Cape Town - The continuation on Wednesday of the strike by farmworkers in the Western Cape, home to South Africa's multi-billion-rand wine industry, have stoked fears of another year of troubled labour relations.
The strike over higher wages was suspended last year following an undertaking that negotiations would continue between workers' representatives and individual farmers, but this proved unsuccessful.
Workers are seeking a doubling of wages to R150 a day and a coherent land reform programme.
Wednesday's violent strike action followed a similar walk-out in December in which warehouses were set on fire and at least two workers died in clashes with police, this despite a call by the Food and Allied Workers' Union (Fawu) for peaceful protests.
"Fawu calls on the Western Cape farmworkers to engage in peaceful strike actions and desist from engaging in violence, yet to remain militant in the course of protest, picketing and other actions," Fawu general secretary Katishi Masemola told Sapa on Wednesday morning.
Reuters reports that the police fired rubber bullets and stun grenades at hundreds of striking farm workers who blocked a highway into De Doorns. It was the first clashes of a year likely to be marked by fractious labour relations.
Last year, the South African economy was plagued by a wave of labour unrest that started in the platinum mining industry and swept through the trucking and agriculture sectors.
Police killed 34 miners at Lonmin's Marikana platinum mine during some of the worst unrest in August last year, tarnishing the country's reputation among overseas investors and prompting downgrades of its sovereign debt ratings.
With gold and coal mines employing more than 250 000 people due to begin industry-wide wage talks in coming months, analysts expect labour relations to cast a shadow over an economy forecast to grow by around 3% this year.
The government says South Africa needs annual growth of 7% to bring down unemployment of around 25%.
On Wednesday, the strikers piled burning tyres across the main highway through the town of De Doorns, a Reuters reporter on the scene said.
Sapa reports that protesters overturned and set fire to a journalist's car. The car, which belonged to an employee of Independent Newspapers, was destroyed during a clash with police. No one was injured.
According to Reuters, quoting an emergency worker, four people were hospitalised for minor injuries from rubber bullets as police dispersed the crowd.
"I can confirm that 41 people have been arrested but that number could rise," said police spokesperson Andre Traut.
The strikers also set bushes on fire and torched a bulldozer and a caravan, sending smoke billowing into the sky.
After the crowd had scattered, police removed large rocks that protesters had used to block the road. Empty rubber bullet cartridges littered the ground near the highway. Food on the table
The South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Sacci) meanwhile said labour unrest could knock slowly recovering business confidence, which rose in the last month of 2012 but was still lower than the previous year.
"The promise of improvements in confidence will only realise if the threats of continued labour protest activity ... are dealt with decisively," Sacci said.
The workers, many of them seasonal hires employed to pick and pack fruit on white-owned farms, want a minimum daily wage of R150, up from R69.
"We are struggling. It is very difficult to survive on R69 a day. School is starting and we don't have money for school clothes," said Lena Lottering, 35, a mother of three.
"There is no food on the table and my children often go to bed hungry."
Another worker, Aubrey Louw, 47, said he had worked on the farms since the 1970s when he received R45 a day.
"Now we get R65. What is that? We want R150. Farmers would rather employ security guards and buy new cars than pay us," he said.
When talks to avert the strike broke down this week, union leaders blamed the intransigence of the white farmers, highlighting the racial and wealth divisions that continue to rankle 18 years after the end of apartheid.
"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.
- Reuters, Sapa