Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas that sent men, women and children scattering as officers herded them into their shacks, in a crackdown on striking miners.
The show of force followed a government vow to halt illegal protests and disarm strikers who have stopped work at one gold and six platinum mines, destabilising the country's critical mining sector.
It was the first police action since officers killed 34 miners on August 16 in state violence that shocked the nation.
It was not known how many people were hurt in the violence at the London-registered Lonmin platinum mine. Six women were hit by rubber bullets and one had to be taken to hospital, Anglican bishop Jo Seoka, president of the Council of Churches, reported in a furious statement.
He warned of serious repercussions and said he was holding the government and Lonmin responsible. "Government must be crazy believing that what to me resembles an apartheid-era crackdown can succeed," Bishop Seoka said. "We must not forget that such crackdowns in the past led to more resistance and government can ill afford to be seen as the enemy of the people that they put in power."
Bishop Seoka, who also is head of the Bench Marks Foundation that put out a damning report last month about miners' living and working conditions, said the strike had just cause and was not the work of instigators, as some have suggested. "The problem will not go away even if this crackdown wins the present battle," he said. "The 'war' between workers who do not receive just remuneration against the enormous amounts of money paid to executives will continue to fester."
Bishop Seoka said the government was destroying four weeks of mediation in which he has taken part.
Before dawn on Saturday, about 500 officers raided hostels at the Lonmin platinum mine and confiscated home-made machetes, spears, knives and clubs, said police spokesman Brigadier Thulani Ngubane. Six men were arrested for illegal possession of arms and drugs in those raids, he said. Another six were arrested later. Officers first fired tear gas at hundreds of miners who refused to disarm at the hill of granite boulders that has become the strikers' headquarters.
Police then moved into the Wonderkop shanty town where residents set up barricades of burning tyres to try to block the officers from their neighbourhood. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at people who disobeyed orders baying over a bull horn for them to stay in their homes, tin shacks without electricity or running water divided by dirt tracks. An army helicopter flew in to help herd people indoors.
Strikes are illegal in South Africa unless approved by the government labour conciliation board, which only allows stoppages once workers prove they have tried and failed to negotiate with an employer and after the conciliation board itself also tries to resolve the issue.