the worst peak of COVID-19, medical workers, farm workers and other workers along the food supply chain were classified as essential workers. This meant they had to continue to go to work and to produce and harvest the food that the world needed to survive. There were several factors which made this system particularly difficult for essential workers. For those who were parents of school-age children, they had to navigate the fact that their children were now expected to stay at home and learn online with the support of parents or caregivers. Most farm and food supply chain workers have little formal education, and many have no access to computers, smartphones or indeed the internet. The impossibility of impoverished farm workers helping provide education for their children while also working is obvious. Today it is still unclear how these children will catch up on the nearly two lost years of education.

In the workplace itself, COVID-19 regulations and restrictions often bore little relation to farm workers’ reality. Workers would report issues like: “How could we wash our hands regularly when there is no water in the vineyards?” These safety measures only applied for those with resources and easy access to services. How could farm workers practise social distancing if the only transport taking them to town and the shops on a Saturday was the farmers’ truck, with everyone on board packed like sardines? Or when they live in small shacks and overcrowded farmhouses?

A lot of our problems as a trade union arise out of weakness and a lack of ability to implement the law. Our country actually has a progressive constitution and also progressive laws, but they are not enforced.

It was people-to-people solidarity that assisted farm workers the most during this time of need. As CSAAWU, together with our partners, we mobilized a community that helped us set up soup kitchens, distribute items like masks and food parcels, and check in on the sick and the far-flung farms. If ever CSAAWU acted on its resolution of social movement unionism, it was during the COVID-19 period. We also developed strategies to assist us in crossing the digital divide, including teaching shop stewards how to use Zoom, WhatsApp groups and other ways to stay connected

What are the main challenges that you face as a trade union?

In South Africa, the ANC-led government is very tight with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). This closeness between the government and the trade union federation is a big problem. From my perspective, the COSATU lost its credibility and respect long ago. Our unions are just stagnating and membership declines, which means unions do not grow. COSATU urgently needs to break this alliance with the government and become independent.

Organizing and building a voice for farm workers has remained a challenge in South Africa. Presently, a large number of very small, localized unions exist in the agricultural sector. However, these remain concentrated in particular regions, for instance the Western Cape has the largest number of organized farm workers. Despite these area-specific initiatives, union density amongst farm workers in the country more broadly remains low. Another challenge is the high level of unemployment in our country, which of course means lower union participation.

Almost half of our population is unemployed. If this was the case in any European country they would declare a state of national disaster, but not in South Africa. The government is not prepared to take any decisive actions to implement policies that deal with unemployment. It’s a conservative government; they don’t want to take any steps that might upset Europe or the United States or any other imperialist country.

Finally, a lot of our problems as a trade union arise out of weakness and a lack of ability to implement the law. Our country actually has a progressive constitution and also progressive laws, but they are not enforced. Outside of the government, it is also the responsibility of the union to enforce the law. Without strength and unity amongst the workers, employers will ignore the law if it benefits them. There are so many laws in this country that are just being ignored because the people are not mobilized.

How do you foster international solidarity?

Solidarity is the foundation of any struggle. If you don’t agree with the concept of solidarity, you don’t belong in trade unions. A lot of South African wines get exported overseas to the United States, Europe and elsewhere. This international supply chain makes international solidarity fundamental, and we want to strengthen our solidarity along the entire wine supply chain. I want to mention one tool that we have developed together with the global grassroots network of workers called TIE (Transnationals Information Exchange) and the German trade union Ver.di, along with support from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

It is absolutely necessary that we build solidarity with comrades in other countries in the Global South. It is a must.

In collaboration we have set up an international committees, which holds virtual meetings at which shop stewards and trade unionists from South Africa and Germany can discuss practical issues and ways to improve working and living conditions. We also discuss these issues with the farm owners on several farms. This international committee enables us to address workers’ problems directly with bosses. In our case, the external pressure from comrades in Germany is important because it can break the perceived invincibility of the white farmers in South Africa.

In short, we use these committees to negotiate. In a little bit more than a year we have managed to achieve great things at a farm in the Western Cape. We have brought in crèches, created a fund to support workers, arranged transport to hospitals, and transport to town. Workers have also been able to protect their wages. We need to replicate these committees on an even larger scale, with trade unions from Germany, Scandinavian countries, the United States — from all countries where South African wine is sold. If we are able to say, “all the trade unions along a certain supply chain are organized together”, then we will have teeth. We need to do things practically.

What about South-South solidarity?

It is absolutely necessary that we build solidarity with comrades in other countries in the Global South. It is a must. We work together with around 45 rural labour unions in Brazil that are organized in the Orange Juice Network (Rede Suco de Laranja). We have learnt important tools from them, for example the implementation of so-called health mappings, in which the farm workers record which health problems they all share. This creates a shared awareness of the ways in which their labour has directly impacted their health. We are also working with our comrades in Brazil to further develop organizing tools.

This article is part of the joint Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and Alameda dossier Seeds of Sovereignty: Contesting the Politics of Food.