JOHANNESBURG – South African police fired stun grenades to disperse striking miners Friday, acting hours after President Jacob Zuma's government vowed to halt illegal protests and disarm strikers it fears are threatening the country's biggest industry.
It was the first time police have acted against protesting miners since they killed 34 strikers Aug. 16 at Lonmin platinum mine, outraging a nation still scarred from state violence in apartheid days. Friday's clash came as miners in the fifth week of a bitter strike at the Lonmin mine rejected a company wage offer way below their demand.
"The government will no longer tolerate illegal gatherings and brandishing of weapons in this way," Justice Minister Jeff Radebe told a news conference.
Within hours, police spokesman Brig. Thulani Ngubane said officers fired tear gas to disperse some 1,500 strikers outside an Xstrata Platinum mine. Previously they had allowed miners waving machetes, knives, spears and clubs to hold marches outside mines, demonstrations aimed at pressuring those inside to stop work.
Despite the police action, Xstrata said it has temporarily suspended operations at Kroondal mine "to ensure the safety and security of employees and assets" amid "rising tensions and protests." The mine employs 5,300 workers who apparently were being threatened by outside strikers from Lonmin, Ngubane said.
Strikers are calling for walkouts at mines across South Africa, raising fears for the future of the crucial industry.
Labor unrest that began Aug. 10 at Lonmin also has stopped work at four mines of Anglo American Platinum, the world's largest platinum producer, and KDC western section of Gold Fields, the fourth-largest bullion producer.
Lonmin said only 0.3 percent of its 28,000 workers reported for duty Friday, a new low. Anglo American claimed only a few hundred of its 19,000 workers at Rustenburg mines were striking. Gold Fields said about 85 percent of 12,500 workers stayed away.
It has not been clear how many workers are striking and how many are too afraid to go to work because of intimidation by the strikers.
Radebe said the government is intervening because the mining industry is central to the economy of Africa's richest nation. "The South African government has noted and is deeply concerned by the amount of violence, threats and intimidation that is currently taking place in our country," he said.
Radebe refused to say whether police will be allowed to use live ammunition, as they did on Aug. 16. Striking miners have been armed with machetes and spears, with many carrying only traditional walking sticks.
"The police are well acquainted with how to enforce public order," Radebe said.
On Friday morning, the strikers turned down Lonmin's offer of a 900 rand ($112.50) increase that would give entry-level workers a basic monthly salary of 5,500 rand ($688), their leaders said. Lonmin is the No. 3 platinum producer in the world.
Strikers complained that Thursday night's offer, the first presented by London-registered Lonmin PLC since workers shut down the world's third-largest platinum mine on Aug. 10, falls far below their demands for a minimum salary of 12,500 rand ($1,560).
"Lonmin can just shut down its mine if it doesn't want to give us what we want!" one defiant striker shouted.
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan said 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 told the news conference addressed by Radebe. "It's going to be extremely damaging to our economy in more ways than we understand at the moment."
Strikes are illegal unless approved by the government labor conciliation board, which only allows them 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.
The illegal strikes are rooted in rivalry between the National Union of Mineworkers, an ally of the governing African National Congress, and a breakaway union. Many miners accuse the dominant union of cozying up to management and being more interested in its business interests and politics than the shop-floor needs of its members.
NUM secretary general Frans Baleni told a news conference Friday that his union is "extremely worried about an explosion of violence." He supported the government clampdown, saying, "We cannot have a situation where lawlessness is the norm."
He added, "The working class struggle is being compromised by this killing."
But the unrest has come to symbolize the gulf between a small black and white elite who reap profits from South Africa's mines while most miners live in tin shacks without water or electricity. Baleni, for instance, recently gave himself a 40 percent raise, upping his annual salary to R1.2 million ($150,000).
"We don't have running water in our homes, but they use gallons of fresh water in their swimming pools," one strike leader shouted, to cheers from protesters Friday.
Zuma, meanwhile, has angered many with a statement that dominant unions and political parties have more rights than minorities. People called into talk radio stations Friday to ask if their president understands that minority rights are enshrined in the constitution.
Answering legislators' questions in Parliament on Thursday, Zuma defended the initial decision to exclude from negotiations the breakaway Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, whose supporters started the strike along with workers who do not want to be represented by any union.
"You have more rights because you're a majority; you have less rights because you're a minority. That's how democracy works," Zuma said, provoking a huge outcry from opposition legislators and callers questioning the president's understanding of democracy.