Stay away, Zimbabweans told

CAPE TOWN – South African farmworkers in De Doorns jeered and shouted obscenities this morning as they drove past a rugby field that has become the temporary home of nearly 2 500 Zimbabweans chased from the town's informal settlements.\r\n

The Zimbabweans, who are seasonal farm workers, spent last night on a rugby field, in a community hall and crowded into a large marquee after local farmworkers went on the rampage, tearing down homes and accusing the migrants of "stealing our jobs".

Police had to be called to the Stofland and Ekuphumleni informal settlements, where they fired rubber bullets and used stun grenades to disperse scores of angry locals who had ripped apart homes occupied by Zimbabweans.

Tensions flared in the small Hex River Valley town over the weekend, when local farmworkers drove about 70 Zimbabweans out of their homes.

They are claiming that farmers prefer to employ Zimbabweans, who they allege accept less money to work.

Braam Hanekom from the People Against Suffering, Suppression, Oppression and Poverty (Passop), an organisation that fights for the rights of foreign nationals, said a committee of 12 Zimbabwean representatives had been elected to meet the local farmers’ association.

Hanekom said the Zimbabwean farmworkers had refused to return to work until their safety – and proper labour conditions – were guaranteed.

"People are concerned about the safety issues of returning to work and there appears to be a lot of concern about some of the labour brokers and contractors," he said.

"For long-term reintegration, people want to know what their rights are," Hanekom said.

For local farmworkers, it was business as usual: they lined the streets of Stofland and Ekuphumeleni to be collected and driven to various farms.

Truckloads of workers cheered as they passed the sports grounds which are, for now, the displaced Zimbabweans’ home. Some yelled "Bly weg!" ("Stay away!")

Local farmworkers, Zimbabwean labourers, local government representatives and farmers are meeting this morning to discuss the crisis.

The meeting will be led by what local officials describe as an independent peace negotiator.

It’s not yet known who will serve as the negotiator.

De Doorns farmers say they do not pay Zimbabweans and South Africans different rates.

De Villiers Graaff, the chairman of the Hex Valley Table Grapes Association (HTA), an umbrella body for farmers in the area, said allegations about payment discrepancies should be investigated by the Labour Department.

"And any farmer or contractor (found guilty of charging different rates) must expect to face the full brunt of the law as far as that is concerned," he said.

Graaff said the HTA had assured the municipality that his organisation would offer its full support to reintegration efforts.

Tom Pedro, the deputy mayor of the Breede Municipality, said a number of people or organisations were being blamed for what had happened in De Doorns and that a mediator was best-placed to resolve tensions.

After meeting the town’s leaders and farming employers’ representatives yesterday, Western Cape Community Safety MEC Lennit Max said the situation in De Doorns was "very serious" and that every effort would be made to reintegrate Zimbabweans into the surrounding communities.

No violence was reported in any of De Doorns’ informal settlements last night.