DE DOORNS, South Africa: South African police fired rubber bullets and teargas to disperse striking farm workers in the western fruit belt Wednesday amid fears that months of deadly wildcat action will flare up again.
Police turned to the bullets and tearsmoke to break up the protests as around 3,500 people turned violent in De Doorns, a top grape-growing area outside Cape Town, an AFP correspondent reported.
The unrest flared up across the Western Cape province Wednesday, weeks after farm strikes left two dead and vineyards destroyed.
"So far a total of 44 people have been arrested on charges of intimidation and public violence," said police spokesman Andre Traut.
An officer had been injured, he said. An AFP correspondent saw the man, who was hit by a rock, with a cut on his forehead.
The industrial action follows violent work stoppages in the mining industry late last year which left over 50 people dead, including 34 shot dead by police in one day in scenes reminiscent of apartheid police brutality.
Workers on fruit farms have downed tools, demanding a wage hike from 69 rand ($8) to 150 rand ($17.50) a day.
The protesters had also occupied part of the country's major N1 highway, forcing dozens of police officers and two armoured vehicles to move down the road, pushing the protesters back from the town entrance.
Skirmishes broke out with protesters throwing rocks, moving away and regrouping.
A police helicopter circled the air as gun smoke clouded view and rubber bullet casings littered the ground.
Meanwhile Eyewitness News reported that potestors in Grabouw, around an hour's drive away, threw rocks and looted shops.
In Wolseley 60 kilometres (37 miles) from De Doorns police also kept protestors from entering the town, but later removed the barriers as the numbers dwindled.
Some protesters carried signs 'Agri SA julle is apartheid boere', slamming the main commercial agriculture body as being farmers of apartheid, and '150.00' to push for wage demands.
About 40 percent of labourers in the area went to work, said James Cornelius, the regional secretary of the Bawsi Agricultural Workers Union of South Africa (Bawusa), deploring the low striker turnout.
"There will be less people going to work tomorrow (Thursday)," he said.
Wage negotiations have been complicated because few farm workers are unionised, and talks between individual farms and employees collapsed.
Farmers worry the violence will damage production of especially table grapes and stone fruit, though the potential effect on the wine industry is still uncertain.
Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant said earlier law dictates the basic wage may only be reviewed one year after it was put in place. The current level dates to March last year, meaning the next review can only be two months from now.
But Cornelius vowed stoppages would continue until farmers bow to their wage demands. Talks with farmers continued, he said.
"I think they don't have a choice because we will strike until we get the 150", he said, adding that organisers would evaluate their action on Sunday.
Two people died during last year's unrest which started in De Doorns. Police fired rubber bullets at protesters, who torched vineyards, vehicles and liquor stores. Damage amounted to 150 million rand.
The province provides 55-60 percent of the country's agricultural exports and employs nearly 200,000 permanent and seasonal workers.