JOHANNESBURG – South Africa's government and striking miners hardened their stances Friday, with miners rejecting a Lonmin platinum mine wage offer far below their demand and President Jacob Zuma's government vowing to halt the miners' illegal protests.
The bitter, bloody Lonmin strike has taken the lives of 45 people and has spread to two other mines. Miners are calling on co-workers to shut down mines across the country, raising fears for the future of South Africa's biggest industry.
The strikers turned down Lonmin's offer of a 900 rand ($112.50) increase that would give new-entry workers a basic monthly salary of 5,500 rand ($688), their leaders said.
Strikers' representatives, mining unions, Lonmin company officials and government officials prepared to continue negotiations Friday.
Justice Minister Jeff Radebe meanwhile warned the government will clamp down on the daily illegal marches by miners brandishing machetes, spears and clubs that have marked the strike.
Radebe told a news conference Friday "the government will no longer tolerate illegal gatherings and brandishing of weapons in this way."
The strike spread this week to the world's largest platinum mine, Anglo American Platinum, and has also stopped work at a Gold Fields mine.
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).
Of the 45 people killed, 34 strikers were shot dead by police in a shocking display of state violence that has traumatized the nation of 48 million. Police said Thursday they had identified the latest body found this week as that of a shop steward of the National Union of Mineworkers, the industry's largest which is allied with the governing African National Congress.
Radebe, the justice minister, was asked how the government planned to suppress the illegal marches: "The police are well acquainted with how to enforce public order in South Africa," Radebe said.
Human rights activists have demanded that charges of murder and attempted murder be brought against police officers involved in the Aug. 16 police killings, amid reports some strikers were run over by charging armored cars, many were shot in the back as they ran away and others shot and killed as they held up their hands in surrender.
The police said they acted in self-defense after they were attacked and shot at by strikers.
The prolonged and spreading strike and police killings have thrown a spotlight on government and union failures to meet promises to lift South Africans out of poverty and address massive shortages of jobs and housing.
South Africans on Friday were ridiculing a statement by South African President Jacob Zuma that dominant unions and political parties have more rights than those of minorities — leading many to question his understanding of minority rights 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 that moved to dominate talk radio shows on Friday.
Callers questioned the president's understanding of democracy.
At the striking miners' chosen headquarters, a rocky granite hill near the mine in Marikana, northwest of Johannesburg, groans of disappointment and shouts of dissent met representatives who outlined the Lonmin offer put on the table late Thursday.
The National Union of Mineworkers said Lonmin offer to raise the wages of the lowest paid workers by 900 rand ($112.50) to 5,500 rand ($688), with similar percentage increases for higher paid workers. The rock drill operators at the heart of the strike are being offererd 1,000 rand, according to NUM spokesman Lesiba Seshoka.
"Lonmin can just shut down its mine if it doesn't want to give us what we want!" one defiant striker shouted.
But the no-work, no-pay strike is hurting workers who have not been paid since they downed tools. Money lenders in Marikana say they are turning away dozens of miners.
Lonmin reported only 1 percent of its 28,000 workers reported for duty Thursday. Gold Fields International said some 85 percent of the 12,500 workers at its KDC West mine near Carletonville are not working. Anglo American Platinum claims its miners are not striking, but strikers told The Associated Press that they work for Amplats and are demanding even more than 12,500 rand minimum.