JOHANNESBURG – Mine unrest spread in South Africa as police and security guards fired rubber bullets and tear gas Monday at sacked gold miners attacking former colleagues trying to get to work, injuring four miners, according to the owner of the mine.
The mine's business associates previously involved relatives of Nelson Mandela and President Jacob Zuma and was the same place where firebrand politician Julius Malema, an avowed enemy of Zuma, last week pledged to make the nation's mines ungovernable.
Cabinet ministers sought to reassure investors Monday even as Gold Fields International spokesman Sven Lunsche said some 12,000 of the company's workers "continue to engage in an unlawful and unprotected strike" that began Wednesday.
The mine unrest reached a bloody climax on Aug. 16 when police shot 112 striking workers, killing 34 of them, at a platinum mine at Marikana, northwest of Johannesburg. The state violence was reminiscent of apartheid days and has damaged the government's image. Government officials held a press conference to try to control the fallout.
"The tragic incident at Marikana is not a reflection of the business environment in South Africa," Minister of State in the presidency Collins Chabane told the Foreign Correspondents' Association of Southern Africa on Monday. "Government remains in control of the situation and law and order continues to prevail. The country continues to fully support direct investment and appropriate incentives and the legislative framework is in place to give confidence and predictability to investment decisions and security of tenure."
In the violence at the gold mine, miners dismissed after a wildcat strike in June joined miners who lost their jobs two years ago to try to stop miners and managers from reaching the gold mine formerly managed by Aurora, said Neil Froneman, CEO of Gold One International. Police were called to disperse them and, as they arrived, the protesting miners stoned a vehicle carrying people to work.
"Our security had to intervene, they used rubber bullets and police used rubber bullets and tear gas," Froneman told The Associated Press. "Four people were slightly wounded and all have been released from hospital."
But police spokeswoman Pinky Tsinyane said one of those wounded was in critical condition. The different versions could not immediately be reconciled. Tsinyane said four people have been arrested for public violence.
Aurora was bought two years ago by a group including Zuma's nephew and a grandson of anti-apartheid-icon Nelson Mandela. The two allegedly never paid for the mine but stripped it of most assets and now are being sued by liquidators. They have failed to honor court orders that they pay tens of thousands of dollars to miners thrown out of work.
Legislator James Lorimer of the opposition Democratic Alliance blamed the latest violence on the rabble-rousing of Malema, an expelled youth leader of the ruling African National Congress who has been using the unrest in a vendetta to oust Zuma from power. Malema has told strikers that Zuma and other ANC leaders own shares in mines, alleging that it conflicts with workers' interests. He has called for Zuma to resign over the police killings.
Malema, who has called for the nationalization of South Africa's mines, went to the Aurora mine last week and told miners they must fight for their economic freedom and make South Africa's mines ungovernable. On Monday he sent a message on Twitter saying he would address striking workers at a Gold Fields mine. "Mining Revolution goes on and on and on," he wrote.
Lunsche said the strike involved an internal dispute between local branch leaders and members of the National Union of Mineworkers, the country's largest union.
The violence that led to the police shootings at London-registered Lonmin PLC, and that at Gold One International, was at least partially rooted in rivalry between upstart unions that have stolen thousands of members from the National Union of Mineworkers,.
Like the ANC, the politically connected NUM is accused by rank-and-file workers of cozying up to management, being more concerned with business than the needs of underground workers, and losing focus by spearheading Zuma's bid for re-election as ANC president at a conference in December.