Farm worker protests turn violent in South Africa

South African police have fired rubber bullets and tear gas to repel hundreds of rock-throwing farm workers during a second day of strike violence in the normally calm and picturesque wine region.

Police and protesting farm workers fought running battles along the shuttered N1 motorway, the main route linking Cape Town and Johannesburg, amid workers' demands for a doubling of minimum wages to US$17.50 a day.

Protesters in De Doorns hurled stones at police armoured vehicles, prompting officers in riot gear to respond with a volley of rubber bullets and tear gas.

The strikers were dispersed but rapidly and repeatedly regathered, in a game of cat and mouse that has rocked South Africa's main wine and fruit producing region since flaring last year.

Eighteen people were arrested on Thursday, bringing the number of arrests to 62 this week.

Undeterred, protesters ripped down metal street signs and wire meshing to use as cover from the raining bullets as they advanced on police positions.

Empty bullet casings, stones and boulders were strewn over the area which lies less than two hours drive from Cape Town and is the country's biggest table grape growing region.

"There's running battles between police and the strikers. Shooting and stone throwing is the order of the day in the area," Nosey Pieterse, general secretary of the Bawsi Agricultural Workers' Union of South Africa (Bawusa), told AFP.

Protests took place in three towns in the Western Cape, which provides 55-60 per cent of the country's agricultural exports and employs nearly 200,000 permanent and seasonal workers.

The head of South African agricultural trade association Agri SA said the bulk of permanent workers were reporting for work.

"It's the seasonal workers who are striking," Johannes Moller said.

The workers in the province launched a fresh round of industrial action on Wednesday to press for the doubling of their wages.

This was after pay talks - under way since last November's farms unrest in the region killed two people - collapsed last week.

The renewed strike comes on the back of a run of labour troubles in South Africa, characterised by last year's deadly wildcat mining stay-aways, which killed more than 50 people.

-AFP

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