MARIKANA, South Africa – Hundreds of striking miners forced the closure Wednesday of four mines of Anglo American Platinum, the world's largest producer, as labor unrest spread in South Africa's biggest industry.
More than 60,000 miners were not working Wednesday though it is unclear how many support the strike to demand a monthly take-home pay of R12,500 (1,560) — and how many are frightened by intimidation and death threats if they report for duty.
The plight of miners living in tin shacks while they produce the raw materials for luxury goods under dangerous conditions has put a spotlight on the South African government's failure to meet basic needs like clean water and decent health care. It also has drawn attention to the widening gap between a small black elite that lives sumptuously while many South Africans worry where their next meal will come from.
Police said some 1,500 strikers blocked roads to the Amplats mine near Rustenburg, northwest of Johannesburg. Anglo American Platinum said it had taken the rest of its 19,000 staff to a safe place. It said it had shut four mines out of concern for its workers' safety.
Mine security guards fired tear gas Wednesday at striking gold miners who prevented the National Union of Mineworkers from holding a meeting and tried to block a goods train from leaving the west section of KDC mine, Gold Fields International spokesman Sven Lunsche said. Some of Gold Fields 15,000 workers want the politically connected NUM out of the mine, near Carletonville. Some 85 percent stayed away from work Wednesday, Lunsche said.
The trouble started Aug. 10 with a strike at London-registered Lonmin PLC gold mine, neighboring Amplats, where 45 people have been killed including 34 shot by police on Aug. 16. The most recent death is a body found Tuesday with machete wounds to the head, police said.
Miners feeling the pinch from a no-work, no-pay strike marched and danced around the mine as their protest entered its fifth week.
Lonmin said just 1.8 percent of its employees reported for work Wednesday.
Trade unions and government ministers on Wednesday accused firebrand politician Julius Malema of inciting the unrest.
Malema on Tuesday called for a nationwide mine strike, addressing thousands of striking Gold Fields miners.
"All the miners in South Africa are demanding 12,500 rand," said Malema. "You must now benefit from this gold you are mining. You want a piece of gold. You get 12,500 rand."
On Wednesday, Malema addressed about 100 suspended soldiers in Johannesburg, despite opposition from the defense minister.
Malema, who was thrown out of the ruling African National Congress for "sowing disunity" in April, strongly criticized President Jacob Zuma's government for not taking more action following the police shootings at the Lonmin mine that were the worst instance of state violence since apartheid ended in 1994.
"We only have ourselves, we only have our voices, we only have our minds to fight this barbaric regime under President Zuma, to fight this murderous regime under President Zuma," said Malema. "Our people cannot be killed. Thirty-four of them in less than 15 minutes and nothing happens in South Africa."
He railed at South Africa's polygamous president, suggesting he was too busy collecting wives to take care of the country's citizens.
Malema has played to the anger growing among poor South Africans amid a leadership vacuum in the aftermath of the police killings and used it to promote his agenda to get Zuma toppled at an ANC congress to elect leaders in December. If Zuma is re-elected, he is practically guaranteed another four years at the helm of Africa's richest nation.
The violent strikes are rooted in rivalry between a breakaway union and the dominant, ANC-allied National Union of Mineworkers, whom many miners accuse of cozying up to management and being too interested in business and politics to take care of shop-floor needs.
Malema also has attacked government leaders for owning shares in mines, including the Jacob Zuma Foundation that is dedicated to uplifting the poor, arguing it is a conflict of interest for those trying to resolve the problems of poorly paid miners.
A small black elite tied to the ANC has become millionaires off mines since apartheid ended in 1994. But the ANC has failed to keep its promise of a better life for the majority of the country's 48 million people who remain mired in poverty.
Millions live, as do many of the miners, in tin-shack shantytowns with no running water and no electricity.
Meldrum reported from Johannesburg