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S.Africa farming heartland hit by looting

South African protesters looted shops and blockaded streets with burning tyres, police said on Friday, after a day of anger in the Western Cape’s farming heartland that led to 42 arrests.

“This morning we responded to acts of unrest in Swellendam where protesters looted shops and caused public disturbance,” said Lieutenant Colonel Andre Traut.

At least 42 people were arrested as protests appeared to spread beyond striking farm workers, who have been on the streets for more than a week demanding higher wages.

“The situation is still tense in several towns, the protesters are using burning tyres to block main roads. They are regrouping.”

Three police vehicles were torched during clashes, he added.

Unrest gripped the small fruit-growing towns of Swellendam, Ceres, Wolseley and De Doorns — not far from Cape Town — in unprecedented protests that have left one worker dead.

The protest in Swellendam were believed to have be driven by frustration with the lack of government services.

“We cannot exclude a link, but it’s not farm worker related at this stage,” said Traut.

Farm workers are demanding minimum daily wages be increased from 70 rand ($8) to 150 ($170) rand.

The government and unions have called on them to return to work, while a review of the minimum wage is carried out.

Their calls have been met with mixed results.

“Many areas have returned to work in response to the call by COSATU,” the Congress of South African Trade Unions said.

“There are however areas where workers are still protesting and COSATU will be communicating with them over the weekend to return as well.”

The labour grouping, the country’s largest, said workers would go back on strike on December 4 if no deal for a pay increase was reached.

Employers and workers will meet on Thursday to discuss the wage review, said Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant.

“I would like to urge all the parties to go into these talks with openness and willingness to bring to a close the recent events that have been threatening to engulf our country and put it on a dangerous course regarding food security,” she said.

The unrest started earlier this month in De Doorns, a grape farming town outside Cape Town, where vineyards were set alight.

On Wednesday, a 28-year-old man was shot and killed in nearby Wolseley and five others wounded during clashes with police, in scenes reminiscent of the recent mining unrest that has claimed more than 50 lives.

South Africa’s agricultural sector attracts migrant labour from impoverished corners of the country and neighbouring states, and the sector has been labelled as one of the most exploitative.

The agricultural trade association South Africa, Agri SA, has raised concern at the strike, urging “all parties work together to restore business confidence… and South Africa’s image as a reliable supplier of high quality products to international markets”.