South African President Jacob Zuma on Wednesday told striking miners the nation's leaders are mourning with them but he refused their request that he visit the dusty site where police killed 34 strikers and wounded another 78. The killings have caused outrage and eroded support for the party that brought down apartheid and has governed for the nearly two decades.
Zuma came to this mining town northwest of Johannesburg as demands for higher wages spread to at least two other mines, raising fears the instability could inflame protests at more of the South African mines that provide 75 percent of the world's platinum. South Africa's miningweb.com Web site calls it "a possibly ominous development" that could have a "devastating effect on the South African economy" since metals and minerals sales provide such a large part of the country's export income.
"What has happened is very painful. We cry with you, all of us," Zuma told miners in his native Zulu.
There was none of the usual applause or ululating that normally greets Zuma. The hundreds of miners and community members were near-sullen.
When Zuma told them he had come to Lonmin PLC mine in Marikana the day after last Thursday's killings, some people shouted "You're lying!"
Zuma had rushed back home from a regional summit in neighboring Mozambique and flown straight to the area, but he visited only with wounded miners. Those who have continued to strike have been angry that he did not come to address them until a week later.
Strike leaders asked Zuma to visit the nearby site of the shootings, but he failed to visit the dusty bush site that miners are sanctifying like the scene of a martyr's death. When the presidential cavalcade left, workers followed its clouds of dust, expecting Zuma to stop at the site where hundreds more miners had gathered. But the convoy just drove past.
Strikers also asked Zuma if the 256 strikers arrested on a range of charges from public violence to murder could be released temporarily from jail to attend memorial services programmed Thursday. Zuma did not respond. And they told their president that they were striking, and would continue to do so, because they want to be paid a monthly minimum wage of R12,500 ($1,560). Zuma did not respond. The current minimum for a mine worker is R5,500 ($690).
Platinum mines, already hit by low world prices and flagging demand, especially from vehicle makers who use the metal to control carbon emissions, may not be in a financial position to seriously consider the demands, some industry analysts say.
The shutdown at London-registered Lonmin PLC mine at Marikana where the Aug. 16 shootings occurred has cost hundreds of millions of dollars in share value. The company said Tuesday it may have to renegotiate with bankers debt payments that are due on Sept. 30. Lonmin also said it will be unable to meet its annual target production of 750,000 ounces.
Any slowdown in South Africa's platinum production will have little short-term effect internationally, since the platinum industry has allowed the world market to build up a surplus estimated to last between 18 months and two years, according to mining industry specialist Jan de Lange of Sake24.com, an Afrikaans-language business news Web site.
Thandi Modise, premier of North West Province where the platinum mines are located, warned Tuesday that the protests may spread if authorities don't deal with the massive and growing inequality gap that has many South Africans feeling they have not benefited in the 18 years since black majority rule replaced a racist white minority government. South Africa has become the richest nation in Africa but still has more than 25 percent unemployment -- nearer 50 percent among young people. Protests against shortages of housing, electricity and running water and poor education and health services are an almost daily affair.
That poverty is contrasted by the ostentatious lifestyles of a small elite of blacks who have become multimillionaires, often through corruption related to government tenders.
Zuma came to the troubled Lonmin mine a day after striking miners here heckled a committee of government ministers sent to help the grieving community with identification of bodies of slain miners, burial arrangements and bereavement counseling.
"If Jacob Zuma doesn't want to come here, how does he expect to gain our votes?" one man shouted at the Cabinet ministers.
"Don't you know if the miners here don't vote for you, the ANC is going down?" another piped up, referring to the ruling African National Congress party.
Defense Minister Nosiviwe Noluthando Mapisa-Nqakula responded with the first official apology for the police killings.
"As a representative of the government, I apologize," the minister said. "I am begging, I beg and I apologize, may you find forgiveness in your hearts."
South Africa is the world's leading producer of platinum and ferrochrome, the fourth-largest producer of iron ore and is among the top 10 gold producers in the world.