By Wendell Roelf
DE DOORNS, South Africa (Reuters) - South African police fired rubber bullets and stun grenades at hundreds of 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 on the scene said.
Four people were hospitalized for minor injuries from rubber bullets as police dispersed the crowd, an emergency worker said.
"I can confirm that 41 people have been arrested but that number could rise," said police spokesman Andre Traut.
The strikers 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.
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.
Police killed 34 miners at Lonmin's Marikana platinum mine during some of the worst unrest in August, tarnishing South Africa'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 labor relations to cast a shadow over an economy forecast to grow by around 3 percent this year.
The government says South Africa needs annual growth of 7 percent to bring down unemployment of around 25 percent.
FOOD ON THE TABLE
The South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SACCI) said labor 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 realize if the threats of continued labor protest activity ... are dealt with decisively," SACCI said.
The strike by farm workers 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 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, said 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.
($1 = 8.5993 South African rand)
(Reporting by Wendell Roelf; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Ed Cropley and Tom Pfeiffer)