South Africa police fire rubber bullets at farm worker protest

Wed Jan 9, 2013 1:25pm EST
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By Wendell Roelf

DE DOORNS, South Africa (Reuters) - South African police fired rubber bullets and stun grenades at striking farm workers who blocked a highway in the grape-growing Western Cape on Wednesday, the first clashes of a year likely to be marked by fractious labor relations.

The strikers had piled burning tires across the main highway through the town of De Doorns, 100 km (60 miles) east of Cape Town, to demand higher wages, a Reuters reporter said.

Police said they arrested 44 people and an emergency worker said four were taken to hospital with minor injuries from the rubber bullets.

The strikers set bushes on fire and torched a bulldozer and a caravan, sending smoke billowing above the picturesque valley, where fruit farm owners are bracing for more trouble.

The strike in the Western Cape, home to South Africa's multi-billion-dollar wine industry, follows a similar walk-out in December in which warehouses were set on fire and at least two workers died in clashes with police.

The workers, many of them black seasonal hires employed to pick and pack fruit on farms owned mainly by the white minority, want a minimum daily wage of 150 rand ($17.44), up from 69 rand.

"We have been met with naked racism and white arrogance," said union leader Nosey Pieterse, general secretary of the Bawsi Agricultural Workers Union of South Africa.

When talks to avert the strike broke down this week, union leaders blamed the intransigence of the white farmers, highlighting racial and wealth divisions that continue to rankle 18 years after the end of apartheid.   Continued...

Police fire on demonstrators during a strike by farm workers at De Doorns on the N1 highway, linking Cape Town and Johannesburg, January 9, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings