One dead in S.Africa farmworker unrest

South African police said one person was killed and five others hurt as protests by farm workers demanding higher pay descended into sporadic violence Wednesday.

"We can confirm the death of a 28-year-old man in Wolseley and five others wounded," Constable Lybey Swartz of local police told AFP.

The circumstances of the death are still being investigated, she said.

The fatality came as violence flared across South Africa's agricultural heartland in the Western Cape, sparking calls for the military to be deployed.

At various locations police used rubber bullets and stun grenades to disperse protestors.

Shops were ransacked, fields were burned, vehicles were set alight, rocks were hurled and the main road between Johannesburg and Cape Town was blocked.

Several thousand farm workers have been on strike for more than a week, calling for their salary to be doubled to 150 rand (14 euros, $11) a day.

At Ceres, the main town in the country's picturesque fruit-growing region, police reported events had escalated markedly from previous days.

"There is violence, the people are striking, the riots are becoming bigger and bigger," said officer Nicollene Dyantjie.

Regional premier and opposition leader Helen Zille called for the ANC government to deploy the South African National Defence Force and demanded President Jacob Zuma intervene.

More than fifty people have been killed in labour unrest in South Africa in recent months, with the mining sector particularly affected.

The prospect of those deadly strikes taking hold in the agriculture sector has policymakers and businesses worried.

Chastened by allegations of mismanagement of previous crises, South Africa's government on Wednesday attempted to cool the situation, backing striking farmworkers' pay demands.

Describing current salaries as "not enough" the agriculture ministry gathered a top government official to discuss raising the minimum wage for the sector.

"They don't have decent living conditions, they don't have decent water to drink, it's a very basic problem," said Palesa Mokomela, spokeswoman for the ministry of agriculture.

But officials cautioned the move would take time.

"Even if there was going to be an agreement to change the sectoral determinations, it is not something that is done overnight," said Musa Zondi, a spokesman for the ministry of labour.

Meanwhile there are warnings of "severe" consequences for the country's agricultural sector.

If the unrest continues it would have "a direct negative impact on food security, employment and trade," agricultural business group Agri SA said.

Head of the organisation Johannes Moeller said the unrest was not just about wages. He said South Africa's powerful unions competing to get a foothold in the sector and other actors mobilising those not directly affected for political gain.