RUSTENBURG, South Africa – South African police halted a peaceful march by striking miners without violence Sunday, a day after firing rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse illegal protesters.
Officers barricaded a main road into Rustenburg, northwest of Johannesburg, and persuaded some 500 miners that their march was illegal and that they should go home.
Sunday's protesters from Anglo American Platinum mines wanted to march to Rustenburg police station to demand an end to the violence against strikers. Some carried sticks but there were none of the machetes, spears and clubs that have marked previous protests for higher wages.
On Saturday police raided hostels at Lonmin platinum mine and collected homemade weapons. They fired rubber bullets and tear gas to force people into their homes. It was the first police action since officers killed 34 miners on Aug. 16 in state violence that shocked the nation.
The strikes have shut down one gold and six platinum mines, destabilizing the country's critical mining sector.
Saturday's show of force follows a government vow to halt illegal protests and disarm strikers.
The police crackdown on striking miners was condemned by the South African Council of Churches.
"Government must be crazy believing that what to me resembles an apartheid-era crackdown can succeed," said Anglican Bishop Jo Seoka, president of the Council of Churches. "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."
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."
Seoka said the government was destroying four weeks of mediation in which he has taken part. He called for minimal policing of strikers.
A negotiated resolution appears distant at the Lonmin platinum strike that is now in its fifth week. Workers rejected the company's offer to boost the entry-level monthly salary by 900 rand ($112.50) to about R5,500 ($688) with commensurate increases for higher paid workers. That falls far short of the strikers' demands for a minimum monthly wage of R12,500 ($1,560).
The strikers have said they would rather see Lonmin shut down the mine than accept a lower offer.
Sunday Lonmin stated the demand for 12,500 rand is "unaffordable and would result in a trade-off between wages and jobs."
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan said Friday that the strikes are "extremely damaging" to the economy.
"It undermines confidence in the South African economy and, if we undermine confidence, we undermine investment," he said.
The Lonmin strike has been marked by violence. On Aug. 10 the strike began at Lonmin, the world's third largest platinum mine and it is rooted in the rivalry between the NUM and a breakaway union. Strikers accuse the NUM of being coopted by mine management and being too involved in business and politics to pay attention to basic shop-floor needs of its members.
Ten people were killed in the strike's first week, including two police officers hacked to death by strikers, two mine security guards burned alive in their vehicles and six shop stewards of the dominant National Union of Mineworkers.
Then on Aug. 16 police opened fire on protesting strikers, killing 34 and injuring more than 70. The shootings, shown widely on television, have provoked anger and widespread criticism of the police.
Strikes are illegal in South Africa unless approved by the government labor 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.
Faul reported from Johannesburg.