Yet black miners long have faced low salaries and poor living conditions in shantytowns often beset by alcoholism, drug abuse and prostitution.
The same goes for salaries of day laborers working in agriculture in South Africa, another major part of the nation's economy. The minimum wage for a farm worker is just about 70 rand ($8) and the top wage typically earned is just slightly more than that. Over the last few days, workers have said they want the minimum wage to rise to 150 rand ($17) a day.
Wednesday, their protest turned violent as workers set fire to some farms, overturned a police truck and confronted officers in riot gear in the country's Western Cape. The police fired tear gas to drive away protesters, as the sounds of gunshots could be heard in local television footage.
One man was killed in the violence "as a result of police action," police Lt. Col. Andre Traut told the South African Press Association. At least five other people were injured.
Traut declined to discuss casualty figures when reached Wednesday night by The Associated Press.
"Police officers are deployed to affected areas to maintain law and order," he said.
Government and union officials later said that a deal had been put before farm laborers, but it was unclear if they accepted. Most of the laborers work in vineyards supporting South Africa's wine industry, the world's eighth largest overall producer.
Unrest also has continued at the mines. Police said they arrested 37 mineworkers Tuesday near an Xstrata PLC mine after miners threw stones at cars and burned tires. Authorities also said they found the body Tuesday of a miner from Mozambique killed near the Anglo American Platinum mines.
At Anglo American Platinum, also known as Amplats, workers began their strike more than eight weeks ago. The company fired 12,000 workers and then reinstated them, though the miners still have not returned to work. In a statement Wednesday to investors, the world's largest platinum producer said its year-end earnings "will decrease by more than 20 percent" compared to last year. It blamed the strikes in part for the losses.