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Commission to probe abuse claims

Jan 16 2013 17:02 Sapa
farmworkers

Striking farmworkers hurl rocks at police during protests in De Doorns in the Western Cape. (Sapa)

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Cape Town - Claims of inhumane treatment of striking Western Cape farmworkers will be investigated, the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) said on Wednesday.

Spokesman Isaac Mangena said the commission had received numerous complaints of human rights abuses in the Boland district involving farmworkers and rural dwellers, including women and children.

"The SAHRC is monitoring the protests and has to date received complaints against the SA Police Service, the farmers and the private security companies," he said.

These complaints included allegations of police colluding with farmers, use of excessive force against workers, police brutality, unfair labour practices, exploitative living and working conditions, and racist and inhumane treatment of workers and rural dwellers.

"We call for an urgent resolution of the wage disputes between the farmers and the farmworkers, and appeal to all parties to act within the confines of the law."

Mangena said the SAHRC would investigate human rights abuses within its mandate and refer other complaints to the appropriate institutions.

Farmworkers went on strike last year to demand their daily wage be increased from R69 to R150, and that a coherent land reform programme be implemented.

The strike was suspended in December, but resumed on Wednesday last week in various towns in the province.

On Wednesday, the Mawubuye Land Rights Forum asked the SAHRC to investigate the shooting of rubber bullets by police earlier in the day, which left some people injured.

The forum's Denia Jansen said Robertson's police captain had apparently agreed to allow farmworkers to peacefully protest in Nkqubela in the morning, with more than 800 workers taking part.

"Shortly into the protest, other police officers entered the road with guns and opened fire [with rubber bullets] on the protesters, forcing them back into their communities," she said.

Captain Marshall Klaasten, Robertson's station commander, denied this version of events, saying no permission was ever given.

He said protesters blocked a busy traffic circle in town and he asked them to move so cars could pass through.

The group refused and he had a discussion with his peers, eventually returning to tell them they could not protest there.

"The negotiations lasted from 6:20 to 10:05. They agreed to walk back to the township. When they entered, they started throwing stones at police from their houses," Klaasten said, adding that many members of the public were also there.

He said rubber bullets were fired in retaliation, to protect civilians.

Four members of the Mawubuye Land Rights Forum were arrested in Barrydale on Tuesday on a charge of public violence, including chairman Henry Michaels.

They appeared in the Swellendam Magistrate's Court on Wednesday, and were apparently told they would be kept in custody until Monday, for a formal bail application.

The forum and the Trust for Community Outreach and Education condemned the postponement, saying they would ask police why no immediate bail was granted.

Western Cape police spokesman Frederick van Wyk said there were sporadic incidents involving striking workers in some areas on Wednesday, and that police would act where appropriate.

He said 26 people were arrested overnight in connection with protests in Villiersdorp, Kraaifontein, and Ladysmith.

In Villiersdorp, 18 people were arrested for public violence and would appear in the Caledon Magistrate's Court later on Wednesday.In the same area, four men were charged with possession of suspected stolen goods. They would appear in court on Thursday. 

Three men were arrested in Kraaifontein for public violence and would appear in the Blue Downs Magistrate's Court on Thursday. A man would appear in the Ladysmith Magistrate's Court the same day for malicious damage to property.

At least 180 people had been arrested in connection with the protests since Wednesday last week.

The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) called for an end to the violence by both police and workers, after a man was killed by a rubber bullet in De Doorns on Monday.

"We urge all stakeholders concerned to find a middle ground so that normality may ensue and the people of De Doorns [can] continue with their peaceful lives," IFP labour spokesman Albert Mncwango said.

"We call upon government to step in before another tragedy occurs. Our country does not need another Marikana." 

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