By Wendell Roelf
DE DOORNS, South Africa (Reuters) - South African police fired rubber bullets to disperse hundreds of striking farm workers in the grape-growing Western Cape on Wednesday, the first clashes of a year that looked set to be dominated by fractious labor relations.
On the main highway through the region 100 km (60 miles) east of Cape Town, strikers set up barricades of burning tires and pelted passing vehicles with stones, according to a Reuters reporter.
Scores of riot police backed by at least one armored vehicle responded with volleys of rubber bullets to keep the protesters from the roadside.
Africa's largest economy saw waves of labor unrest last year that began in the platinum mining industry and swept through the trucking and agriculture sectors.
The unrest, including the police killing of 34 miners at Lonmin's Marikana platinum mine in August, tarnished South Africa's reputation among overseas investors and led to downgrades of its sovereign debt.
With the gold and coal mines - which employ more than 250,000 people - due to open two-yearly industry-wide wage talks in the next few months, analysts expect labor relations to cast a shadow over the economy, which is expected to eke out growth of 3 percent this year.
The government says South Africa needs annual growth of 7 percent to bring down unemployment of around 25 percent.
"There is no doubt that, when determining the agenda for this year, labor relations should be written in bold," Business Day, South's Africa's leading business daily, said in an editorial.
The farm workers strike in the Western Cape, home to South Africa's multi-billion-dollar wine industry, follows a similar walkout in December in which warehouses were set on fire and at least two workers died in clashes with police.
The farm workers, many of them black seasonal hires employed to pick and pack fruit on farms that are mainly owned by the white minority, want their minimum daily wage of 69 rand ($8) more than doubled to 150 rand.
"We are struggling. It is very difficult to survive on 69 rand 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, told Reuters he had worked on the farms since the 1970s when he received 45 rand a day.
"Now we get 65 rand. What is that? We want 150 rand. 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.
(Reporting by Wendell Roelf; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Ed Cropley)